A Brief History of Peer to Peer File Sharing and the Attempts to Block It


By Art Reisman

The following history is based on my notes and observations as both a user of peer to peer, and as a network engineer tasked with cleaning  it up.

Round One, Napster, Centralized Server, Circa 2002

Napster was a centralized service, unlike the peer to peer behemoths of today there was never any question of where the copyrighted material was being stored and pirated from. Even though Napster did not condone pirated music and movies on their site, the courts decided by allowing copyrighted material to exist on their servers, they were in violation of copyright law. Napster’s days of free love were soon over.

From an historic perspective the importance of the decision to force the shut down of Napster was that it gave rise to a whole new breed of p2p applications. We detailed this phenomenon in our 2008 article.

Round Two, Mega-Upload  Shutdown, Centralized Server, 2012

We again saw a doubling down on p2p client sites (they expanded) when the Mega-Upload site, a centralized sharing site, was shutdown back in Jan 2012.

“On the legal side, the recent widely publicized MegaUpload takedown refocused attention on less centralized forms of file sharing (i.e. P2P). Similarly, improvements in P2P technology coupled with a growth in file sharing file size from content like Blue-Ray video also lead many users to revisit P2P.”

Read the full article from deepfield.net

The shut down of Mega-Upload had a personal effect on me as I had used it to distribute a 30 minute account from a 92-year-old WWII vet where he recalled, in oral detail, his experience of surviving a German prison camp.

Blocking by Signature, Alias Layer 7 Shaping, Alias Deep packet inspection. Late 1990’s till present

Initially, the shining star savior in the forefront against spotting illegal content on your network, this technology can be expensive and fail miserably in the face of newer encrypted p2p applications. It also can get quite expensive to keep up with the ever changing application signatures, and yet it is still often the first line of defense attempted by ISPs.

We covered this topic in detail, in our recent article,  Layer 7 Shaping Dying With SSL.

Blocking by Website

Blocking the source sites where users download their p2p clients is still possible. We see this method applied at mostly private secondary schools, where content blocking is an accepted practice. This method does not work for computers and devices that already have p2p clients. Once loaded, p2p files can come from anywhere and there is no centralized site to block.

Blocking Uninitiated Requests. Circa Mid-2000

The idea behind this method is to prevent your Network from serving up any content what so ever! Sounds a bit harsh, but the average Internet consumer rarely, if ever, hosts anything intended for public consumption. Yes at one time, during the early stages of the Internet, my geek friends would set up home pages similar to what everybody exposes on Facebook today. Now, with the advent hosting sites, there is just no reason for a user to host content locally, and thus, no need to allow access from the outside. Most firewalls have a setting to disallow uninitiated requests into your network (obviously with an exemption for your publicly facing servers).

We actually have an advanced version of this feature in our NetGladiator security device. We watch each IP address on your internal network and take note of outgoing requests, nobody comes in unless they were invited. For example, if we see a user on the Network make a request to a Yahoo Server , we expect a response to come back from a Yahoo server; however if we see a Yahoo server contact a user on your network without a pending request, we block that incoming request. In the world of p2p this should prevent an outside client from requesting a receiving a copyrighted file hosted on your network, after all no p2p client is going to randomly send out invites to outside servers or would they?

I spent a few hours researching this subject, and here is what I found (this may need further citations). It turns out that p2p distribution may be a bit more sophisticated and has ways to get around the block uninitiated query firewall technique.

P2P networks such as Pirate Bay use a directory service of super nodes to keep track of what content peers have and where to find them. When you load up your p2p client for the first time, it just needs to find one super node to get connected, from there it can start searching for available files.

Note: You would think that if these super nodes were aiding and abetting in illegal content that the RIAA could just shut them down like they did Napster. There are two issues with this assumption:

1) The super nodes do not necessarily host content, hence they are not violating any copyright laws. They simply coordinate the network in the same way DNS service keep track of URL names and were to find servers.
2) The super nodes are not hosted by Pirate Bay, they are basically commandeered from their network of users, who unwittingly or unknowingly agree to perform this directory service when clicking the license agreement that nobody ever reads.

From my research I have talked to network administrators that claim despite blocking uninitiated outside requests on their firewalls, they still get RIAA notices. How can this be?

There are only two ways this can happen.

1) The RIAA is taking liberty to simply accuse a network of illegal content based on the directory listings of a super node. In other words if they find a directory on a super node pointing to copyrighted files on your network, that might be information enough to accuse you.

2) More likely, and much more complex, is that the Super nodes are brokering the transaction as a condition of being connected. Basically this means that when a p2p client within your network, contacts a super node for information, the super node directs the client to send data to a third-party client on another network. Thus the send of information from the inside of your network looks to the firewall as if it was initiated from within. You may have to think about this, but it makes sense.

Behavior based thwarting of p2p. Circa 2004 – NetEqualizer

Behavior-based shaping relies on spotting the unique footprint of a client sending and receiving p2p applications. From our experience, these clients just do not know how to lay low and stay under the radar. It’s like the criminal smuggling drugs doing 100 MPH on the highway, they just can’t help themselves. Part of the p2p methodology is to find as many sources of files as possible, and then, download from all sources simultaneously. Combine this behavior with the fact that most p2p consumers are trying to build up a library of content, and thus initiating many file requests, and you get a behavior footprint that can easily be spotted. By spotting this behavior and making life miserable for these users, you can achieve self compliance on your network.

Read a smarter way to block p2p traffic.

Blocking the RIAA probing servers

If you know where the RIAA is probing from you can deny all traffic to their probes and thus prevent the probe of files on your network, and ensuing nasty letters to desist.

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