What is peer-to-peer file sharing, and is it legal?

Peer-to-peer file sharing is a popular – if controversial – method of distributing data online

Saturday, 30 September, 2023

One of the internet’s early advances over offline computing was the ability for individual users to share files with one another.

This circumvented the historic need for end users to access files in a central directory, such as a communal server linked to individual terminals.

For the first time, users could cut out the middleman and distribute documents and files to each another directly.

One platform for accomplishing this was email, while dedicated file sharing sites also emerged in those febrile years around the millennium.

They reached their zenith in the mid-Noughties, before scaling back to today’s more modest proportions.

To understand the meteoric rise of peer-to-peer file sharing, we need to cast our minds back a quarter of a century, to a time when the internet was basically lawless…

Napster of puppets

In the late 1990s, burgeoning internet access saw a desire for new models of direct person-to-person communications.

File sharing was already an established component of computing, but it was 1999’s launch of Napster that introduced this technology to a mainstream audience.

It was suddenly possible to share digital files with anyone who wanted them, uploading them into a public folder before third parties downloaded content directly from your device.

The overpriced CD market underpinned Napster’s meteoric growth, as well as spawning a plethora of rival platforms such as Kazaa, Morpheus and Gnutella.

Within two years, Napster had been closed down, bankrupted by numerous copyright infringement lawsuits. Yet the genie was out of the bottle, and its rivals flourished.

The stream becomes a flood

In 2006, it was estimated that 70 per cent of all internet traffic was comprised of peer-to-peer file sharing data, as domestic connections grew faster and computers became more powerful.

However, 2006 was also the first full year of operation for YouTube, whose centralised data servers saw end users reverting back to the status of passive consumers.

In 2007, the Netflix DVD postal service started to offer subscribers the chance to stream content directly to personal devices, while music streaming platform Spotify debuted in 2008.

With high-quality content legitimately available through cheap subscriptions (or for free on advertising-funded websites), peer-to-peer networks began to seem superfluous.

By this time, they’d also been infested with malware masquerading as legitimate content. You’d download a file with no quality assurances, rolling the dice as you clicked Open.

The popularity of P2P services plummeted, with Kazaa becoming inactive in 2006 and Morpheus falling dormant two years later.

The next generation

Following in the footsteps of these early platforms, a second generation of file sharing technology introduced the world to torrents.

These were harder to navigate, since there was no search functionality and no central host platform. Anyone could create and distribute software compatible with a torrent network.

Third-party websites sprang up to direct users to specific content, the best-known of which was the Pirate Bay.

It quickly became synonymous with drugs and crime, but Pirate Bay’s decentralised nature meant there was little the authorities could do to take it offline.

Whenever domains were seized or websites taken offline, the platform simply switched to a new location.

As with Napster and its many imitators, other platforms have since adapted the Pirate Bay philosophy for their own uses and audiences.

A modern-day example is Freenet, which uses a decentralised distributed data store to anonymise usage, ensuring it can’t be taken offline by any agency or government body.

Is this legal?

Like the Tor browser, which was co-developed by the American military and is still part-funded by the CIA, Freenet and other peer-to-peer platforms are entirely legal.

There are no restrictions on installing or using these platforms, which are typically free at point of use. Some can even be modified by technically minded users.

Legality is only called into question if a freenet or other P2P network is used to distribute content which would be in breach of other domestic laws.

Although they operate very differently to surface websites on the World Wide Web, the principles of legal versus illegal content remain the same.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!