Maybe the 2 is the most important part of P2P

by Andy Oram

John Perry Barlow made a surprise appearance on the P2P conference stage this morning. He offered a number of pungent observations, including his oft-heard maxim that "Information is not a noun, but a verb." If physical commodities are nouns and information is a verb, perhaps peer-to-peer is a preposition. It's the ineluctable, nearly invisible line that ties everything around it together. And if you follow that metaphor, and look again at Dave Winer's statement "The P in P2P is people," then perhaps what's really important in P2P is the 2.

We've had many high points in this all-too-brief conference (in fact, for me it's been a three-day high), but the morning events that began with Larry Lessig's keynote generated more energy by far than anything to date. Lessig immediately showed his deep caring for, and knowledge of, the various disciplines relevant to the social meaning of new technologies. Computing history, the technological dilemmas confounding current policy, and, of course, the laws of intellectual property he wove together expertly into an exhortation that, "The public should be aware of the extraordinary system of control that is being rammed down our throats in the name of the Constitution."

What we're losing is the public domain, the right to build on the work of others, and the subtle mesh of rights that copyright law calls "fair use." These include educational uses, citation for the purposes of commentary or criticism, and (in technology) the ability to investigate a vendor's product in order to hook into it or compete with it.

After a rousing ovation, Lessig was joined by Barlow, Clay Shirky, journalist Dan Gillmor, and Tim O'Reilly. The level of flighty rhetoric on all sides merely echoed the energy aroused in the audience. Often I've noted that people care about policy and demonstrate a desire to influence the political sphere, but rarely do they know how to harness and carry through that desire. Lessig and the panel provided that focus today.

The defiant tone cycled on into the morning session that followed. Titled "Business and Social Implications of Decentralized Systems," it stayed firmly on the topic of overcoming censorship and allowing people to speak their minds (at least during the portion I attended). I had to miss part of the panel in order to see the one on industry standardization. While the topic was much more engineering oriented, the feeling of community pressure was just as strong. In fact, people were much more contentious around the question of technical standardization than they were around Lessig's call to political action.

Intel is still getting flack for its attempt to organize the P2P Working Group as a consortium with fees and an operating style much like the World Wide Web Consortium. Several partipants at today's discussion insisted they've made a 180-degree turn, that they're not trying to restrict discussion to paying members, that they're active on the oft-cited decentralization mailing list, that they'd be willing to open the planning meetings if the community wants it, and that they're reaching out to project leaders all over the P2P space and getting input from everyone. Much has happened even in the past week, and Tim O'Reilly assured us that "it's not done yet." Bob Knighten said that they were starting with the basic question of what needs to be standardized. He told me later that the open-source library they released for peer-to-peer security is an "experiment" and that they look forward to others putting forward their packages. The "town meeting" (open discussion) that ended the day started right off with the same question of whether the working group was excluding people through its fees or members-only meetings.

I was wondering why Intel was slammed so hard by people in the P2P field, when Tim Berners-Lee got away with creating the W3C with pretty much the same structure. (Very rarely has anybody grumbled about the W3C--and usually just when they weren't making progress on something.) I have an answer for this question: it has to do with the context in which the W3C started versus the current P2P field.

When Berners-Lee proposed the W3C, Netscape had defeated Mosaic (through superior technology, to be sure) and emerged as the ferocious lion dominating the WWW savannah. While Berners-Lee's organization was somewhat closed, it was seen by everyone as a relatively well-organized salvation from the monopoly situation that loomed.

By contrast, the P2P arena is currently completely open; there's no way to tell what the relationships are among the players or who will win. People want some coordination and standardization, but they're not going to put up with the faintest attempt to draw a line and say who's in or who's out. Intel, like Sun with their JXTA proposal, is coming into a very different environment from Berners-Lee. It's also, of course, a different era in computing history, characterized by a triumphant open source movement.

I found the interaction at this conference--the 2 in people-2-people--to be exhilerating and intensely productive. People really made the conference; it was a Symphony of a Thousand (850 registrations and 150 speakers, journalists, etc.). Audience comments were as insightful and provocative as the speakers.

There will never be another peer-to-peer conference like this, the first. But there will be another O'Reilly peer-to-peer conference this coming September 17-20 in Washington, D.C. The conference will be totally different from this one, I'm sure, because the field will be different. What both will turn out to be like remains unknown until we all turn up there.