Maverick Programmers Prepare To Unleash Anarchy on
The Wall Street Journal
March 27, 2000
IF YOU THINK the Internet is an untamed frontier now, just wait. A new
technology sweeping through cyberspace promises to unleash an entirely
new wave of anarchy onto the Web, making it impossible for anyone to protect
intellectual property online or shut down a rogue Web service.
The early warning came March 14 from a tiny computer program called
Gnutella. Created by renegade
programmers at a unit of America Online, Gnutella lets people share computer
files -- mainly music -- over the Net. AOL yanked the Gnutella Web site
within a day, but it was too late. Gnutella is humming with hundreds of
people swapping Pink Floyd cuts, and no one can stop them.
The technology that makes Gnutella thrive is popping up all over the
Net, and it goes way beyond just music. Known as a "distributed"
or "peer-to-peer" approach, it's pretty much the opposite of
the way the World Wide Web works. On the Web, people get information from
central repositories, or servers. Shutting down a server cripples a Web
site, as demonstrated in last month's hacker attacks.
ON A DISTRIBUTED system there is no central brain to attack. So there's
almost no way to turn it off short of finding and unplugging every single
machine connected to it. Shutting down one of these networks would be like
trying to stop every phone conversation on the planet.
"This will make censorship impossible," says Ian Clarke, a
young programmer in London with grand plans for peer-to-peer technology.
For the past 18 months, he and a handful of collaborators have spent their
spare time creating a peer-to-peer alternative to the Web. They call their
system FreeNet, and they're getting ready to unleash their prototype in
a matter of days.
FreeNet abandons the concept of the Web "site." Anyone would
be able to make their computer a node on FreeNet by installing a piece
of software. Information posted on FreeNet would be automatically replicated
and stored on multiple member nodes. If someone wanted to search for something
-- an academic paper, say, or a photograph -- the request would move from
one computer to the next until it encountered and accessed the desired
information. The approach would foil tracking efforts and make it nearly
impossible for someone to remove information from the network.
Mr. Clarke thinks those capabilities add up to a bold new age for the
Internet. He envisions FreeNet as a way for political dissidents to publish
their views without fear of being found out. Read his fiery manifesto at
But he admits there's a dark side, too. If FreeNet works as advertised,
it could easily be adapted for unsavory purposes, such as distributing
child pornography. "This system is, in a sense, above the law,"
FreeNet may be new, but the concept of distributed networks has a long
history. The Internet itself was constructed as a distributed network.
Look deep inside the Net and you'll find tiny packets of digital information
finding their way from one computer to the next, largely without any central
control. But then the user-friendly Web came along and created a new layer
on top of the Net, centered around the servers that host Web sites. In
a sense, FreeNet and Gnutella are a return to the Net's roots.
THESE FLEDGLING networks are now mutating at warp speed, driven by the
explosion in online music. A controversial program called Napster was designed
for college students to trade songs in the popular MP3 file format. But
last week Napster buffs branched out into everything from full-length feature
films to copies of Microsoft Word thanks to Wrapster, an underground program
written to turn the music-trading community into an all-purpose bazaar.
Napster, though largely peer-to-peer, relies on a central server to
act as a directory. That means someone can pull the plug -- say, a court
ruling in favor of the music companies now suing Napster. But Gnutella
is practically invulnerable because it's diffuse. You have to find one
other computer running the software, then you're automatically hooked to
all of the other Gnutella machines that computer knows about. And by installing
the program on your PC, you turn your own machine into part of the network's
Strangers can tap into your computer at a furious clip. A few nights
ago I watched as anonymous Gnutella users scanned my laptop for the computer
game Quake, songs by Fleetwood Mac, and a variety of X-rated images. (For
the record, they found none of the above.) The program lets you decide
which portions of your hard drive can be searched and which are off-limits,
but it's disconcerting nonetheless. If you want to give it a try, visit
one of the growing number of Web sites offering Gnutella downloads and
And Gnutella fans like Bryan Mayland, 26, of Tampa, Fla., are already
developing new versions aimed at supporting thousands, not hundreds, of
users. "This is unstoppable," Mr. Mayland says.