The digital world is moving from the traditional client-server protocols, where one distinct party provides its service to a large amount of clients, to peer-to-peer protocols, in which all parties are both clients and servers. This shift makes that all nodes in the network start acting as middlemen. This calls for the same protections for those middlemen as providers have.

Recently, in the juridical circus against the Pirate Bay in specific and copyright infringement over peer-to-peer networks in general, a large Dutch provider stated that the court misunderstood BitTorrent. Basically, they stated that there is a difference between the initial seeders, those who made the torrent, and “normal” seeders, those who are just a hop in the network. In other words, there is a difference between the people that initially uploaded the data and the middlemen.

Seeders? Torrents? What Are We Talking About?
Without going into too much detail, a peer-to-peer protocol is a form of communication between computers where all nodes are equal. For example, when you are talking to someone over Skype, you directly connect to this person without the need of a central server. Thus, both parties are “normal” computers.

BitTorrent and comparable systems are so-called peer-to-peer file-sharing protocols. These protocols work by breaking a file up in multiple smaller pieces. Every node in the network can have one or more pieces of this file. Someone who wants to download this file is able to connect to any of these nodes to connect all pieces in order to, eventually, get the complete file. This allows for much faster downloading, because different pieces can be downloaded from different computers. Thus, any computer in the network can perform the task of a middleman in bringing the file from the initial uploading person to the end-user.

Once Again: Decentralisation Is the Power of the Internet
I already stated it before: without decentralisation, the Internet would not be what it is today. Peer-to-peer protocols are one of the best examples of decentralised use of the Internet. In a decentralised system, there is no central authority at all, which ensures freedom, innovation and availability.

Part of decentralised systems is that communication between a large amount of users, such as streaming media or file sharing, require middlemen to ensure high speeds – which are often faster than traditional client-server variants. In the case of BitTorrent, those middlemen are commonly also downloading the file, but this is depending on the protocol not always the case. Additionally, some countries, such as the Netherlands, allow downloading and forbid spreading of copyrighted material.

Protect the Middleman
Internet Service Providers are protected by a so-called “mere conduit” rule, which keeps them from getting sued based on what their users send over their networks. However, when we aim at more decentralised systems, all users act like providers from time to time. Nevertheless, they are not Internet Service Providers in the sense of the law.

Those parties in decentralised protocols that only act as a hub in a network should also be protected. This already follows from the notion of “mere conduit”, they merely do there part of the protocol without regard to the content. For example, if you think of the previously discussed Tor, which is also used for horrible things. You do not want to be sued for the awful things some users may do, when you operate an end-node because you want to help political dissidents.

Decentralisation and the Middleman: We Need Protections
People that merely operate as part of a decentralised system should not be held liable. Depending on the system, only the initial uploading parties or the end-users are responsible for what happens. In the decentralised world that is the Internet, everyone can be an Internet Service Provider from time to time. Therefore, everyone deserves legal protection when they act in this role.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *