The fact these lazy seeming workarounds foreshadow later popular protocols seems to tell us something about decentralization. The progression of centralized hosting → Napster → Kazaa → BitTorrent seems to represent the minimum viable decentralization required to stay alive as defined by the law at the time. These lazy workarounds match because decentralization isn’t the product, it is just a means of staying alive.Plenty of people went further with decentralization and anonymity, but it wasn’t necessary for staying alive and it only mattered to a privacy-focused minority of people. Beyond staying alive, decentralization is a weakness not a strength. In many ways, 2005’s BitTorrent was more centralized than Kazaa, but it decentralized file transfer and outsourced content discovery which made it more resilient than Kazaa which decentralized search at the protocol level.
Decentralization and other technological tricks help keep technologies online which wouldn’t last if they were centralized, but they don’t fully solve the problem. Instead, it seems like decentralized technologies depend on activists in order to fully realize the vision of the technology. Bram played this part by open sourcing his protocol, limiting his ability to profit from the system, and creating an environment where killing his client would basically do nothing to stop BitTorrent usage. The Pirate Bay is a more obvious example of activism and they go hand in hand with Piratbyrån’s anti-copyright mission. Yes, there are private torrent trackers and public options besides The Pirate Bay, but no one has provided the continuity and resilience that The Pirate Bay has in staying alive no matter the cost.
Decentralized technologies don’t take the legally impossible and make it unstoppable. Decentralization is a tactic for diffusing risk for many and lowering the risk for the activists that operate the most sensitive parts of the system. We see the same with Tor, where the risk of participating in the system is concentrated at the exit nodes which can attract undesirable legal attention. Without activism, we would have beautifully designed decentralized technologies which are impossible to use in practice.