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<nettime> a nyt article on freenet and gnutella

New York Times, May 10, 2000


          By JOHN MARKOFF
 While American courts struggle over the recording industry's challenge to
digital music swapping, Ian Clarke, a 23-year-old Irish programmer, is
moving on to the next battleground. He is finishing a program that he says
will make it impossible to control the traffic in any kind of digital
information -- whether it is music, video, text or software.

 His program, known as Freenet, is intended to make it possible to acquire
or exchange such material anonymously while frustrating any attempt to
remove the information from the Internet or determine its source.

 Mr. Clarke and his group of programmers have deliberately set themselves
on a collision course with the world's copyright laws. They express the
hope that the clash over copyright enforcement in cyberspace will produce a
world in which all information is freely shared. In any case, the new
programs could change the basic terms of the discussion about intellectual

 The swapping of music files over the Internet, through services like
Napster and, has already raised the hackles and mobilized the
lawyers of the recording industry and some musicians, who say the practice
amounts to piracy. They hope either to halt the services or to collect
royalties on the digital works being swapped.

 But programs now emerging make it possible to find and acquire files
without reference to a central database, and thus provide no single target
for aggrieved copyright holders. And methods being developed to protect
such works -- like scrambling the data and requiring a key to decode it --
may wind up being trumped by similar encryption that covers the tracks of
those doing the swapping.

 "If this whole thing catches on," Mr. Clarke said, "I think that people
will look back in 20 to 40 years and look at the idea that you can own
information in the same way as gold or real estate in the same way we look
at witch burning today."

 The groups and companies pursuing the new distribution technologies --
programs that in effect create vast digital libraries spread across
potentially hundreds of thousands of large and small computers -- do not
necessarily share Mr. Clarke's ideological viewpoint. They range from
iMesh, an Israeli-American start-up company that aspires to become an
international commercial digital distribution system, to several small
groups of free-software developers intent on building new systems for the
sharing of any kind of digital information.

 Some contend that if their software lends itself to copyright
infringement, it is the user's responsibility, not theirs. Mr. Clarke,
putting into practice a view expressed by many in the free-software
movement, takes the more extreme position that copyright protection is
simply obsolete in the Internet era.

 A test version of his Freenet program -- written in England and now
distributed free to many countries around the world -- was posted on the
World Wide Web in March.

 Mr. Clarke, who lives in London and works for a small electronic commerce
company, said last week in a telephone interview that there had been more
than 15,000 downloads of the early versions of his product, indicating that
hundreds or perhaps thousands of network servers on the World Wide Web are
already running the program. Any file that any user wants to offer to
others can be made available through the system. So far, that includes
software programs, video pornography and a copy of George Orwell's "1984."

 Mr. Clarke said he was confident that corporations trying to develop
complex technologies to encrypt information or otherwise halt the free
sharing of computer data would ultimately fail. "I have two words for these
companies: give up," he said. "There is no way they are going to stop these
technologies. They are trying to plug holes in a dam that is about to

 That attitude, plus the fact that millions of users have come to rely on
easy access to digital information via the Internet, suggests that the
issue may quickly outstrip the current debate over copyright infringement
between the recording industry association and a variety of Internet music

 "I have no shortage of gray hairs from worrying about these programs,"
said Talal G. Shamoon, a Silicon Valley executive who heads the Secure
Digital Music Initiative, a technology and entertainment industry working

 Some legal experts believe that the intellectual property laws are being
used in an effort to grapple with technologies they were never intended to

 "Copyright law is not the right tool in the case of many of the new
technologies," said Pamela Samuelson, a digital technology and copyright
expert at the law school of the University of California at Berkeley. "The
question will quickly become whether other governments have reasons to try
to regulate these new systems or whether the U.S. government has the
ability to regulate them."

 Indeed, law enforcement officials are only beginning to wrestle with the
implications of new technologies that will permit the anonymous, instant,
global distribution of information of any kind. "We're obviously looking at
all of these," said Christopher Painter, deputy chief of the Justice
Department's computer crime and intellectual property section. "It makes
our job more difficult and makes it harder to find the people who are
perpetrating crimes."

 Freenet, which Mr. Clarke conceived while he was an undergraduate at the
University of Edinburgh, is intended to function without any centralized
control point. "Freenet is a near-perfect anarchy," he said.

 Another Internet digital distribution program, Gnutella, created by
software developers at the Nullsoft subsidiary of America Online, has the
same distributed approach employed by Freenet, meaning that there is no
central directory of what information the system contains.

 Unlike Napster, which is limited to digital music files, Gnutella makes it
possible to distribute video, software and text documents as well.

 America Online declared Gnutella an "unauthorized freelance project" in
March, just hours after it was made available on the Internet. But since
its developers made its code freely available, independent programmers have
continued to refine Gnutella even though the project was officially

 Many computer industry executives contend that if the recording industry's
suit against Napster succeeds, it will simply lead digital-music
enthusiasts to use alternatives, like Gnutella and Freenet, which are even
less open to copyright enforcement.

 "So are all the musicians and record companies going to continue their
suits against Napster?" a Gnutella user who identified himself as Panicst8
wrote in a recent network posting. "It seems kind of pointless, or have
they just not figured out yet that Gnutella is about 10,000 times more
effective at locating what you want?"

 Freenet goes several steps beyond Gnutella in an effort to protect the
anonymity of those who publish or copy information electronically. It
encrypts each file and scrambles the key -- actually a long number --
needed to find the file within the system.

 And Freenet incorporates a digital "immune system" that responds to any
effort to determine the location of a piece of information by spreading the
information elsewhere in the network.

 Freenet relies on a system of volunteers who run the program on network
computers, or servers, Mr. Clarke said, and it will even be difficult for
the operators of individual parts of the network to determine which
computer holds any particular file.

 For the moment, at least, copyright holders can take comfort from the fact
that Freenet is more efficient at obscuring the source of information than
at helping users find it. Mr. Clarke has not yet built a search capability
into the system, so users must find other ways to let one another know how
to retrieve files.

 And technologists like Mr. Shamoon say systems like Freenet present a
challenge, but not an insurmountable one. In addition to his industry role
with the Secure Digital Music Initiative, Mr. Shamoon is senior vice
president for media at the InterTrust Technologies Corporation, a Silicon
Valley company that builds systems for protecting intellectual property.

 He cites the possibility of the transmission of viruses and other harmful
programs as being one of the obvious risks inherent in electronic
communities where no basis for trust inherently exists.

 "From a trust standpoint, the current generation of tools such as Gnutella
and Freenet are a nightmare for the same reason that badly constructed
social communities are a nightmare," Mr. Shamoon said.

 The recording industry will survive, he argues, if it is able to offer its
users new things of value.

 "There are a lot of dangers here," he said. "But as a society, we're very
adept at adapting to compensate for these things."

 Mr. Clarke, it seems, would not disagree. Citing past innovations from the
photocopier to magnetic tape, he writes on his Web site, "Artists and
publishers all adapted to those new technologies and learned how to use
them and profit from them; they will adapt to Freenet as well.

- > Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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