A Year Ago: Will Gnutella ignite porn and piracy?

First published: Thu, 13 Apr 2000 13:38:16 GMT

The program's near-perfect anonymity strikes at the very heart of the Internet's most troubling issues: child porn and pirated music

It could undermine the influence of every search engine and every Web portal. It’s the biggest thorn yet in the side of record companies worried about the spread of pirated music on the Net. And it’s the easiest way yet to trade pornography, even illegal child porn, over the Internet. For a piece of software that lived for less than 24 hours on its home page, Gnutella has created quite a stir.

It's the stuff of classic Internet lore. A team of programmers from inside America Online released Gnutella on a Web page March 14. The program is at its core a simple way of trading files, including pirated copyrighted material, without requiring participants to connect with any central computer. This means that, unlike its music-swap-meet cousin Napster, it's virtually impossible to stop.

That was too much for America Online to bear, and barely 24 hours after the site was posted, it was removed. Gnutella, the company said, was an unauthorized project, created by programmers -- led by Winamp creator Justin Frankel -- who came to AOL when the company acquired Nullsoft in June of last year. It disavowed the project and stopped development.

But the genie was out of the bottle. Nathan Moinvaziri was one of a few hundred Net users who had downloaded the program. He set up a Web site, posted the software, and soon it had been reverse engineered.

"I saw something there that no one else had done," he said. "It caught my eye."

And it has captured the imagination of programmers around the Internet. Now, dozens of developers are continuing the Gnutella project in a Linux-like collaborative effort. At the same time, the program's near-perfect anonymity strikes at the very heart of the Internet's most troubling issues.

Gnutella users can either connect to the larger "Gnutella" Net or create their own virtual private networks. And those networks can form spontaneously and disappear without a trace. That makes them the perfect place for anonymous, untraceable file transfers. Paedophiles have already discovered this, according to a private investigator who calls himself "RedOne."

"Sure, paedophilia is traded in other ways, but it's just a matter of time before people are caught ... (Gnutella) is a place where it could flourish. It can't be stopped," the source said.

During one recent 15-minute session, the former pornography investigator said he found 140 instances of child porn. These private Gnutella networks are announced in obscure newsgroups or shared quietly among small groups, the source said. "I'm seeing people running two sessions, one for their public stuff and another for their 'good' stuff." Other rooms are being created to swap stolen credit-card numbers and pirated software, he said.

Even on the main Gnutella Net, it's obvious many users aren't there just to hear music. One feature of the program is that users can watch searches scour the network in real time. Searches for terms like "groupsex," "porn movies," even "young naked," "pre teen" and "teen sex" are almost as common as searches for pirated music.

"You can see what people are searching for," said Ian Hall-Beyer, founder of the definitive Gnutella Web site, wego.gnutella.com. "But I don't know if they're actually finding it." The anonymity Gnutella provides may unfortunately promote such behaviour, but the good outweighs the bad, he said: "The whole decentralised aspect of it ... There's no censorship at all.

"If you get a bunch of people who want to share information about overturning the Chinese government, they can do that, and there's nothing the government can do about it."

Perfect anonymity is a key strength of Gnutella over Napster because no government agency can watch what you search for, and no marketing department can log your hits and target ads at you.

"When you send a query to the Gnutella Net, there is not much in it that can link that query to you," brags Moinvaziri on his Web site.

Gnutella developers acknowledge that anonymity has a dark side, meaning the software can be used to trade illegal pornography, but say that's an inevitable consequence of an uncensored medium.

"Child porn is out there, and people do want to exchange it," said Gene Kan, a Gnutella developer who also helps run wego.gnutella.com. He says he hasn't seen any child porn activity, but if it's happening, he's not surprised. He claims that half of all Web searches in any format involve pornography.

"It's really unfortunate. But the Net is just a reflection of reality. To us it's all just information, whether it's child porn or fiscal reports."

But Gnutella's main attraction is still free music, and there's plenty of it. At midday Wednesday, over 140,000 files of all kinds were there for the taking, shared by over 1,000 users. A search for "Beatles" uncovered 331 songs there for the taking within a few seconds. It's those kind of search results that landed Napster's programmers in court. Record companies fear revenues from music sales will be devastated by the easy availability of free music.

The Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster in early December, seeking up to $100,000 (£62.91) in damages for each copyright-protected song exchanged using the software. If the trade group wins heavy damages, it could put Napster, with its 18 employees in San Mateo, California, out of business.

Napster's lawyers have in turn employed the "Xerox defense" -- much like Xerox isn't liable for illegal photocopying done with Xerox copies, lawyers for the software firm are arguing individual lawbreakers, and not programmers, should be held liable. Further, when Napster is notified of specific users who are trading copyrighted material, it boots them off the system.

Gnutella doesn't even have that option, since there is no "system" to boot people off of. As long as there are two users with Gnutella software, there will be a Gnutella network. To stop it, record companies will have to prosecute individual Net users.

"Napster has a centralised point where it can be shut down or blocked," Hall-Beyer said. According to his Web site, the Gnutella program is designed to withstand a nuclear war or a frontal attack from record company lawyers: "It's very fault tolerant."

In fact, says Kan, the fault is with the music industry, which was simply caught off-guard by the rise of digital music.

"Today, the record companies are saying MP3s are the biggest evil. Tomorrow they’re going to say they're the greatest thing when they figure them out," he said.

"This really is the format of the future."

Gnutella has created a stir in part because of its Jimmy Dean-like premature death, and because of the cachet that any free music program can provide. But to developers, the program's real impact will be much more subtle and long-term.

Gnutella is a new kind of network architecture that enables real-time searches of vast libraries. That stands in stark contrast to Web crawlers used by search sites like Excite, Lycos and AltaVista. At those sites, automated computers called "bots" search the Web one site at a time, indexing the information at each location. It can take weeks or months for a site to crawl the entire Web and add new Web sites.

Gnutella's peer-to-peer network, compared by one developer to a game of telephone, allows real-time searching of computers connected to the Internet. It also means virtually no dead links.

"This is really going to replace those stupid Web bots," Kan said. "There's going to be some technology that does real-time searching -- we hope it's this. Their solution is obviously antiquated."

New young radicals. If Limp Bizkit wants to give its music away, that's fine. But Metallica, and Dr. Dre, and a whole lot of other groups don't. And that is their right. Read the news comment from Matt Carolan at AnchorDesk UK.

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