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Change technology, change incentives: Napster:Kazaa / WikiLeaks:OpenLeaks

December 13, 2010

After Napster was shut down as a company & a service, Kazaa was quickly written to address the central point of failure weakness.  With a pure P2P system, there is no concentration of liability – the liability of any one peer is vastly less than a company and removing them doesn’t stop the system, so the benefits are far less.  On the cost side, while the cost to sue one peer is less than suing a company,  the cost to sue every peer is vastly higher than the cost to sue one central company.

On net, while it was very worthwhile to sue Napster, suing the occasional file-sharer doesn’t pay.  The technology dramatically altered the incentives facing those who would enforce copyright protections, thus changing what gets done in practice.

While WikiLeaks may have benefited from having a known leader who could fundraise and recruit, we can now see the weakness of that system.  When the US got angry enough, Julian Assange was the obvious target.  But you can’t take vengeance without teaching a lesson, and the movement to free information for public benefit can now simply reconstitute around a model robust to the “find a guy and throw him in jail” attack.  Already, next-generation solutions are in the works:

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who left the site after disagreements with its founder, plans to launch Openleaks in the coming months.

The technology, which can be embedded in any organisation’s sites, will allow whistle-blowers to anonymously leak data to publishers of their choice.

Its founders say it will address problems they had with Wikileaks.

“We felt that Wikileaks was developing in the wrong direction,” Mr Domscheit-Berg told BBC News. “There’s too much concentration of power in one organisation; too much responsibility; too many bottlenecks; too many resource constraints.”

And that’s just one.  The technology for darknets and anonymous submission & publication of information is easy, there are many variations and techniques.  Over time, developers will create solutions, including ones that spread liability, thus increasing the cost and decreasing the benefit to going after any node.  The fact that anonymous submission & publishing are now easy is a physical fact about the world and its technology, a fact which cannot be rolled back by government decree, or throwing any one guy in jail.  Not saying it is good, not saying it is bad, just saying that it is – and it is bad to reject what is.

These examples and issues are, of course, related to our broad themes of changing politics through technological innovation.  Yes, governments can and will push back against seasteads.  But just as the development of ships fundamentally altered the movement of people goods around the world, the ability to create new physical land anywhere in the oceans (68% of the planet!) will fundamentally alter the governance industry.  There will be many ways to change tactics to deal with push back, many options that did not previously exist, and that will almost certainly change the balance of power.

Technology changes incentives, incentives change the world.


  1. December 14, 2010 6:57 pm

    Thank you. I can’t add more than say, “I agree”. I make the same point about Wikileaks: use Anonymous P2P and you avoid many problems. That’s obvious, and I’m not even a programmer.

    Yes, the decentralized approach has costs. But they’ll continue to shut down organizations that don’t embrace it.


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