greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

This article about internet capacity becoming available to people directly, not just through corporations, seemed of interest to our grassroots information platform. While not Y2K specific, I can read in it some interesting messages about infrastructure struggles: freedom of information vs reliability/standardization/control. Thanks to David Sunfellow for forwarding this to his NHNE list.

The category "Hacking & computer deviance" sounds "bad" but I'm not so sure what follows is "bad". What do you think?

E-POWER TO THE PEOPLE By Ariana Eunjung Cha Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, May 18, 2000; Page A01


Two months ago, Justin Frankel created an ingenious little software tool that allows its users to bypass the dominant Internet companies and communicate directly among themselves. His bosses at America Online Inc., the biggest computing network of them all, were so impressed they tried to snuff it out of existence.

Within 24 hours, AOL officials had removed the tool, called Gnutella, from the Web site of its Nullsoft development house. It was, they declared, an "unauthorized freelance project."

But they were too late. About 10,000 people had already downloaded the program onto their own machines, creating bustling networks for the free exchange of everything from digital music files and pictures to political propaganda beyond the control of AOL, its merger partner Time Warner Inc. or anyone else.

Both the beauty and danger of Gnutella are that it is a more sophisticated version of Napster, the infamous and popular program that college students have been using to swap music files over the Web. Napster's developers have recently been hit with a flurry of copyright-infringement lawsuits. But unlike users of Napster, Gnutella aficionados can trade files without going through a storage center, making it impossible to shut down the system without unplugging every computer on the network and difficult to control by laws because there's no central authority.

Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape Communications and a former chief technology officer for AOL, compares Gnutella to a benevolent virus, a "revolutionary" program that spreads the power of publishing from an elite set of corporations to anyone who has a computer.

"It changes the Internet in a way that it hasn't changed since the browser," Andreessen said.

At a time when the general assumption is that the World Wide Web's destiny will be guided by international conglomerates such as AOL, Amazon.com Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., Gnutella is the unexpected variable.

Its very existence is a statement about the wild nature of the Web and how difficult it will be for anyone to tame it. It is also a dramatic display of how easily the Internet can be transformed or at least shaken by smart computer programmers who are barely old enough to drink or drive.

Frankel, 21, and his good friend and software co-creator, Tom Pepper, another twentysomething Nullsoft employee, have become virtual cult heroes. Their work is being refined daily by hundreds of young volunteer programmers around the world who hope to extend Gnutella's reach, making it a free search engine for the masses.

The decentralization of power that Gnutella represents has revived the romantic dream of many a cyberspace pioneer--that of a truly free realm where no information gatekeeper exists and where all property is commonly owned. But those who hope to profit handsomely from the Internet's transformation into a global marketplace--record companies, book publishers, movie makers and practically everyone else with a stake in selling information--regard Gnutella as a device for thievery.

It was, after all, Gerald Levin, chief executive of Time Warner Inc., which owns the Warner Music label, who called on his AOL counterpart, Steve Case, to quash the Gnutella project.

Carey Heckman, a professor of law and technology at Stanford University, said the software could undermine the foundation of many multibillion-dollar corporations.

"It's about how information flows and who controls that system," Heckman said. "The idea of a handful of institutions filtering information may be decaying."

Origin of a New Species

The name Gnutella comes from a combination of Gnu, the popular suite of free Unix software, and Nutella, the chocolatey hazelnut spread that Frankel is said to favor. It is the most advanced of a new generation of what are known as "distributed network" programs with names like Freenet and iMesh.

Freenet, also a relative of Napster, is the brainchild of Ian Clarke, a 23-year-old in London. The program, which is still in the early stages of development, has drawn attention because it deliberately makes it all but impossible to identify the source of a file. Thus it could act as a megaphone for political dissidents fearful of retribution, as well as potentially a gathering place for terrorists, pornographers and other malevolent users. "People should be free to distribute information without restrictions of any form," Clarke said in an e-mail.

Programs such as Freenet and Gnutella conform to the original vision of the Internet's architects, who imagined it to be a completely decentralized system. But then corporations came along and set up central information storehouses called "servers."

Being able to control storage and distribution of information, of course, gives online companies the ability to set prices, track the habits of users and block material they find objectionable. Any computer running Gnutella, though, can search all the others running the program and retrieve information that the user makes publicly available. The data still flows over the wires of the Internet, but the distributed network theoretically reduces the need for vast content repositories such as AOL.

Through his mother, Frankel declined a request for an interview, saying, sorry, he was no longer allowed to discuss the project.

His mother, Kathleen Blake, remembers that Frankel, who grew up in Arizona, was always fiddling with some sort of computer program in his spare time and in fact had built Nullsoft on one of those projects, Winamp, a free online music player.

"My son is really a rebel," she said. "He thinks everything should be free."

Frankel didn't think his company should be free, though. He sold it to AOL for just under $100 million last fall. He still works at Nullsoft in San Francisco and hasn't spoken publicly since Gnutella was disavowed.

Cloning the Program

Within two days of Gnutella's release, software developers who heard of its existence managed to decipher the Rosetta Stone of technical documents that the creators had left on the Nullsoft Web site and were able to duplicate or "clone" the program, assuring that the project could never be bottled up.

Bryan Mayland, a 26-year-old programmer from Tampa, became the first to reconstruct Gnutella.

Mayland said the test version he got off the Nullsoft site worked well enough but was unstable. The authors had promised that a new version would be released soon but it was clear when AOL shut down the project that that wouldn't happen, Mayland said. So he decided to do it himself.

"When I saw Gnutella I thought, 'This is really interesting. This could change a lot of things.' And I wanted to make sure it lived up to its potential," said Mayland, who is taking a break from getting his undergraduate degree from University of South Florida. He locked himself in his office, above an Irish pub on the outskirts of town, and ended up writing 973 lines of code. On March 16 at 8 p.m. he pushed a button on his keyboard to release his clone to the Web.

In subsequent weeks, other programmers have been picking at, patching and building on top of Mayland's Gnutella. A version that could run on Windows came out within days. A Linux version came within three weeks. And a Macintosh version appeared just two weeks ago.

About 50 people worldwide are collaborating on a 2.0 release they have dubbed "Gnutella Next Generation," which its developers hope will come out in the next few months and will make Gnutella able to handle many more users.

Gene Kan, 23, a recent University of California at Berkeley graduate, met other Gnutella enthusiasts on Internet chat rooms called #gnutella and #gnutelladev. Most are male and very young: "Uh, I think we actually have some people of legal drinking age," Kan says. Few have ever met offline. They know little about each other's personal lives, only about their programming strengths and weaknesses.

There's Ian Hall-Beyer, a 27-year-old systems administrator from Denver who considers himself the grandfather of the group; Spencer Kimball, 26, a friend of Kan's from Berkeley; and Nathan Moinvaziri, a soft-spoken 16-year-old whom many credit with being the first to set up a Gnutella Web site, on his sluggish 300-megahertz Compaq personal computer at his home in Phoenix.

"There's not much new on the Internet these days," Moinvaziri said. "I wanted to do something that's challenging, and this was so cool."

Preparing for the Mainstream

On a recent night, more than 10,000 machines were hooked up to the main Gnutella network and about 1.5 million files were available; those numbers continue to grow every day, and Gnutella's developers fervently believe that Gnutella will someday run through nearly every machine on the Internet.

Kan's group has been working with the Internet standards association to come up with a way to take the technology mainstream. Gnutella fans believe the program soon could be used to replace, or at least supplement, existing search sites such as Yahoo, Lycos and Google, which increasingly have difficulty keeping up with the explosive growth of the Internet and often contain links to Web pages that no longer exist. Gnutella developers liken the way their network searches to the children's game of telephone. The computer acts like a person looking for, say, a recipe for rhubarb pie; he or she asks 10 friends and those 10 friends each ask 10 of their friends and so forth until it is found, or until all the people in the group have been asked.

Kan, who has been working on modifications to Gnutella every night after work from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., predicts that within months some group, somewhere in the world, will be able to modify Gnutella enough so it will function as a real-time search engine. Nathaniel Daw, a computer science PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied search theories, thinks that might be too optimistic--developers must first get around the problem of how a Gnutella network slows down as more people become a part of it and be able to make common searches run faster.

"It's clearly not efficient" the way it works now, Daw said.

As Gnutella's popularity grows, its corporate parent has taken notice. In a recent interview, Time Warner's Levin and AOL President Bob Pittman suggested the technology could be harnessed, given time. Pittman said the interest in the project simply represents "consumer demand before the launch of a product," meaning a controlled system for distributing copyrighted information.

But security experts say there's another reason why the public's acceptance of Gnutella will be difficult: File-sharing tools are good cloaks for hackers who want to pillage entire hard drives or to pass on viruses or worms. "If I were a system administrator in charge of security, something like Gnutella would keep me awake at night," said Avi Rubin, an Internet security researcher at AT&T Labs. Rubin said while it's easy to take one central machine that serves data from inside a company or other organization and put walls around it, it will be impractical to do that to the thousands of personal computers on workers' desks within that same organization.

Many Gnutella developers blithely brush off concerns about lawsuits and security, saying technological solutions, such as encryption tools to preserve copyright, will arise.

Visions of Fortunes

In their chat rooms, Gnutella's developers say they are motivated by a love of invention, freedom and transformation.

But in the new economy of instant millionaires, financial dreams aren't far below the surface.

Most of the Gnutella Web sites have received hundreds of thousands of hits. So far they've all turned down offers to tack on paid advertisements, but Sebastien Lambla, an 18-year-old student in Monaco who is a key Gnutella developer, says he knows of people who have started creating Gnutella interfaces with rotating advertisements.

Kan says none of the 400-plus people who subscribe to the various Gnutella developers' e-mail lists has dared to bring up business proposals, but he concedes that the idea is always looming.

Earlier this month, Mayland received an e-mail offer from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. There might be funding to build a version of Gnutella that could be used to create a private network.

"That kind of goes away from the whole philosophy of Gnutella and that upsets me," said Mayland, who says he is happy with his $56,000-a-year job. He said he's trying to turn the venture idea over to someone else.

But, he conceded, he hasn't yet rejected the potential benefactor either.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

Two Ways to Search the Web

1. When you're looking for something on the Internet, you generally ask a search engine, such as AltaVista or Yahoo, to find it for you. The engine checks the Web sites it knows about (the average search engine actually searches less than 20 percent of all the sites on the Internet).

Computer sends query via search engine . . .

. . . the search engine checks the Web sites it has listed in its catalogue and responds.

2. Members of a network using Gnutella software in essence form a search engine of their own that expands its search exponentially. When a Gnutella user has a query, the software sends it to 10 computers on the network. If the first 10 computers don't have the file, each computer sends it to 10 other computers and so on until, designers say, an estimated million computers would be looking for it in just five to 10 seconds. The program could theoretically check every site on the Web.

-- Jan Nickerson (JaNickrson@aol.com), May 19, 2000


Thanks for this article, Jan. It's very interesting.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), May 19, 2000.

I second that Rachel! Thank you for this thought provoking article Jan.

-- (Dee360@aol.com), May 19, 2000.

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