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In Praise of Freeloaders

by Clay Shirky
12/01/2000

As the excitement over P2P grew during the past year, it seemed that decentralized architectures could do no wrong. Napster and its cousins managed to decentralize costs and control, creating applications of seemingly unstoppable power. And then researchers at Xerox brought us P2P's first crisis: freeloading.

Freeloading is the tendency of people to take resources without paying for them. In the case of P2P systems, this means consuming resources provided by other users without providing an equivalent amount of resources (if any) back to the system. The Xerox study of Gnutella (now available at FirstMonday) found that " ... a large proportion of the user population, upwards of 70 percent, enjoy the benefits of the system without contributing to its content," and labels the problem a "Tragedy of the Digital Commons."

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic problem with a long pedigree. As Mojo Nation, a P2P system set up to combat freeloading, states in its FAQ:

Other file-sharing systems are plagued by "the tragedy of the commons," in which rational folks using a shared resource eat the resources to death. Most often, the "Tragedy of the Commons" refers to farmers and pasture, but technology journalists are writing about users who download and download but never contribute to the system.

To combat this problem, Mojo Nation proposes creating a market for computational resources -- disk space, bandwidth, CPU cycles. In its proposed system, if you provide computational resources to the system, you earn Mojo, a kind of digital currency. If you consume computational resources, you spend the Mojo you've earned. This system is designed to keep freeloaders from consuming more than they contribute to the system.

A very flawed premise

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Mojo Nation is still in beta, but it already faces two issues -- one fairly trivial, one quite serious. The trivial issue is that the system isn't working out as planned: Users are not flocking to the system in sufficient numbers to turn it into a self-sustaining marketplace.

The serious issue is that the system will never work for public file-sharing, not even in theory, because the problem of users eating resources to death does not pose a real threat to systems such as Napster, and the solution Mojo Nation proposes would destroy the very things that allow file-sharing systems like Napster to work.

The Xerox study on Gnutella makes broad claims about the relevance of its findings, even as Napster, which adds more users each day than the entire installed base of Gnutella, is growing without suffering from the study's predicted effects. Indeed, Napster's genius in building an architecture that understands the inevitability of freeloading and works within those constraints has led Dan Bricklin to christen Napster's effects "The Cornucopia of the Commons."

Systems that set out to right the imagined wrongs of freeloading are more marketing efforts than technological ones, in that they attempt to inflame our sense of injustice at the users who download and download but never contribute to the system. This plays well in the press, of course, garnering headlines like "A revolutionary file-sharing system could spell the end for dot-communism and Net leeches" or labeling P2P users "cyberparasites."

This sense of unfairness, however, obscures two key aspects of P2P file-sharing: the economics of digital resources, which are either replicable or replenishable; and the ways the selfish nature of user participation drives the system.

One from one equals two

Almost without fail, anyone addressing freeloading refers to the aforementioned "Tragedy of the Commons." This is an economic parable illustrating the threat to commonly held resources. Imagine that in an area of farmland, the entire pasture is owned by a group of farmers who graze their sheep there. In this situation, it is in the farmers' best interest to maintain herds of moderate size in order to keep the pasture from being overgrazed. However, it is in the best interest of each farmer to increase the size of his herd as much as possible, because the shared pasture is a free resource.

Even worse, although each herdsman will recognize that all of them should forgo increases in the size of their herd if they are acting for the good of the group, they also recognize that every other farmer also has the same incentives to increase the size of their herds as well. In this scenario, each individual has it in their individual interest to take as much of the common resources as they can, in part because they can benefit themselves and in part because if they don't someone else will, even though doing so produces a bad outcome for the group as a whole.

The Tragedy of the Commons is a simple, compelling illustration of what can happen to commonly owned resources. It is also almost completely inapplicable to the digital world.

Start with the nature of consumption. If your sheep takes a mouthful of grass from the common pasture, the grass exits the common pasture and enters the sheep, a net decrease in commonly accessible resources. If you take a copy of the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" from another Napster user, that song is not deleted from that user's hard drive. Furthermore, since your copy also exists within the Napster universe, this sort of consumption creates commonly accessible resources, rather than destroying them. The song is replicated; it is not consumed. Thus the Xerox thesis -- that a user replicating a file is consuming resources -- seems problematic when the original resource is left intact and a new copy is created.

Even if, in the worst scenario, you download the song and never make it available to any other Napster user, there is no net loss of available songs, so in any file-sharing system where even some small percentage of new users makes the files they download subsequently available, the system will grow in resources, which will in turn attract new users, which will in turn create new resources, whether the system has freeloaders or not. In fact, in the Napster architecture, it is the most replicated resources that suffer least from freeloading, because even with a large percentage of freeloaders, popular songs will tend to become more available.

Bandwidth over time is infinite

But what of bandwidth, the other resource consumed by file sharing? Here again, the idea of freeloading misconstrues digital economics. If you saturate a 1 Mb DSL line for 60 seconds while downloading a song, how much bandwidth do you have available in the 61st second? One meg, of course, just like every other second. Again, the Tragedy of the Commons is the wrong comparison, because the notion that freeloading users will somehow eat the available resources to death doesn't apply. Unlike grass, bandwidth can't be "used up," any more than CPU cycles or RAM can.

Like a digital horn of plenty, most of the resources that go into networking computers together are constantly replenished; "Bandwidth over time is infinite," as the Internet saying goes. By using all the available bandwidth in any given minute, you have not reduced future bandwidth, nor have you saved anything on the cost of that bandwidth when it's priced at a flat rate.

Bandwidth can't be conserved over time either. By not using all the available bandwidth in any given minute, you have not saved any bandwidth for the future, because bandwidth is an event, not a conservable resource. Unused bandwidth expires just like unused plane tickets do, and as long as the demand on bandwidth is distributed through the system -- something P2P systems excel at -- no single node suffers from the SlashDot effect, the tendency of sites to crash under massive load (named after the frequent crashes to small sites that crash after getting front-page placement on the news site SlashDot.org).

Given this quality of persistently replenished resources, we would expect users to dislike sharing resources they want to use at that moment, but indifferent to sharing resources they make no claim on, such as available CPU cycles or bandwidth when they are away from their desks. Conservation of resources, in other words, should be situational and keyed to user behavior, and it is in misreading user behavior where attempts to discourage freeloading really jump the rails.

Selfish choices, beneficial outcomes

Attempts to prevent freeloading are usually framed in terms of preventing users from behaving selfishly, but selfishness is a key lubricant in P2P systems. In fact, selfishness is what makes the resources used by P2P available in the first place.

Since the writings of Adam Smith, literature detailing the workings of free markets has put the selfishness -- or more accurately, the self-interest -- of the individual actor at the center of the system, and the situation with P2P networks is no different. Mojo Nation's central thesis about existing file-sharing systems is that some small number of users in those systems choose, through regard for their fellow man, to make available resources that a larger number of freeloaders then take unfair advantage of. This does not jibe with the experience of millions of present-day users.

Consider an ideal Napster user, with a 10 GB hard drive, a 1 Mb DSL line, and a computer connected to the Net round the clock. Did this user buy her hard drive in order to host MP3s for the community? Obviously not -- the size of the drive was selected solely out of self-interest. Does she store MP3s she feels will be of interest to her fellow Napster users. No, she stores only the music she wants to listen to, self-interest again. Bandwidth? Is she shelling out for fast DSL so other users can download files quickly from her? Again, no. Her check goes to the phone company every month so she can have fast download times.

Likewise, decisions she makes about leaving her computer on and connected are self-interested choices. Bandwidth is not metered, and the pennies it costs her to leave her computer on while she is away from her desk, whether to make a pot of coffee or get some sleep, is a small price to pay for not having to sit through a five-minute boot sequence on her return.

Accentuate the positive

Economists call these kinds of valuable side effects "positive externalities." The canonical example of a positive externality is a shade tree. If you buy a tree large enough to shade your lawn, there is a good chance that for at least part of the day it will shade your neighbor's lawn as well. This free shade for your neighbor is a positive externality, a benefit to them that costs you nothing more than what you were willing to spend to shade your own lawn anyway.

Napster's single economic genius is to coordinate such effects. Other than the central database of songs and user addresses, every resource within the Napster network is a positive externality. Furthermore, Napster coordinates these externalities in a way that encourages altruism. The system is resistant to negative effects of freeloading, because as long as Napster users are able to find the songs they want, they will continue to participate in the system, even if the people who download songs from them are not the same people they download songs from.

As long as even a small portion of the users accept this bargain, the system will grow, bringing in more users, who bring in more songs. In such a system, trying to figure out who is freeloading and who is not isn't worth the effort of the self-interested user.

Real life is asymmetrical

Consider the positive externalities our self-interested user has created. While she sleeps, the Lynyrd Skynrd and N'Sync songs can fly off her hard drive at no additional cost over what she is willing to pay to have a fast computer and an always-on connection. When she is at her PC, there are a number of ways for her to reassert control of her local resources when she doesn't want to share them. She can cancel individual uploads unilaterally, disconnect from the Napster server or even shut Napster off completely. Even her advertised connection speed acts as a kind of brake on undesirable external use of resources.

Consider a second user on a 14.4 modem downloading a song from our user with her 1 Mb DSL. At first glance, this seems unfair, since our user seems to be providing more resources. This is, however, the most desirable situation for both users. The 14.4 user is getting files at the fastest rate he can, a speed that takes such a small fraction of our user's DSL bandwidth that she may not even notice it happening in the background.

Furthermore, reversing the situation to create "fairness" would be a disaster -- a transfer from 14.4 to DSL would saturate the 14.4 line and all but paralyze that user's Internet connection for a file transfer not in that user's self-interest, while giving the DSL user a less-than-optimum download speed. Asymmetric transfers, far from being unfair, are the ideal scenario -- as fast as possible on the downloads, and so slow when other users download from you that you don't even notice.

In any system where the necessary resources like disk space and bandwidth are priced at a flat rate, these economics will prevail. The question for Napster and other systems that rely on these economics is whether flat-rate pricing is likely to disappear.

Setting prices

The economic history of telecommunications has returned again and again to one particular question: flat-rate vs. unit pricing. Simple economic theory tells us that unit pricing -- a discrete price per hour online, per e-mail sent or file downloaded -- is the most efficient way to allocate resources. By allowing users to take only those resources they are willing to pay for, per-unit pricing distributes resources most efficiently. Some form of unit pricing is at the center of almost all attempts to prevent freeloading, even if the currency the units are priced in are notional units such as Mojo.

Flat-rate pricing, meanwhile, is too blunt an instrument to create such efficiencies. In flat-rate systems, light users pay a higher per-unit cost, thus subsidizing the heavy users. Additionally, the flat-rate price for resources has to be high enough to cover the cost of unexpected spikes in usage, meaning that the average user is guaranteed to pay more in a flat-rate system than in a per-unit system.

Flat-rate is therefore unfair to all users, whether by creating unfair costs for light and average users, or by unfairly subsidizing heavy users. Given the obvious gap in efficient allocation of resources between the two systems, we would expect to see unit pricing ascendant in all situations where the two methods of pricing are in competition. The opposite, of course, is the actual case.

Too cheap to meter

Despite the insistence of economic theoreticians, in the real world people all over the world have expressed an overwhelming preference for flat-rate pricing in their telecommunications systems. Prodigy and CompuServe were forced to abandon their per-e-mail prices in the face of competition from systems that allowed unlimited e-mail. AOL was forced to drop its per-hour charges in the face of competition from ISPs that offered unlimited Internet access for a single monthly charge. Today, the music industry is caught in a struggle between those who want to preserve per-song charges and those who understand the inevitability of subscription charges for digital music.

For years, the refusal of users to embrace per-unit pricing for telecommunications was regarded by economists as little more than a perversion, but recently several economic theorists, especially Nick Szabo and Andrew Odlyzko, have worked out why a rational user might prefer flat-rate pricing, and it revolves around the phrase "Too Cheap to Meter," or, put another way, "Not Worth Worrying About."

People like to control costs, but they like to control anxiety as well. Prodigy's per-e-mail charges and AOL's hourly rates gave users complete control of their costs, but it also created a scenario where the user was always wondering if the next e-mail or the next hour was worth the price. When offered systems with slightly higher prices but no anxiety, users embraced them so wholeheartedly that Prodigy and AOL were each forced to give in to user preference. Lowered anxiety turned out to be worth paying for.

Anxiety is a kind of mental transaction cost, the cost incurred by having to stop to think about doing something before you do it. Mental transaction costs are what users are minimizing when they demand flat-rate systems. They are willing to spend more money to save themselves from having to make hundreds of individual decisions about e-mail, connect time or files downloaded.

Like Andrew Odlyzko's notion of Paris Metro Pricing," where one price gets you into a particular class of service in the system without requiring you to differentiate between short and long trips, users prefer systems where they pay to get in, but are not asked to constantly price resources on a case-by-case basis afterward, which is why micropayment systems for end users have always failed. Micropayments overestimate the value users pay on resources and underestimate the value they place on predictable costs and peace of mind.

The taxman

In the face of this user preference for flat-rate systems, attempts to stem freeloading with market systems are actually reintroducing mental transaction costs, thus destroying the advantages of flat-rate systems. If our hypothetical user is running a distributed computing client like SETI@Home, it is pointless to force her to set a price on her otherwise unused CPU cycles. Any cycles she values she will use, and the program will remain in the background. So long as she has chosen what she wants her spare cycles used for, any cycles she wouldn't otherwise use for herself aren't worth worrying about anyway.

Mojo Nation would like to suggest that Mojo is a currency, but it is more like a tax, a markup on an existing resource. Our user chose to run SETI, and since it costs her nothing to donate her unused cycles, any mental transaction costs incurred in pricing the resources raises the cost of the cycles above zero for no reason. Like all tax systems, this creates what economists call "deadweight loss," the loss that comes from people simply avoiding transactions whose price is pushed too high by the tax itself. By asking its users to price something that they could give away free without incurring any loss, these systems discourage the benefits that come from coordinating positive externalities.

Lessons From Napster

Napster's ability to add more users per week than all other P2P file-sharing systems combined is based in part on the ease of use that comes from its ability to tolerate freeloading. By decentralizing the parts of the system that are already paid for (disk space, bandwidth) while centralizing the parts of the system that individuals would not provide for themselves working individually (databases of songs and users ids), Napster has created a system that is far easier to use than most of the purely decentralized file-sharing systems.

This does not mean that Napster is the perfect model for all P2P systems. It is specific to the domain of popular music, and attempts to broaden its appeal to general file-sharing have largely failed. Nor does it mean that there is not some volume of users at which Napster begins to suffer from freeloading; all we know so far is that it can easily handle numbers in the tens of millions.

What Napster does show us is that, given the right architecture, freeloading is not the automatically corrosive problem that people believe it to be, and that creating systems which rely on micropayments or other methods of ensuring evenness between production and consumption are not the ideal alternative.

P2P systems use replicable or replenishable resources at the edges of the Internet, resources that tend to be paid for in lump sums or at rates that are insensitive to usage. Therefore, P2P systems that allow users to share resources they would have paid for anyway, so long as they are either getting something in return or contributing to a project they approve of, will tend to have better growth characteristics than systems that attempt to shut off freeloading altogether. If Napster is any guide, the ability to tolerate, rather than deflect, freeloading will be key to driving the growth of P2P.


Clay Shirky writes about the Internet and teaches at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He publishes a mailing list on Networks, Economics, and Culture at shirky.com/nec.html.


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