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P2P networking is the alternative to the traditional client-server architecture. It requires less capital to run and promises balanced data distribution, making it popular for file sharing, gaming, and sports betting.
But in areas like remittance and cryptocurrency trading where decentralization is the norm, P2P is becoming the standard.
But once upon a time, peer-to-peer wasn’t only unpopular but also occasionally illegal. So, how did it stand the test of time?
Let’s look back on its inception in the 1960s and its trials and tribulations to see how it has evolved.
P2P history timeline
For starters, here are P2P networking’s notable watershed moments over the decades.
|ARPANET||1969||Invention of public packet-switched computer networks|
|Usenet||1979||Development of a decentralized discussion system|
|Napster||1999||Digital audio distribution system via central indexing|
|Gnutella||2000||Query flooding as an alternative model to central indexing|
|Freenet||2000||Introduction to the dark web|
|Kazaa||2001||File sharing powered by an equity-based protocol|
|BitTorrent||2001||Advent of torrenting|
|Skype||2003||Decentralization of voice transmission|
|Bitcoin||2009||Birth of cryptocurrency|
|Asset Exchange (AE)||2014||One of the early DeFi trendsetters|
|Aether||2018||P2P social networking with self-governing features|
Now, let’s see how each of these milestones shaped P2P networking into what it is today:
ARPANET: the one that started it all (1969)
We can’t tell the story of P2P without touching on ARPANET – the culmination of ideas and innovations aimed to help separate computers talk to one another.
Short for U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, ARPANET was the world’s first public packet-switched computer network. It gave birth to many of the protocols used today, including TCP/IP, which allowed computer networks to communicate and interconnect.
In fact, the fusion of ARPANET’s separate networks for military personnel and civilians led to the use of the term “internet.”
Usenet: the mother of modern forums (1979)
Standing for User’s Network, Usenet is Reddit before Reddit. Powered by the Unix-to-Unix-copy protocol, it’s a decentralized discussion system where people can talk about various topics in forums dubbed as “newsgroups.”
Although most of its users have migrated to popular social networking platforms like Twitter, Usenet is still with us today. Millions continue to use it across thousands of newsgroups for sharing large files.
Napster: the music industry’s first most hated (1999)
Napster was a free MP3 file distribution service that enabled up to 80 million users to share music over a P2P network.
It used central indexing to scour the disks of local computers in order to link users to neighboring peers that had the latest songs, bootleg recordings, and hard-to-find albums they were looking for.
Since none of the audio content Napster distributed had copyright approval, this P2P service didn’t last long. The music industry took the folks behind it to court, eventually forcing them to pull the plug on their central index servers before they could launch a premium subscription.
Gnutella: a game-changing protocol (2000)
After learning from Napster’s mistakes, the developers of Gnutella employed the query flooding model.
Instead of using a central indexer to manage the traffic, this protocol broadcasts requests up to a certain time-to-live value. It sacrifices efficiency in exchange for decentralization, making it immune to shutdowns.
Using a software program running it, you can find the peers who are sharing the file and download pieces of it from multiple sources until it’s complete.
What’s more, the large number of available clients that can run Gnutella is another thing that separates it from its predecessors.
Freenet: the dawn of the dark web (2000)
Another major event in P2P history, this decentralized network lays emphasis on anonymity and censorship resistance.
Accessible via open-source software, Freenet allows you to use the internet free from surveillance, creating the internet subnetwork dark web or darknet. That’s why it generally attracts users who want to publish controversial and illegal material.
All participants in the Freenet network contribute bandwidth and hard drive space for the benefit of everybody. If you join it, you won’t know the nature of the encrypted data stored on your device.
Freenet has different security levels. The higher you go, the slower the software runs because of the decreasing number of network contributors.
Kazaa: another thorn in the side of the entertainment industry (2001)
This P2P file-sharing software used the FastTrack protocol that observed equity when using the resources of network contributors.
Kazaa divided users into two: supernodes (faster computers) and regular nodes (slower ones). The supernodes individually served dozens of regular ones and consulted one another to fulfill file download and upload requests up to seven levels into the network.
Once located, the file could move between network participants using HTTP without necessarily going through any supernode.
Although Kazaa stuck around for a while, it also went the way of Napster.
BitTorrent: the origin of torrenting (2001)
As a protocol, BitTorrent facilitates P2P file sharing through torrents. This way, it can help conserve the data resources of peers making the bits and pieces of the file available in the network.
As torrent software, it determines the servers actively sharing your requested file and figures out which ones have pieces you need to finish your download.
Originally, BitTorrent was tracker-dependent for peer discovery. But the Vuze client pioneered distributed hash tables to usher in an era without trackers.
Skype: the once-P2P VoIP behemoth (2003)
Did you know that Skype started out as a hybrid P2P voice transmission service? Its name is an abbreviation of “sky peer-to-peer.” The only reason it didn’t go by Skyper was the unavailability of domain names.
Inspired by Kazaa, the Skype protocol made it possible to make free phone calls anywhere on the planet, provided that there’s someone near who uses Skype too.
As a decentralized network, its strength was its size. Thanks to its desirable selling point of being free, its adoption exploded. The fact that it handled instant messaging and live video conferencing at no additional cost made it even more practical for everyday use.
Unlike many disruptive services in P2P history, Skype was able to successfully generate revenue through premium features like calls to regular phone numbers.
Bitcoin: the crypto OG (2009)
Arguably engineered to rebel against the international financial system that has let banks play with fire at the expense of the masses, Bitcoin is a P2P cash system. Its foundational technologies include blockchain, elliptic curve cryptography, and proof of work.
The Bitcoin protocol has undergone several upgrades over time. But the purists have disliked certain changes and believed that they contradicted its eponymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto’s vision, resulting in hard forks like Bitcoin Cash.
The thing that makes this P2P network special is what it symbolizes: the separation of money and state. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s already considered legal tender in at least two countries and has never been hacked.
So, the idea of Bitcoin being used as the world’s reserve currency may not sound so crazy in the future.
AE: the trailblazing DEX (2014)
AE is a fully decentralized exchange (DEX) built into the second-generation crypto NXT’s software. Naturally, it uses the blockchain’s native currency NXT to trade assets and has borrowed the concept of colored coins.
In the grand scheme of things, AE had less impact on the DeFi world than the exchanges that came after it. Although it’s hard to quantify, it surely influenced the development of many of the DEXes in the early days of crypto.
Aether: the social network of self-governing peers (2018)
One of the faces of the decentralized social networking movement, this Aether protocol puts a premium on self-moderation, transience of content, and privacy.
Its namesake network is made up of communities that mimic republics whose moderators get elected, are subject to checks and balances, and serve at the pleasure of the majority.
If you don’t agree with what a mod does, you can locally disable this user’s actions to render them invisible to you. Actually, you have filters to help you decide on the kinds of content you want to see.
Like many privacy-first platforms, Aether uses ephemeral content with an option to save posts on your device. The network’s short memory is a breath of fresh air in a world that punishes people for their past opinions – or even jokes. This means you can use the P2P desktop app without fear that your words will follow you around and bite you down the road.
However, Aether does practice censorship to prevent spam and illegal content from spreading throughout its network.
In terms of privacy, Aesther’s Windows, macOS, and Linux versions make a strong effort to collect as little personal info from you as possible.
Likewise, it strives to make it incredibly difficult for others to associate your IP address with your public posts. But it’d still be wise to route your traffic to a P2P VPN first to protect your identity.
It’s not an accident that P2P networking is more fashionable than ever.
As long as there are central authorities that want to control everything for selfish gains, benevolent technologists will create something revolutionary to tip the balance of power toward the people.
If our brief P2P history is any indication, the future will be even more decentralized.