The term “download decade” is an effective description of the first ten years of this infant century and the first rising chapter of the so-called Information Age.
It accurately distills the blind conspiracy between the exponential availability of high-speed Internet, the gradual decrease in the cost of personal computers, the rise of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks and websites like Napster and its clones (built largely on BitTorrent protocols) and, of course, the generation of youth at the centre of it all.
This evolution in communications has changed consumer habits, challenged traditional media, and kindled still-raging debates about ethical use and legislative reform.
But most of all: it has given file-sharing a bad name.
This even extends to whistleblower sites like WikiLeaks — which was responsible for the unprecedented disclosure of approximately 90,000 United States military files on the War in Afghanistan on Sunday 25 July. Three newspapers (Der Spiegel, the Guardian, and the New York Times) were given advanced access to write an initial wave of articles but any user may download the files (for free) directly from WikiLeaks.
While the exposure of these files fulfills a democratic deficit that many in participating countries associate with the Afghanistan campaign, their unapproved release and the anonymous means by which they were obtained is also perceived as a direct threat to national security and government authority.
Despite the Internet’s responsibility for spreading this leak, there is nothing new about them. Daniel Ellsberg’s exposition of the “Pentagon Papers” through the New York Times in 1971 is perhaps the most recent and high-profile example with a potential correlative impact on policy.
Still, WikiLeaks’ specific use of file-sharing has important implications for the future of historical research. Specifically, the circumvention of the various freedom of information laws practiced by most democracies that limits researchers behind the “30 year rule” or its equivalent convention before declassifying most sensitive files.
The exact legality and broader implications of this exposure will be the focus of intense debate for weeks and months to come.
For now, let’s return to the idea of file-sharing and consider its most basic role (while also avoiding the longstanding dispute most commonly associated with it): it is a critical part of research acquisition and publication (both online and off) — between any combination of individuals, groups, archives, libraries, students, and schools.
In short: if we can’t share files, we can’t share history.
Redeeming the role of sharing files as a community is something to seriously explore in the future. Obviously this needs to occur within the context of fair use or dealing but that is already a core value and part of established practices.
As far as the immediate future is concerned, you may be frustrated with the limit on email attachments and want a useful means of avoiding spamming your contacts with multiple messages.
Toward that end, I offer my favourite file-sharing platform, drop.io, which I have used on several research projects. I particularly like the fact that you can set each “drop” to self-terminate after a certain date, and it will process emails, faxes, and audio files set to it externally.
Sites like this are part of a growing wave of start-ups and you may even have your own preferred site (do feel free to share below). Best of all, they allow for the controlled distribution of files among groups (account for increasing file sizes) and may go a long way in the broader effort to redeem the perception of file-sharing.