Peer-to-peer technology could be used as an e-commerce model that connects users to a single global market without any controlling company, network or bank, if researchers from Harvard's School of Engineering have their way. And it all starts with Internet TV. Computer scientists at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in collaboration with colleagues from the Netherlands, are using an enhanced peer-to-peer video sharing application called Tribler to explore a next-generation model for safe and legal electronic commerce that uses Internet bandwidth as a global currency.
"With our research we hope to make a contribution to the predicted big upcoming changes in the TV landscape," state the researchers.
The application's creators say Tibler differs from other file sharing applications in several ways. One of these is the way it offers a wealth of content by providing access to all BitTorrent content and aggregating various video Web sites such as YouTube and Liveleak. Another unique aspect is that it is an all-in-one solution.
"With one simple program you automatically find content, download it, and start viewing. You no longer need to visit various Web sites, install proprietary plug-ins (e.g. Flash), or regularly install new codecs to keep up with the latest DivX version. Tribler offers all this in a single program."
For the researchers, Tribler is more than Internet television via peer-to-peer technology. They envision an e-commerce model where bandwidth is the first true Internet "currency"; so the more a user uploads (earns) and the higher the quality of the contributions, the more she or he will be able to download later (spend) and the faster the download speed will be. Most importantly, say the scientists, this paradigm empowers individuals or groups of users to run their own "marketplace" for any computer resource or service.
"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," said Associate Professor David Parkes.
The researchers believe that unlike centralised e-commerce approaches, peer-to-peer systems are incredibly robust, as they can scale smoothly thanks to their ability to adjust to the number and behaviour of individual users.
The researchers concede however, that the greatest challenge to any peer-to-peer backed e-commerce system is implementing proper regulation in a decentralised environment.
One regulation measure that Tribler employs is the ability for users to "gossip" or report on the behaviour of other peers. The researchers hope to eventually 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 Web site 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.