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[FYI] (Fwd) Article: The Value of Gnutella and Freenet

------- Forwarded message follows -------
Date sent:      	Mon, 15 May 2000 12:33:29 -0400 (EDT)
From:           	Andy Oram <andyo@oreilly.com>
Subject:        	Article: The Value of Gnutella and Freenet
To:             	gilc-plan@gilc.org
Send reply to:  	gilc-plan@gilc.org

This week I am trying to promote the notion that new distributed
systems (Napster, Gnutella, and Freenet) are interesting projects in
extending the Internet; not just a Robin Hood plot to undermine
corporations. My policy article is below. But I urge anyone with a
little technical background in networking to read the companion

    Gnutella and Freenet Represent True Technological Innovation

I'm delighted that Erik Nilsson wrote up his analysis for the Oreilly
Network, and his article is well worth reading (it's much more nuanced
than the title suggests):

    r.html Napster: Popular Program Raises Devilish Issues

The oreillynet.com site and Web Review both have several other
interesting articles on these topics, but people with limited time
should try to read the ones I've suggested.




                                   [68]Platform Independent

The Value of Gnutella and Freenet

   by [69]Andy Oram
   May 12, 2000

   Notice how much bad press has fallen recently on the networking
   technologies [70]Gnutella, [71]Freenet, and [72]Napster? I think
   some of the public alarm over genetic crop modification has
   cross-pollenated over to software. Suffering from legitimate fears
   over far-reaching technologies like genetic modification, the
   Strategic Defense Initiative, and nuclear waste disposal, the press
   and the public are ready to listen to anything bad said about
   anything new--even a clean, open, noninvasive technology like
   distributed computing.

   If you check my biography, you will see that I make my living
   selling content. I do not extend knee-jerk sympathy to systems
   publicized as ways to circumvent copyright enforcement. But
   investigating Gnutella, Freenet, and Napster, I have been
   pleasantly surprised to find that they're intriguing innovations in
   the best tradition of the Internet pioneers. While it's important
   to talk about their potential for the distribution of illegal
   content, we have to look at their larger goals and the promise they

   The title of this essay contains a hidden message. There are
   important areas where Gnutella and Freenet have value, but there
   are also areas where they don't offer much value. The area where
   all the fears are being spawned--the distribution of illegal,
   defamatory, or copyright-infringing material--is actually not a big
   danger, according to my analysis. I'll return to this controversial
   conclusion after I describe the two systems.

Basic Goals

   Gnutella and Freenet are simple protocols that let sites query one
   another in a chain--the way systems have always exchanged news and
   mail over UUCP--in order to find material matching a search string.
   On the most superficial level, they can be treated as alternative
   search engines; in fact, the most exciting potential for Gnutella
   right now is to enable a new generation of super search engines. I
   talk more about the technical aspects of these systems in [73]a
   companion article, Gnutella and Freenet Represent True
   Technological Innovation.

   Conceptually, Gnutella and Freenet make location irrelevant; data
   belongs to the whole system rather than to a particular server.
   Freenet in particular is aimed at protecting anonymity and
   distributing information in such a way that its origin cannot be
   traced and its location is irrelevant. Once somebody releases a
   copy of "Battlefield: Earth" to Freenet, not even the battalions of
   lawyers mobilized by the Church of Scientology would be able to get
   it removed.

   While most press reports lump Gnutella together with Freenet,
   Gnutella is really not designed for anonymity. When queried for
   information, Gnutella sites are likely to return a URL or some
   other identifying information. Two Gnutella developers I talked to,
   Gene Kan and Spencer Kimball, explained that Gnutella goes beyond
   simple file sharing to allow the distributed processing of search
   queries, and thus better distribute information about what's
   available online.

   Gnutella and Freenet software are both Open Source technologies.
   The [74]Free Software Foundation designed the [75]GNU General
   Public License so that source code could not be stripped of its
   open status. Gnutella and Freenet extend this irreversible status
   to content: any content placed on one of those systems becomes
   nearly impossible to control. Freenet is particularly well designed
   with that end in mind; as we shall see, Gnutella offers its own
   impressive benefits as well. By extending the freedom of
   open-source software to anything that can be digitized, both are
   profoundly viral.

   I have addressed Napster briefly in another well-pubicized paper, a
   [76]comment to the U.S. Copyright Office on the behalf of
   [77]Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. The comment
   points out that Napster is essentially a combination of two
   well-established technologies, a directory service and a file
   transfer protocol. (Erik Nilsson points out in a companion article
   that Napster is also a new namespace with powerful capabilities.)
   Some librarians are even thinking of adapting the basic Napster
   model for a [78]system that would facilitate interlibrary document
   exchange. Surprised to hear that the model has legitimate uses?

   The lawyers I've heard don't hold great expectations for the legal
   success of Napster, because it focuses on the distribution of MP3
   files and is wide open to the charge of contributory infringement.
   But my comment to the Copyright Office concludes, "A challenge to
   Napster, based simply on the proclivity of its users to breach
   copyright, is a challenge to the basic technologies on which the
   Internet is based." A challenge to Gnutella and Freenet is even
   worse, because it cuts off promising directions where the Internet
   needs to grow. The rest of this article concentrates on those two

The Next Stage in Search Engines

   One of the most worrisome developments on the Web is the inadequacy
   of existing search tools to work in an era when Web sites
   increasingly depend on database queries and dynamically-generated
   temporary URLs. Many sites have their own sophisticated searches,
   but you have to visit the site and enter the string manually--or
   study the site's HTML form and write a customized LWP script--in
   any case, you have to narrow your search to that single site. Data
   is generated dynamically for each query. There is no way for a
   search engine to find the information during a Web crawl, because
   no URL even exists until the user queries the database. As a
   result, users never find many sites that have the information they

   Gnutella offers the path forward. It governs how sites exchange
   information, but says nothing about what each site does with the
   information. A site can plug the user's search string into a
   database query or perform any other processing it finds useful.
   Search engines adapted to use Gnutella would thus become the union
   of all searches provided by all sites. A merger of the most
   advanced technologies available (standard formats like XML for data
   exchange, database-driven content provision, and distributed
   computing) could take the Internet to new levels.

Is the Genie No Longer a Dream?

   A government could theoretically shut down all computers within its
   jurisdiction that run a Gnutella or Freenet site, and could force
   routing points to filter out packets from Gnutella or Freenet sites
   outside its jurisdiction. Some countries have pretty good success
   at screening unwanted sites--mostly countries with small
   populations and minimal Internet penetration, like Saudi Arabia and
   Vietnam. Democratic governments could try to do the same on the
   grounds that the sites are guilty of contributory and vicarious
   copyright infringement, as the Recording Industry Association of
   America claims in its suit against Napster. Even the software
   itself could be suppressed on the grounds that its primary purpose
   is to overcome copyright restrictions; that's how a notorious
   Copyright Act clause is being used against DeCSS.

   But to criminalize these technologies would be a crying shame.
   Gnutella and Freenet have much to offer; in addition to the search
   possibilities already mentioned, they distribute information in a
   way that offers an intriguing alternative to the heavy, expensive,
   overly centralized servers that characterize the Web at present.
   The data propagation model used by Freenet, in which data spreads
   out in unusual and surprising patterns like the classic computer
   game of Life, is a model well worth studying.

   Ian Clarke, creator of Freenet, is pretty sure the genie is out of
   the bottle. "If I don't release Freenet, the copyrighted
   information will get out eventually. Maybe Freenet will make it
   happen a little faster, but it should serve as a wake-up call." And
   Gene Kan says, "Copyright holders have encountered waves of new
   technologies over the decades; they've started by fighting every
   one and ended by reaping even bigger profits from the new
   technologies than before. Every week that the RIAA spends trying to
   get rid of things like Napster is a big wasted opportunity for it
   to capitalize on this method of distribution."

Would You Get Free Content from Napster, Gnutella, or Freenet?

   The spread of MP3 files, and their centrality to Napster, skew the
   debate over free and copyrighted content. Lots of people are
   willing to download free music files from strangers, because if
   they find out that the sampling quality is lousy or the song breaks
   off halfway through, nothing has been lost. They can go back to
   Napster and try another site.

   Matters would be entirely different if you tried to get free
   software from strangers, especially in binary form. You'd never
   know whether a Trojan Horse was introduced that, two years later,
   would wipe your hard disk clean and send a photo of a naked child
   to the local police chief. (And you thought UCITA's self-help
   provision was as bad as it could get!)

   True, people get binary software or "warez" from unauthorized
   sources already, but they often have a pre-existing relationship
   with the person putting up the software. Ironically, they can trust
   the unauthorized software precisely because it is copyrighted and
   available only in binary form; malicious people would find it
   extremely difficult to patch it so that it can still run but
   produce deleterious effects on the user. (Unless those malicious
   people are angry manufacturers--will we start to experience this
   kind of self-help from vendors?)

   The gist of this section is to counter John Perry Barlow's famous
   phrase, "Information wants to be free," with the somewhat less
   well-known reply, "Information wants to be valuable." When software
   comes from anonymous sources--unless you obtain and read the source
   code--its value drops to nearly nothing.

   Let's take a more meritorious example: a human rights observer who
   posts a long list of crimes committed by the Pinochet regime in
   Chile, along with precise descriptions of how military leaders were
   implicated in each crime. If the observer wants to remain
   anonymous, it will be hard to trust this report, but sometimes
   internal details can convince trained experts that a report is
   genuine. Still, nothing prevents the implicated military leaders
   from flooding a system like Gnutella or Freenet with altered
   versions of the report that are plausible enough to cause confusion
   and raise doubts about which version is the real one. Unless
   digitally signed and traceable, such a report will have little

   In short, anonymity is the enemy of reliability. Anonymity is
   valuable for many purposes, such as in support groups for victims
   of abuse; but anonymity can also be a shield for distributing
   certain types of content where reliability doesn't matter. Gnutella
   and Freenet could therefore be sources for pornography and for
   pirated music or movies, but people who care about quality will
   still choose identifiable sources.

   We need systems like Gnutella and Freenet. They are not only
   legitimate objects for research, but solutions to certain technical
   problems arising on the Internet. When did we start to fear the
   future so much that we subject such innovations to calumny?

   Andy is an editor at O'Reilly & Associates and moderator of the
   Cyber Rights mailing list for Computer Professionals for Social
   Responsibility. You can reach him at [79]andyo@oreilly.com. This
   article represents his views only.

          [87]Web Review copyright -- 1995-2000 Miller Freeman, Inc.

   (In light of the content, the following may appear superfluous, but
   this article can be reposted for non-profit use so long as you keep
   the copyright notice at the bottom.)


  68. http://www.webreview.com/pub/at/Platform_Independent
  69. http://www.webreview.com/pub/au/Oram_Andy
  70. http://gnutella.wego.com/
  71. http://freenet.sourceforge.net/
  72. http://www.napster.com/
  l 74. http://www.fsf.org/ 75. http://www.fsf.org/copyleft/gpl.html
  .html 77. http://www.cpsr.org/ 78.
  http://www.oss4lib.org/readings/docster.php 79.

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