Pirates, sharks and moral crusaders
First Monday

Pirates, sharks and moral crusaders

Pirates, sharks and moral crusaders: Social control in peer–to–peer networks by Jörgen S. Svensson and Frank Bannister

File sharing in peer–to–peer (p2p) networks is a popular pastime for millions of Internet users and a source of concern for copyright holders and for many others who fear the worldwide spread of offensive and illegal content. As file sharing proliferates, the question is what can and should be done to regulate this practice. Can and should governments cooperate to develop stricter laws and regulations and invest in wide–scale international cooperation in order to arrest Internet villains? Can and should copyright holders in the music, film and software industries extend their tactics of inciting fear, by randomly threatening customers with lawsuits in which they claim millions of dollars in damages?

This article explores a possible alternative, namely that of user self–regulation, and uses an empirical investigation of two different peer–to–peer networks to examine social norms in these networks and the informal social sanctions that are used to enforce these norms.

The results of this investigation indicate that some self–regulation already exists and suggest that it may be possible to strengthen this self–regulation to reduce the occurrence of some types of offences. However, there is a limit to the effectiveness of peer control of illegal and antisocial activities on the Internet.


Research methodology
Conclusion: Rethinking governance in p2p networks





In 1999 the world was surprised by a new and exiting phenomenon: Napster, a computer programme, designed by a 19–year–old American student, which enabled Internet users worldwide to exchange music. The basic concept underlying Napster was surprisingly simple. On the one hand the program allowed its users to search and download songs offered by others. On the other hand, it stimulated its users to share their own files, so that others could download from them. This simple integration of supply and demand in one single, easy to use computer programme proved to be a feat of social engineering. Within a short period, Napster grew to become a worldwide network in which millions of users exchanged their music. Unsurprisingly, the music that users of Napster mostly shared was copyrighted music, which was, of course, much to the displeasure of copyright holders in the music industry.

In 2000 and 2001, the music industry took legal action against Napster. It focused on the fact that Napster was well aware of the copyright abuse it caused and was itself actively involved in each file exchange as it maintained the central databases used in the system [1]. These central databases thus became the target of the legal action. As a result of this action, Napster was first forced to filter these databases and later to close them down, thus effectively terminating its service.

This was, however, only a short term victory for the music industry. The demise of Napster as a file sharing service did little to stop the practices that it had started. Soon after the music industry had succeeded in closing down Napster, a number of practically identical programmes such as KaZaA, iMesh and WinMX appeared.

The main innovation of these new file sharing programmes was that, instead of using a central database, they exploited a different technology, namely that of true peer–to–peer networking. The key concept underlying true peer–to–peer technology — p2p in shorthand — is that it does not rely on network servers. In p2p the computer of each end user only connects to the computers of nearby peers, which themselves are connected to other computers, and so on, to form a dynamic, truly centreless network. When searching for material in such a network, the computers of individual users inform each other by relaying search requests and responses from peer to peer, effectively providing the same functionality as Napster, but without the bottleneck of a central server, which can be closed down as a result of legal action.

A second innovation is that most of these new programmes are not limited to music sharing, but facilitate the exchange of other types of material such as pictures, video, plain text and computer software.

At the time of writing, p2p networks have been in operation for some time and it has become clear that they enjoy widespread popularity, especially among young Internet users with fast (broadband) access. According to MuSeekster — one of the many Web sites on which p2p is discussed — every day, millions of people around the world are using p2p programmes to share "their" files (see Table 1).


Table 1: Popular programs for p2p filesharing.
Source: http://www.museekster.com/ (January 2004).

Program Online users [2]
Edonkey 1,400,000
iMesh 1,500,000
KaZaA 3,500,000
KaZaA Lite 3,500,000
WinMX 1,500,000


Growing concerns and drastic action

As far as music sharing is concerned, the new p2p programmes, although technically different, are essentially a continuation of the old Napster service, by other means. Unsurprisingly, they too are considered a serious threat by the music industry. However, the industry is no longer able to close down the central servers (since there are none to close) and legal action against the software providers has become more difficult (Evers, 2002). For this reason other strategies have been explored, strategies which include, inter alia, the intimidation of individual, young and inexperienced end–users with draconian lawsuits. In the United States, some of the most active users of this type of file sharing have already been confronted with lawsuits by the recording industry, including damage claims of up to US$150,000 per title [3].

Moreover, the extension of this type of service to other kinds of material, has resulted in more worrying developments, such as the use of these networks for spreading viruses, subversive propaganda, pornography and, most critically, child pornography and extreme political and racist material. In reaction to these new threats, there is not only a growing call for action from additional copyright holders in the film and software industry, but also from worried parents, child protection organisations and anti discrimination platforms [4]. Together with the music industry, they too demand action to stop various offending practices.

In general, these organisations find governments more than willing to listen to their case. In recent years, Hollywood lobbyists in the United States have managed to get substantial new regulation passed in the form of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This legislation has been widely criticised for its one–sidedness in addressing the various interests related to copyright and this lack of balance is considered to be at odds with established legal frameworks (Bowry and Rimmer, 2002). In other countries, governments may have been more circumspect in protecting their music industries, but they have acted just as firmly when it comes to child pornography. In recent years, there have been several internationally coordinated mass raids in which both the computers and residences of alleged child pornographers have been searched in the hope of finding incriminating material [5].

In the Netherlands, there is now a legally unprecedented ban on virtual child pornography, that is making, spreading or possessing sexual explicit images which only suggest the involvement of a minor under the age of 16 [6].

Are the most effetctive tools to protect children or copyright fear, dread and mass arrest?

Notwithstanding the preparedness of industries and governments to use sometime heavy–handed legal sanctions in an effort to stop this type of "cybercrime," these phenomena raise some important issues in governance. Are these harsh measures against the new evil really the only way forward? In a society where pornographic images or MP3 files can be exchanged between mobile phones using Bluetooth or infrared, are the most effective tools to protect children or copyright fear, dread and mass arrest? Or is it possible that social norms of behaviour could be established and informally enforced in a world of electronic communication? This issue will now be explored.

Strengthening informal social control

One important alternative to harsh action may be found in the classic concept of social control. The idea underlying social control is that deviant behaviour — such as copyright infringement and sharing offensive content — may not only be prevented by formal government action, but also, and more importantly, by social bonds and processes of socialisation and social sanctioning in informal settings (Hirschi, 1969). Studying such informal processes may help us to understand the mechanisms that allow certain undesirable behaviour to exist, and this understanding may possibly provide better, alternative solutions to the problem of reducing the frequency of occurrence of such behaviour. If this is so, by aligning government policies to existing practices of informal social control, it may be possible to increase the effectiveness and efficiency, as well as the legitimacy of government actions. The day–to–day behaviour of citizens in any society cannot be controlled by law enforcement agencies alone, as any student of history knows. Social cohesion depends on shared values and a myriad of ways of enforcing or reinforcing these values and norms.

The question, however, is to what extent this insight can be applied to deviant behaviour in peer–to–peer networks. Are these networks societal sectors, where concepts of social control and social sanctions are valid? Can the same concepts used in dealing with deviant behaviour in society as a whole be applied in p2p networks?

These questions are not easy to answer. On the one hand it can be argued that social life on the Internet in many respects imitates social practices in real life. As some Internet observers claim, there may be such things as virtual communities (Rheingold, 1993) and in addition to this, there are many incidental reports of shared values, of defining rules of conduct (e.g. Netiquette) and of social integration (Hornsby, 2001).

Unfortunately, such reports tend to be haphazard and do not provide credible evidence that these so–called communities are indeed able to fulfill a serious role in societal regulation. Theorists such as Castells (2000; 2001) and Van Dijk (2001) raise many questions with regard to the idea that citizens on the Internet can form the type of meaningful relationships that create shared understanding and common or accepted forms of behaviour. Van Dijk, for example, discusses the practical fact that people who are online generally find it difficult to address their peers and to inform each other about their expectations. Castells goes one step further when he speaks of networks of ever shifting individuals and of a culture of real virtuality. In his view "communication" between people without common, historical roots is bound to result in misunderstandings and may even lead to the dissolution of cultural codes that exist today. Without a shared experience and culture, there is considerable scope for misunderstanding.

Research questions

Given these contradictory insights from the literature, the issue of deviant behaviour and informal social control in peer–to–peer networks needs more empirical research. It is important to try to establish to what extent informal social control does indeed exist in peer–to–peer networks, in terms of the effective social construction of shared meanings and common values and norms.

In this light, this paper reports the results of a recent investigation of two separate peer–to–peer networks that focused on sharing behaviour, as well as on interactions concerning this behaviour. The questions that were addressed in this research, are:

  • What kinds of content are shared in these p2p networks?
  • To what extent do participants in p2p networks share common values and subscribe to behavioural norms?
  • To what extent do participants in p2p networks address occurrences of deviant behaviour and apply techniques of informal social sanctioning?
  • To what extent does the application of informal social sanctions help to regulate behaviour in these p2p networks?

Based on the answers to these questions, it should be possible to assess the feasibility of using alternative methods of controlling deviant, illegal or anti–social behaviour on the Internet or on other electronic communications networks.



Research methodology

The field research reported in this paper was largely carried out in the years 2002 and 2003. At the start of this period two p2p networks were selected and a number of different research tools were used to acquire an insight into the nature of social control in each network.

Case selection

The selection of p2p cases for this research was complicated by two contradictory requirements. On the one hand, it is important to select representative cases. P2p networks that give a representative insight into the practices concerned — file sharing in anonymous peer–to–peer networks. On the other hand, a prerequisite to carry out this type of research is sufficient access to the p2p users involved. As the research entailed finding out about users’ attitudes and experiences, it was important to be able both to draw representative samples and to address individual users to conduct surveys and interviews.

Given this combination of requirements, two distinct p2p services were selected for this research, namely:

a) the WinMX file sharing network; and,
b) a closed p2p file sharing network used in a large organisation.

The WinMX–network (which will be hereafter referred to as the open network) was selected because it is a fairly representative example of a large, worldwide p2p network. In addition to this, it was also considered researchable, because somewhat more than other p2p services, it provides a number of different ways in which to interact with its users, including a built in chat facility and p2p messaging. Moreover, there is a WinMX discussion list, which makes it possible to follow WinMX discussions and to contact individual participants directly.

The second network studied is a special file sharing system developed by members of a large organisation. It is a private network and not open to the public. The system provides similar functionalities to those found in other p2p systems and is used mainly to interconnect home PCs in order to exchange materials. As a research case, it was considered attractive because it enabled direct contact with its users (on the understanding that their anonymity was preserved) and made it possible to draw a representative sample of respondents. This network differs from the more general p2p services available to the wider public in at least two important aspects. First, the users of this network all belong to the same organisation. Consequently, many of them also interact in the "real" world. Second, although the use of aliases creates some anonymity in this network, this anonymity is far less certain than in other p2p networks. A priori, both of these factors seem likely to affect the answers to the research questions and this was taken into account in the analysis of findings (see below).

Research activities in each case

In researching both of the cases we combined a number of activities in order to get answers to the four research questions. For each question a different technique or mix of techniques was used. These are described briefly in the following paragraphs:

  • The first question, concerning the nature of the content shared, was mainly researched using a mixture of passive and participant observation. Both p2p programmes were installed on a computer, and the search and browser facilities included with these programmes were used to search for different types of material offered by other users. Initially, a snowball sampling approach was used to acquire an overview of the type of materials offered. Subsequently search strings referring to different types of materials were used to estimate the number of offerings.
  • For the second question, concerning values and norms of the users participating in these p2p networks, a short questionnaire was developed, containing both open and closed (Likert scale type) questions which sought to elicit what the members of the respective communities consider to be desirable, acceptable or blameworthy behaviour. In the closed network, this anonymous questionnaire was distributed in person to 125 members who had access to this network. This resulted in 98 usable responses (i.e., a response rate of 78 percent). In the case of the open network, a research assistant used the WinMX messaging system to administer a Web–based version of the same survey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the response rate here was much lower. Of the over three hundred requests sent out in this manner, only 27 usable responses were gathered (a response rate of less than nine percent).
  • The third and fourth questions, about informal sanctioning and its effects, were also addressed in the same questionnaire. In addition to this, in both networks, several other approaches were used to get a more complete picture and to provide triangulation of evidence. In the closed network, a number of network users were interviewed and asked about their personal experiences. Independently of this, the organisations’ internal electronic discussion list was examined for evidence/examples of social sanctioning behaviour. In the case of the open network, the latter technique was applied to the archived discussion list. A number of norm–offenders were also approached directly. In particular, users of the network, who appeared to be free riders or who shared offending material were asked about their experiences with social sanctions by their peers.




The combined investigation of the two cases delivered the following results with respect to the four research questions.

Available content

As described in the previous section, the research started with some participant observation of both networks. Table 2 gives an overview of the type of search for content which was undertaken. The objective of this was to try to obtain an insight into the breath and amount of material available.

The results of this exercise clearly demonstrate that both p2p networks provide their users with an abundance of free material, especially copyrighted music, but also films, pornography and various other kinds of material, some of which may be illegal and/or considered offensive by some users.

Although at first glance both file sharing systems seemed to offer similar material, a repeated counting of the material on offer at different times, revealed a subtle difference. Even though in both p2p networks content was found which could be regarded as offensive to some people (e.g., pornography), such content was somewhat less common in the closed network. Moreover, searches for strings such as "Lolita" and "Bestiality," texts and phrases which are likely to point towards more extreme forms of pornography, delivered only a few hits in the closed network in comparison to the numbers found in the open WinMX network.


Table 2: Material available on open/WinMX and on the closed network.
Number of hits recorded in a single session (January 2004) using diverse search strings and media types.

"Search string" (media type) Hits in Open Network Hits in Closed Network
"Beatles Yellow Submarine" (MP3) 375 158
"Christina Aguilera Fighter" (MP3) 414 113
"Schubert" (MP3) 416 290
"Gospel" (all file types) 1,914 902
"Lord of the Rings" (video) 868 189
"Coreldraw" (CD–image) 2 16
"Porn" (video) 2,618 335
"Bestiality" (video) 129 2
"Lolita" (video) 1,560 29
"Mein Kampf" (all file types) 6 6


Signs of values and norms

From this observation of the networks, it is tempting to conclude that, since almost every thinkable type of content can be found on both of these networks, anything goes. However, the fact that a network as a whole offers things like child pornography and Nazi propaganda and enables large–scale copyright infringement does not necessarily mean that the majority or even a substantial minority of the participants in these networks condone the practice of putting such material up on the network. It is quite possible that some of these offerings are the work of a just few isolated individuals.

Evidence supporting this conjecture can be found in Tables 3 and 4 which provide an overview of the results of the surveys concerning values of p2p users and perceived norms. With regard to stated values, both networks were found to be similar. When asked closed questions about attitudes towards certain observable practices, respondents from both populations were clear about what was acceptable and what was not. As Table 3 shows, most users of both file sharing networks reacted positively or very positively to the practice of sharing popular music, videos and DVDs. To a somewhat lesser extent they supported the practice of copying commercial software. They were close to neutral when it came to distributing pornography, and with only a few exceptions, they detested practices such as spamming, distributing child pornography and spreading computer viruses.


Table 3: People can use [this network] for many different things.
What do you think about those who use it for: (1 very positive — 5 very negative).
  Open network (n=27) Closed network (n=98)
Mean Standard deviation Mean Standard deviation
Distributing popular music 1.4 0.6 1.9 0.9
Distributing videos/DVDs 1.6 0.9 1.9 0.9
Distributing commercial software 2.4 1.3 2.0 0.9
Distributing pornography 3.1 1.4 2.7 0.9
Sending uninvited messages (spamming) 4.1 1.2 4.5 0.8
Distributing child pornography 4.3 1.1 4.7 0.7
Spreading computer viruses 4.5 0.9 4.7 0.6


When asked open questions about norms, the similarity between both communities was less clear (Table 4).

An important observation is that in both communities the most important norm concerned free riding, or as one of the respondents formulated it: "thou shalt share." If a person uses the network to download, she also has to contribute to the network by sharing material [7].

If a person uses the network to download, she also has to contribute to the network by sharing material

In other respects there were differences between the two networks, probably as a result of different user experiences. The open network users often referred to norms of friendliness and mutual respect. Respondents from the closed network focussed on behavioural norms regarding activities which could endanger these, such as spreading viruses. The views therefore tended to be that, for example, users should help to prevent the spread of computer viruses and prevent network overload and, in general, should not trouble or cause problems for other users. They should also respect the privacy of others and refrain from improperly accessing the contents of networked computers.

In contrast, both groups were similar in that relatively few ‘content norms’ were expressed by either group. Among the open network respondents there were only two users who mentioned a "No pornography" norm and among the respondents in the closed network, the only content norm mentioned was "No child pornography."


Table 4: What are the most important normative guidelines?
(users could give up to three answers)

  Open network (n=27) Closed network (n=98)
No free riding, "Thou shalt share" 38 40
Do not disturb the network (incl. do not spread viruses) 3 38
Do not overload network capacity 31
Be nice to each other and show respect 30
Do not trouble each other 3 24
Respect privacy of others (and do not break into other computers) 3 22
Do not download pornography 2
No child pornography 11
No illegal activities 6
Keep the network closed to outsiders 6


In summary, the data strongly suggests that members of both networks have a laissez faire attitude to all but the most extreme forms of content, with the members of the closed network tending to be more conservative in this respect. In as much as there are strong behavioural norms, the evidence suggests that they are self–centred and focus on issues such as free riding and non–disruption of others. The next question is what sanctions the groups can (and/or try) to apply to people who are judged to be breaking these norms.

Informal sanctions

As users of p2p networks seemed to have views about values and norms pertaining to file sharing and disruptive behaviour, the third question was how such values and norms are communicated and reinforced. What, if anything, do the users of these communities do to convey what they expect from each other?

The answer to this question was also sought in the survey. The respondents were asked whether they had any experience with other users commenting on their behaviour or whether they themselves had commented on the behaviour of others. Of the 98 respondents from the closed network, 20 persons reported that they had received some comments, although most of them only once or twice. Nearly all of these comments concerned free riding behaviour.

With regard to inappropriate content two respondents reported that they themselves had addressed others, asking them to remove material from their computers. Twenty–nine respondents stated that in discussions (both on the Internet and in real life), they had talked about what was and what was not allowed. However, here also, the norm of sharing seemed dominant, with about two–thirds of all respondents indicating that above all else, they had asked others to share material.

A similar picture emerged from the open network survey. Here seven of the 27 respondents had received negative comments regarding content and half of the respondents had received sharing requests.

Further investigation of the discussion lists supported this conclusion. From the discussion list in the closed network, 147 threads of one or more messages were analysed (Table 5). Of these threads, the vast majority concerned requests for sharing specific files and requests for help in solving practical problems. Only one thread focused on a normative issue: software piracy.

Requests for file sharing were, in fact, so common that they were generally expressed in condensed form, for example (translated for clarity):

Q: TSG Star Trek — Enterprise 1x18
Is it there yet

A: [B]uffy s6e05 [...]
Episode 6x05: Life Serial
Is on \\..\buffy season 6\ Lots of fun!


Table 5: Overview of topics discussed on the discussion list of the organisation.

  Number of threads
Searching or offering to share:  
Games 40
Software 17
Video 30
Music 11
Questions regarding the use of software 29
Comments regarding the network and other computers 6
General questions, practical tips 13
Software piracy 1


Analysing the open network discussion lists (currently over 30,000 threads of one or more messages) yielded similar results. Most threads concerned sharing requests and practical problems (e.g., the problem of getting the correct software to view a downloaded file).

In line with the survey and interview findings, a recurring theme in this discussion list was that of free riders, "freeloaders and leeches," who download material, but do not share files themselves or only "a few lame files." Several users expressed the view that free riding had to be stopped. The most important sanction mentioned in this respect was ‘blocking’; other users were urged to actively prevent free riding, by refusing downloads to people who did not share themselves. Several users testified that they were doing this, one user commenting:

"I do a whois [i.e. request information] on almost every user that is queued though. The people that download for a couple hours and burn them off EVERYDAY are not using the networks for what they where intended for. [...] Why should they be able to download from me?"

In the same discussion list there were only few threads concerning the use of the open network for spreading illegal or disturbing material. One such exception was the following:

"Speaking of porn, how do I report to winmx administrators some of the illegal things I find here? For example, [...] this type of thing [...] is illegal, and something should be done about it. I have recorded the full name of the user but don’t know what to do with it. Should I report it to the police? I’m thinking I should but want to contact the network administrator first. Any ideas? This is just sick!"

A follow-up message in this thread, however, was even more revealing. As the sender of the former message addressed a normative issue, he himself had violated an even stronger norm, namely that of non–interference with other users, he deserved correction and thus got the following reply:

"Yes, tell the police. And then hang yourself. Twit."

Defying the moral crusaders

The last research question concerned the effectiveness of (attempts to impose) social sanctions: Do users care what other people think of them and do they change their behaviour as a result of comments by others? Here the findings in the open and the closed network clearly differed.

When this question was discussed with several users of the closed network, it was found that few were willing to defy the direct social pressure in the organization. One reason for this was that anonymity was limited and sanctions could consequently be direct. Users had to be very brave or very foolish to ignore serious warnings from their peers. In fact one respondent reported an incident in which a user had discovered child pornography on the network. This incident was dealt with through collective action by a number of users and system administrators who found out the owner of the computer and posted his identity on the mailing list. After this incident child pornography was no longer encountered.

A contrasting picture emerged, when we interviewed users of the open WinMX network who seemed to be breaching existing norms, either by downloading while not sharing or by offering offending material. Their reactions (textbox 1), combined with the data about material shared (already presented in Table 2), strongly suggest that in open networks the effects of informal social sanctions are far more limited. Offenders receive relatively few negative comments and such comments as they do receive seem to have little influence on their behaviour. In case of ‘freeloading’ a person may be blocked by a few users, but the offending user may not even notice this. When a person offers offensive material, this may lead to some negative comments, but this is frequently negated by countervailing positive feedback. Observable downloads by others may give the impression that the material is really desirable and like–minded peers may ask for more of the same.



Textbox 1: Contacting offenders, some examples

Researcher: "Hello ..., I can see that you don’t share any files. Is that because you’re new in the file sharing business?" ... "I also would like to know if others have comments about that kind of behaviour?"
User 1: "No obviously no–one comments!" User 2: "No, sometimes they stop downloads, but that is very rare."

Researcher: "Hi, I took a trip through your collection." ... I just wonder if you often receive negative comments from other users about the files you share." User 1: "no never most people only download those files. I have 32 people waiting to download these files" User 2: "I’ve had a couple negative comments about the files I share, yes! Some people are offended by the Child–porn and the beastiality, and some of the gay/bi stuff I have. Well ... I’m bi, I like seeing girls with dogs, and I like seeing young girls having sex. I wouldn’t ever do any of those things, but I like to see it." User 3: "no, why ... ive had one or two negative comments, but each to their own."
User 4 (a person offering 2489 files most of which have racist or Nazi titles): "Get one negative for about 10 positive, but I find the negative responses more entertaining."





Observing the material available in p2p networks and listening to messages from what might be termed moral crusaders and stakeholders in the music industry and elsewhere, it is easy to get a picture of an anomic world solely comprised of users following their lowest or at least more selfish impulses. In view of the research reported above, this picture needs modification.

It is clear that in peer–to–peer networks — in local area networks, as well as in worldwide networks — some deviant behaviour takes place and that some users take part in activities which are considered undesirable by other users and which in many instances may be illegal. This does not, however, mean that all people participating in these networks, or the developers of the p2p software, condone such behaviour.

The facts suggest a more subtle situation. Although p2p networks seem to attract people with a certain disdain of copyright, this does not mean that everything is accepted. In general, p2p participants are just as concerned — as most of us — when it comes to content issues such as (child) pornography or racism. They may even have an additional stake in fighting excesses, since illegal content may be the argument for authorities to take harsher measures. It might therefore be expected that users in p2p networks will take some responsibility for social control, albeit a limited degree of control. Indeed, this is what occurs. Some p2p users at least are prepared to address normative issues.

In the case of the closed network, under certain circumstances, this preparedness to act may have a material impact on modifying deviant behaviour. Although there were not many examples of explicit sanctioning in the closed network, extreme forms of deviant behaviour, such as child pornography, were suppressed quite effectively through informal social control.

Equivalent suppression of undesired behaviour is not observed in the open, worldwide p2p network WinMX. It is clear that in this network, the possibility of effective social control is constrained both in a practical sense and in an institutional sense. In a practical sense, social control in a worldwide p2p network is limited by the technology itself. First, the virtual character of a p2p network largely prevents direct sanctions; there are no real sticks or stones nor any penalties that can be easily imposed on offenders. Secondly, worldwide p2p systems provide anonymity and thus prevent even the naming and shaming of deviants. Thirdly, such sanctions as are available — namely messaging and blocking — seem to be ineffective.

An additional institutional factor which seems to limit the effects of social control by peers, is that p2p "communities" are not only uniting people with similar values and norms (such as those concerning the acceptability of breaching copyright) but that within these communities further subdivisions are developing. P2p search engines typically bring into contact those people who offer certain material with those who look for that material. So, lovers of popular music find people who offer that music and people who offer special content — be it religious texts, political propaganda or child pornography — are found by others who are looking for just those things. As a result, users in these networks may tend to develop differential associations (Sutherland, 1947). In p2p networks there is an almost automatic clustering of users into more homogeneous groups, which may engage in, accept and even further stimulate specific forms of deviant behaviour.



Conclusion: Rethinking governance in p2p networks

What this research shows is that, while there are ethical norms which regard certain activities — in particular putting child pornography on the network — as wrong, willingness to take actions to enforce compliance with these norms is nullified by a stronger self–interest norm, in this instance personal freedom of expression. The result is a form of anarchy (in the literal sense of no governance) in which, in the presence of a strong dominant norm, secondary norms will not be enforced if this requires other users to break the dominant norm.

This phenomenon is by no means unique to networks or virtual communities. It has happened before in other circumstances. A striking example of this occurred in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s (Moore, 1995) and has more recently come to light in the United States (France, 2004); when widespread sexual and physical abuse of children by priests and members religious orders was covered up by a religious hierarchy. One of the explanations offered for this practice, in retrospect, is that the risks (to the faith of the faithful) that might have been caused by bringing "scandal" on the Church, were a major factor in decisions to suppress evidence and underlay the policy of moving known pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to the police. The norm of protecting the institution overrode a norm that was at the very heart of its raison d’être.

The conclusion, that in p2p networks, self–interest often dominates ethical values, is not, therefore, surprising. What is interesting is that the ethical norms come across as strongly as they do. Given this, the pertinent question is: can the influence of the dominant norm be changed and, if so, how?

P2p networks allow and invite users to engage in behaviour that may be disapproved of by others and in some cases is simply illegal. Based on recent evidence, this behaviour in turn seems to provoke attempts at juridical suppression and unprecedented government action. The question is whether such reactions are really necessary and desirable. Not only is there the matter of proportionality, it is also necessary to look at alternative solutions to prevent deviant behaviour.

One alternative to the course currently being taken may be to strengthen self–regulation in p2p networks. When governments really want to deal effectively with problems such as child pornography and racist propaganda, they should start from an awareness that most p2p users detest such behaviour as well.

This means that governments and other interested parties might be better served to try to involve these users in helping to fight such problems. In cooperation with the developers of these programs — who also have a stake in blocking some offensive materials — they could try to make users more active and effective as agents of social control. Solutions along these lines might include:

  • making p2p users more aware of the seriousness of some normative issues;
  • making p2p behaviour more visible to p2p peers; and,
  • equipping p2p users with more powers to sanction undesired behaviour (e.g., more effective ways to ban users who spread certain materials).

This may work with, for example, child pornography. Awareness that child pornography is not a harmless sexual fetish, but involves real criminal harm, and possibly permanent damage, to children may motivate even self–centred network members to take action.

Copyright infringement is, however, a very different issue. As this research shows, the acceptance of copyright law among users of p2p networks is indeed very low. Partly, this may be an expression of a more general societal rejection of copyright practices as they exist today and their exploitation by copyright holders (Lessig, 2000), but it is also a typical result of differential association. Peer–to–peer networks such as KaZaA and WinMX simply unite people who are interested in copying and sharing material for free. In this respect, the recording companies have not helped their own case with extraordinary mark–ups on products allowing some copiers to justify breaking the law on the grounds that the recording industry is ripping off its customers. Although such casuistry carries no weight in a court of law, on the Internet it remains a powerful argument.

This suggests that, for this type of offence, self–regulation among p2p users is unlikely to be effective and, indeed, some form of external intervention is going to be necessary if such practices are to be curtailed. Nonetheless, many possible alternatives may be considered here (Fisher, 2000) and the question of proportionality cannot be ignored. Whether the issue of copyright infringement alone justifies the unprecedented legislative measures currently taken in some countries is still a matter which is open to debate. End of article


About the Authors

Jörgen Svensson is an assistant professor in Sociology and Informatization at the Twente School for Business, Public Administration and Technology. He has published on the design and use of diverse types of information systems in public administration and on the application of Internet in the voting process.

Frank Bannister is a Senior Lecturer in Information Systems in the School of Systems and Data Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. He has published widely on a range of information systems related topics, particularly in the areas of IS value, e–government and e–democracy. Elsevier has recently published his book entitled Purchasing and Financial Management of Information Technology (2003). He is Conference Chair of the European Conference on e–Government and editor of the Electronic Journal of e–Government (EJEG).



1. http://www.riaa.com.

2. Estimated average number of users online at any given moment.

3. http://www.riaa.com.

4. See e.g. http://www.protect-the-kids.org/; HREOC, 2003.

5. See e.g. http://www.fbi.gov/pressrel/pressrel02/cm031802.htm.

6. NRC Handelsblad (23 April 2002).

7. See also Adar and Huberman, 2000.



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Editorial history

Paper received 15 March 2004; accepted 4 June 2004.

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Jörgen S. Svensson and Frank Bannister

Pirates, sharks and moral crusaders: Social control in peer–to–peer networks by Jörgen S. Svensson and Frank Bannister
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 6 - 7 June 2004

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