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[FYI] The Value of Gnutella and Freenet


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The Value of Gnutella and Freenet  


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 
heroes. While it's important to talk about their potential for the 
distribution of illegal content, we have to start with their larger 
goals and the promise they offer.  

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.  


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 depend 
increasingly 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. In short, users never find many 
sites that have the information they want.  

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.) So-
called 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 do so 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 

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 value.  

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

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, andyo@oreilly.com, is an editor at O'Reilly & Associates and 
moderator of the Cyber Rights mailing list for Computer Professionals 
for Social Responsibility. This article represents his views only.  

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