Computer scientists at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in collaboration with colleagues from the Netherlands, are using a novel peer-to-peer video sharing application to explore a next-generation model for safe and legal electronic commerce that uses Internet bandwidth as a global currency.
The application (available for free download at http://TV.seas.harvard.edu) is an enhanced version of a program called Tribler, originally created by scientists at the Delft University of Technology and Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam to study video file sharing. The software exploits the power of peer-to-peer technology, which is based on forming networks among individual users.
“Successful peer-to-peer systems rely on designing rules that promote fair sharing of resources amongst users. Thus, they are both efficient and powerful computational and economic systems,” says David Parkes, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard. "Peer-to-peer has received a bad rap, however, because of its frequent association with illegal music or software downloads.”
Unlike traditional, centralized approaches, peer-to-peer systems are incredibly robust, as they can scale smoothly since the software adjusts to the number and behavior of individual users. The researchers were inspired to use a version of the Tribler video sharing software as a model for an e-commerce system because of such flexibility, speed, and reliability.
The researchers concede that the greatest challenge to any peer-to-peer backed e-commerce system is implementing proper regulation in a decentralized environment. To keep an eye on the virtual economy, Parkes and Pouwelse envision creating a “web of trust,” or a network between friends used to evaluate the trustworthiness of fellow users and aimed at preventing content theft, counterfeiting, and cyber attacks.
To do so they will use a feature already included in the enhanced version of the Tribler software, the ability for users to “gossip” or report on the behavior of other peers. Their eventual goal is to find a way to create accurate personal assessments or trust metrics as a form of internal regulation.
“This idea is not new, but previous implementations have been costly and are dependent on a company and/or website being the enforcer. Addressing the ‘trust issue’ within open peer-to-peer technology could lead to future online economies that are legal, dynamic and scaleable, have very low start-up costs, and minimal downtime,” says Parkes.
By studying user behavior within an operational “Internet currency” system, with a particular focus on understanding how and why attacks, fraud, and abuse occur and how trust can be established and maintained, the researchers imagine future improvements to everything from on-demand television to online auctions to open content encyclopedias.