Monday, 4 December 2006

torrent morality

Morality and etiquette are not coincident. This thought occurred to me while I was thinking about seeding ratios in unofficial bittorrent clients. Unofficial clients extend the official client by adding new features or, in the case of seeding ratios, by giving users control over an otherwise hidden aspect of the transfer protocol. This is where etiquette enters the picture.

The unofficial client I use allows me to set a seeding ratio. The default was 1:1, which means that the client uploads as much as it downloads—in other words, I give as much as I get, making my net impact to the system negligible. 1:1 is the setting that was programmed into the original client, and it remains the setting that etiquette dictates. Folks who set their seeding ratio low (especially those who don’t seed at all) are known as parasites because they are a drain on the collective; they use up resources without providing their own resources as replacements.

For folks sharing home movies or public linux distributions, there’s no interesting moral problem with low seeding ratios—such individuals are unthinking, jerks, or—potentially—are managing their upload resources to favor another file for which they are a seed. Where things get really murky is in the case of illegal file sharing. Here, there is an added element of risk pooling that seeders take on but which parasites do not. Although RIAA in the US likes to go after anyone who downloads music illegally, the real evildoers are the uploaders, not the downloaders. Most laws reflect that distinction. Buying a pirated DVD, for example, is a much lesser crime (if it is a crime at all) than selling a pirated DVD. Similarly, downloading pirated music is a much lesser crime than uploading it. With seeding ratios set at 0:1, parasites are stealing music, but they’re not distributing stolen materials. The risk they share is far smaller than the honest music pirates who leave their seeding ratio at 1:1.

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