After years of decline, BitTorrent filesharing has made a comeback. This, most probably, implies that consumers are, once again, resorting to illegal downloading (and streaming) instead of paying to watch favorite movies, series and sports events. The common explanation for this points to the fragmentation of high-value content across several subscription services and consumers’ refusal to pay for each of these. Ironically, the initial success of these platforms in terms of subscription revenues and combatting illegal downloads has attracted new entrants who are, unwillingly, pushing consumers back onto the digital black market.
What does this mean?
Free content is inscribed in the internet’s DNA. In its early days, the lack of practical payment methods implied that practically everything was for free and, in the late 1990s, the resulting everything-for-free mindset also extended to music and video that became available online through sharing platforms such as Napster. This led to an arms race between developers of p2p platforms and rights holders, until streaming platforms with well-stocked libraries (e.g. Spotify and Netflix) offered a sound alternative. Today’s comeback of p2p sharing shows that consumers still have the means, hence the power, to reign in, for example, the music and film industry when they fail to come up with sensible offerings. Today, this works against over-fragmentation, but it could also work against monopolistic behavior in the case of strong consolidation of streaming video platforms in the future.
P2p sharing can be regarded as an antifragile system that has become stronger under external stress. From its semi-centralized origins (e.g. Napster), it has now become fully decentralized (e.g. BitTorrent), which shows how, contrary to popular belief, a decentralized system can actually be quite practical and that a user-friendly interface can be built on top of it (e.g. Stremio). Clearly, there’s something about free music and video that makes developers and consumers willing to leave the beaten track of the otherwise centralized internet. Still, the case of p2p sharing also implies that consumers may eventually embrace a broader decentralization of the internet (e.g. in search of more privacy-friendly services) when big tech fails to address concerns over users’ rights.