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The P2P mistake at Ohio University

BitTorrent President Ashwin Navin says a blanket ban on peer-to-peer tech could drive Ohio University students to transfer elsewhere.

    Ohio University recently informed students that the use of peer-to-peer technology has been banned from the campus computer network. The reasons cited range from network congestion to malicious software to piracy.

    While the university acknowledges that there are legitimate uses of P2P technologies, the blanket ban on the technology stands.

    By instituting this ban, Ohio University has demonstrated a serious lack of understanding of P2P technology's value and role on the Internet. Furthermore, the school has closed its doors to innovation and shirked its responsibilities as an educational institution.

    P2P is still a tremendously misunderstood and underestimated technology. It is most commonly associated with file sharing, which is only one application of P2P technology. It has been applied in many compelling ways--as a mechanism to make voice calls over the Internet (think Skype), to legally enjoy popular TV shows when on the go or away from a TV, and to solve problems that enterprises face in their computer networks.

    The best way to alleviate the stress on the central backbone of the Internet is to decentralize the onus of distribution to a local level using P2P.

    Many artists, along with nonprofit and budget-conscious organizations, depend a great deal on P2P to reduce the costs of publication on the Internet. A blanket ban, then, will cripple the basic Internet experience for the very students and organizations that need it most. P2P technologies like BitTorrent are being used by independent software developers, entities like NASA and PBS, and countless musicians and filmmakers to move large files faster and more efficiently around the Web. On the other end of the publishing spectrum, major Hollywood studios like our partners 20th Century Fox, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, MGM and Warner Bros. have made their content available legally via P2P technology.

    A P2P fix for what ails the Internet
    What Ohio University and others fail to realize is that within P2P lies a much-needed fix for the Internet itself. The way we use the Internet today--to stream YouTube videos, to make Voice over IP calls, or to download software and video games--is actually taxing the capacity of our networks and servers beyond their design. If applied intelligently, P2P can provide more capacity to congested networks by harnessing abundant and unused computing capacity and bandwidth we have in our own PCs. If other institutions followed in the footsteps of Ohio University--or worse, if P2P technology were banned completely--the traffic jam on the Internet will actually worsen.

    Given my position at BitTorrent, I confess I have a vested interest in building a successful and robust future for P2P architectures; however, this vested opinion is shared by many others. According to a recent study by Deloitte, experts state that video traffic alone is stretching the Internet to its limits and that the current growth rate will lead to serious congestion problems.

    If P2P is like a hybrid car, BitTorrent is the Toyota Prius.

    P2P can help. (One of the original designers of the Internet, Vint Cerf, also agrees with us.) The best way to alleviate the stress on the central backbone of the Internet is to decentralize the onus of distribution to a local level using P2P, and specifically with a BitTorrent-like architecture. BitTorrent does one thing and one thing only: it reduces, not replaces, the dependency on a central Web server by accumulating all of the available bandwidth and computing capacity that lives on the user's PC. As a result, a Web site and the Internet can run more efficiently. If P2P is like a hybrid car, BitTorrent is the Toyota Prius. Although it doesn't eliminate the need for gasoline (that is, central Web servers), BitTorrent can often provide more than 1,000 times the "fuel efficiency" relative to the old-fashioned way of driving the Internet, which has been dependent on a lot of central resources.

    The smart money is betting on P2P. Companies that offer traditional, centralized Internet infrastructure are increasingly adopting P2P to tap its efficiency when managing the delivery of large, popular files that strain central servers. For example, BitTorrent technology is a natural addition to the content delivery market--we are currently in trials with beta customers. Industry heavyweights are also getting in on the action: Akamai Technologies last month purchased a P2P company called Red Swoosh, and VeriSign has scooped up an early P2P developer called Kontiki.

    We come in peace. BitTorrent, the company, does not support piracy. In fact, piracy is our biggest competitor and the most significant challenge to making our company profitable.

    That said, the potential for tech-aided piracy begs a few fundamental questions. Why aren't similarly broad actions being taken to block other technologies that can be used to transfer and share copyrighted material (such as newsgroups, FTP, IM and e-mail--along with photocopiers, printers and CD burners)? Can the techniques implemented to manage the abuses of other technologies be applied to P2P? Why isn't Ohio University working with P2P industry leaders to find productive solutions, instead of copping out with unilateral bans?

    And why are university policy makers not raising awareness for the legal services to rent or purchase content legally? More effectively, why doesn't the campus reply to industry pressure with a plea for steep college discounts and more aggressive marketing support for legal download services like iTunes and the BitTorrent Entertainment Network?

    This ban will have a devastating affect on Ohio University's ambitions in computer science, engineering and IT.

    Ohio University has a responsibility to its community that is clearly undercut by this ban. Experimentation and adoption of any new technology undoubtedly opens the door to unforeseen risks. But we have the simultaneous obligation to monitor and manage any new risks that surface and apply ingenuity to address them. American universities bear the absolute obligation to lead the world with their openness to new ideas wherever they originate.

    By applying a short-sighted, arbitrary ban on a technology with so many redeeming uses, Ohio University has deprived its students, faculty and staff of a powerful tool, as well as censored a treasure trove of information and entertainment that is not available through any means other than P2P. It has created an environment that doesn't prepare its people for the "real world" where P2P technologies are being adopted in powerful, constructive ways. Worse yet, the university's administration has set a terrible precedent for its staff on the desirability of seeking creative ways to support new technologies.

    My prediction is that this ban will have a devastating effect on Ohio University's ambitions in computer science, engineering and IT, particularly as most of the country's leading engineering schools are embracing innovative ways to manage P2P traffic. The ban could even hurt general enrollment for the school. Who wants to spend what could be their most formative years in an environment that seeks to stunt creativity and innovation? It's antithetical to what we, as students and parents, want from higher education.

    If you're an Ohio University student, you should follow the instructions in the dean's note. Contact the IT service desk to get an exemption and exercise it. Download a photo from space for a term paper from NASA's Visible Earth series. Or download some of the thousands of legal movies, TV shows and music at the BitTorrent Entertainment Network. Or reduce the cost of servers for your school by "torrenting" the documents on your campus Web server--it's as simple as 1-2-3.

    P2P isn't the enemy. Narrow-minded policy that thwarts innovation is.