There are no short-cuts here

Most of us who have spent some time online are at least passably familiar with the protocols that allow the Internet to function. HTML and CSS for web pages, SMTP for email, FTP and Bittorrent for files, and so forth. Recently a new protocol has been proposed by Juan Benet called IPFS, which rather grandiosely means InterPlanetary File System.

IPFS can be thought of as using Bittorrent (and a couple other things) to eradicate the distinction between web clients and web servers. Instead of a web client downloading a Wikipedia article from a server owned and operated by Wikipedia, your computer simply asks “Hey, I want this webpage”, and whichever other computer on the network is closest and had the page in cache provides it. Or a swarm of peers on the network each provide parts of it. Web pages, files, and data are all downloaded like a torrent and assembled for viewing and interacting with in the browser.

The above is a very different model from how the client/server model used by the web now, and there are upsides and downsides. One downside is that a publisher loses control of its data as soon as it is released to the IPFS network, just as surely as a musician loses distribution control over a pirated song, and it’s not clear to me how this would would work with websites like Wikipedia that try to stay current through edits. But the upsides include “broken links” being eliminated as long as one peer somewhere on the network has a copy of the file in cache, denial-of-service attacks becoming impossible, and censorship take-downs are very difficult. The internet would be transformed from a transitory web of links to a more permanent archive of data. As long as you know what you want, and someone on the web has it, you can easily get a copy of the original data long after the original publisher has ceased to provide for its existence.

Socially this has upsides and downsides as well. It’s already difficult to remove information from the web once people have it, but data distributed via IPFS would be nearly impossible to remove. That’s probably bad, in situations where someone stole your personal and private information, or spread harmful misinformation. It would also be hard to remedy any cases of libel and slander. And it’s also hard on anyone who makes a living from control over copyrighted works. But the benefits are of course immense, as information will not get lost, web pages won’t die, and maybe Vint Cerf’s concerns will start be mitigated.

Despite these upsides, I suspect that the copyright industries (music, movies, and television in particular) will bring out the heavy guns to fight the deployment of IPFS. The payoffs of IPFS being successful are too asymmetric for it to be otherwise – archival benefits accrue to society, and the loss of control costs accrue to them. In in response to this concern, Juan Benet has given probably the most cogent defense of personal responsibility I have seen from a technology developer:

That’s how the internet works. If people are doing illegal things (like standing up to a totalitarian regime), they take on the risk of repercussion. (We can’t tell a-priori what the information content is reliably).

People shouldn’t accidentally store illegal things they don’t mean to (hence blacklists) but you also don’t want to snuff out freedom of speech of those who understand + are willing to take the risk. The issue is routing access to it is also considered hosting it (dcma takedowns for links on the web).

I think that the best thing is to have the default [Distributed Hash Table] include blacklists that can be updated to handle DMCA requests. Sort of like [the Domain Name System] works today. Definitely something that we’ll have to figure out as time goes on.

Ultimately, it is only our own responsibility to behave virtuously, and distinguish virtue from the law. We cannot rely on technology to a priori know this for us. The world is too messy for that, and ultimately its a judgement call as to whether a particular action should be pursued. Anyone who tells you otherwise is looking for the easy way out and, in their attempts to ban all instances of the illegal, inevitably over-reach and ban much virtue we’d prefer not to live without.

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