Ethics among peers: file sharing on the internet between openness and precaution

Publication Date04 May 2010
AuthorU. Pagallo
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
Ethics among peers: file sharing
on the internet between openness
and precaution
U. Pagallo
University of Turin Law School, Torino, Italy
Purpose – The paper suggests overcoming the polarization of today’s debate on peer-to-peer (P2P)
systems by defining a fair balance between the principle of precaution and the principle of openness.
Threats arising from these file sharing applications-systems should not be a pretext to limit freedom
of research, speech or the right “freely to participate in the cultural life of the community”, as granted
by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. The paper aims to take sides in today’s
Design/methodology/approach – The paper adopts an interdisciplinary approach, including
network theory, law and ethics. The method draws on both theoretical and empirical material so as to
stress the paradox of the principle of precaution applied to P2P systems and why the burden of proof
should fall on the party proposing that one refrain from action.
Findings – Censors and opponents of P2P systems who propose to apply the principle of precaution
to this case deny the premise upon which that principle rests. “Levels of evidence” required by the
precautionary principle show that – in many cases in which the outcomes of technology are ignored –
another principle is needed for orienting action, namely, the principle of openness.
Social implications – Alarm about how P2P systems undermine crucial elements of the societies
often led to the ban of this technology. The paper illustrates why it should not be the case: rather than
shutting these networks down, they should be further developed.
Originality/value – The paper provides the comprehensive picture of a far too often fragmented
Keywords Copyright law,Data security, Ethics, Privacy, Internet, Human rights
Paper type Conceptual paper
1. Introduction
There are two different ways to interpret the notion of “peer”.
On the one hand, it is all about new forms of mass collaboration and participation
that are creating, producing and distributing goods and services on the internet. The
aim is to define this trend, according to the theory of information goods, the internet
distribution chain with its variable and marginal costs of production and distribution,
along with network externalities and the very value of the “network information
economy”. The traditional long route between authors and the public, mediated by the
different phases of production, storage, distribution and delivery via business
organisations has indeed been joined – and sometimes replaced by a short route.
Not only the distribution and delivery of digital works collapse in a single service,
but boundaries between creators and consumers tend to blur. While some scholars,
like Toffler (1980) and Anderson (2008), describe this new scenario in terms of
“prosumers”, others, like Benkler (2006), insist on the difference between centralized
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 27 June 2008
Revised 27 March 2009
Accepted 31 May 2009
Journal of Information,
Communication & Ethics in Society
Vol. 8 No. 2, 2010
pp. 136-149
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/14779961011040550

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