Bob Poekert's Web-Log

Jul 10, 2019

The Three Models of Internet Content Distribution

There are basically three models for content distribution on the internet.

  1. Centralized platforms
  2. Directories and publisher-hosts
  3. Peer-to-peer

Those three models have different pros and cons, but which one wins out has a lot to do with the specifics of the regulatory environment. With section 230 under attack it's a good idea to take a look at them and think about how they might shift in popularity if it gets repealed or changed.

Centralized Platforms

This is the predominant model now (in 2019). In this model there's a centralized organization (usually a company) that has servers that store all the content that's available for consumers to consume and distributes it to them when they ask for it. It also provides the discovery mechanism that helps consumers find content that's interesting to them. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Twitch, and Instagram are examples of systems that follow this model.

The benefits of doing things this way are:

  1. It's easy for the people running the platform to make changes. Those changes could be improvements designed to make the platform more engaging or mitigations in response to changes in the environment (eg: new kinds of spam)
  2. It has the potential to be more efficient since the company can build infrastructure

The drawbacks are:

  1. There's a central point of control. If there's a moral panic around a particular type of content (whether that's industrial music after columbine or "fake news" now) it's easy for politicians to put pressure on the system. Having a big company you can threaten to regulate looks a lot like 20th century industrial policy and politicians are very comfortable in that paradigm.
  2. It's impossible for consumers to adapt the system to work better for them; what you get is what the company chooses to provide. That can lead to an inferior experience for people who live in different circumstances from the people who work at these platform companies (eg: the poor).
  3. These companies get considerable market power and can use that power to stifle alternatives and protect whatever business model they chose.

Directories and publisher-hosts

This is the model that podcasts use now, and the model that most content used in the early-mid 2000s. There are two roles in this model; directories and publisher-hosts.

Publisher-hosts are the people who create content, but in this model those are also the people who make the content they created available to others. This blog, which is hosted by me on a raspberry pi in my apartment, is an example of this. When you clicked the link that brought you here your web browser made a connection to my home internet connection and asked my computer to send this web page to you. This eliminates platforms and hosting providers. As another example, when you download a podcast episode, that content is coming from whatever computer the person that produced the podcast chose to use, not a server run by the company that made the podcast app you're using.

Directories are sites and apps that help people find content they might like, but don't produce or host any content themselves. Podcast directories are an example of this. The itunes podcast directory has information on a lot of podcasts that it lets you browse through, but when you actually go to download a podcast it directs your computer to whatever server the producer of that podcast chose.

Benefits:

  1. It allows for a high degree of consumer choice. For example, since podcasts are hosted all over the place there's no big company that can say which podcast client apps are allowed and which aren't, so consumers can choose which client works the best for them.
  2. Since there are potentially many directories referring people to the same content there's the potential for choice and specialization in directories. If you want to make a podcast directory that only lists podcasts that are consistent with a particular religion or about a particular topic you can do that.
  3. It doesn't matter whether hosts are considered publishers because in this model the hosts are the authors, and authors are already liable for their own speech (eg: if they defame someone)

Drawbacks:

  1. Being an ecosystem and not a single company it's very difficult to make sweeping changes that apply everywhere (this could be a benefit depending on your point of view)
  2. It's more work for content producers
  3. It's potentially less efficient because there's less purpose-built infrastructure
  4. Content producers need to pay for network bandwidth to distribute their content (though this can be avoided if you combine this model with peer-to-peer, which we'll talk about later)

Peer-to-peer

This is was the main model for music and movies in the 2000s, though it's been in decline over the last ten years as people have moved to centralized platforms like Youtube. Bit-torrent is probably the most popular peer-to-peer system today, but other examples that were popular several years ago are kazaa and edonkey2000.

While the directories and publisher-hosts model made content producers the content hosts, the peer-to-peer model makes content consumers the content hosts. In the publisher-hosts model you had a particular computer on the internet that's associated with each piece of content, and your computer would connect to that computer to get that content. In the peer-to-peer model your computer is connected to some peers, which are other consumers' computers, and your computer sort of asks around to see who has the piece of content you're looking for. If anyone responds saying that they have a copy, you connect to them and download it. Then, crucially, if anyone else asks around for that content your computer will respond that you have a copy and they'll get it from you.

Benefits:

  1. The amount of network capacity available to host a piece of content scales with the demand for that content, ensuring that there's always enough capacity
  2. No one participant in the network is sending content to a large number of consumers (the burden is spread among a large number of people), so no one winds up with a big bandwidth bill
  3. It's very difficult to control, as we saw with attempts by the music and record industries in the 2000s

Drawbacks:

  1. Obscure content can disappear from the network if everyone who had a copy leaves
  2. Downloads can be slow if there aren't many people who have a copy of a particular piece of content

Publisher-hosts / peer-to-peer hybrid

It's possible to combine the publisher-hosts model and the peer-to-peer model to get some of the benefits of both. RSS feeds (like podcasts use) that refer to files in bit-torrent are an example of this. This model works basically the same as the publisher-hosts model except since consumers are sharing the burden of hosting the content you can still host your content on an old computer in your house even if it's being downloaded by millions of people. And since the publisher of the content keeps a computer running all the time making that content available it won't disappear if it stops being popular; consumers can always get it from them if no one else has it.