Undernet serves as hearth and home for high-tech anarchists
Author's Note: When I wrote this piece for DigitalMASS.com I had
never heard of the venerable and popular IRC Channel that calls itself The Undernet.
I have sure heard of it now. By the present article I do not mean to imply that
Undernet IRC users are scofflaws or inveterate appropriators of intellectual
The Web is a network built on the Internet, its servers and pages and images knit
together with hyperlinks. Usenet is a wholly separate network, headless,
peer-to-peer, linked by nothing more than tacit agreements. Other networks coexist
with these on the Internet: some more anarchic and ungovernable even than the Web,
some frankly subversive of laws and customs, freedom wired into their very
architecture. They compose the Undernet.
The aim of Undernet networks is to make it easy for communities of people to share
files. One of these networks, Napster, you've
probably heard about -- if you have any contact with students of college age. Other
Undernet networks have been designed to work like Napster, to build upon it, and to
transcend its limitations. Listen to this NPR
story for a good basic introduction to Napster.
Napster is the product of a privately held startup company, Napster.com. Its 2.0
beta release early last November engendered a monster buzz and, within weeks, a
lawsuit from the recording industry. Anyone who downloads the free Napster client
program has immediate access to a rapidly expanding universe of music in the form of
MP3 files. You can find a song or an album with one click and download it with
another. Most observers agree that the majority of the music on the Napsternet is
What makes Napster so virally compelling is that every downloaded client is also,
by default, a server. As you download the music you want, Napster encourages you to
offer the music on your own disk for download. (Can you say "security hole?")
Napster.com maintains only the metadata that keeps track of who is offering what; the
actual MP3 files are scattered across the client/servers of the Napsternet.
Napster can truthfully say that it does not, as a company, encourage or condone
the theft of intellectual property. The recording industry claims that the very
nature of the technology that Napster has released encourages theft. The RIAA
filed suit 2 weeks after Napster's beta release, aiming to shut the service
down. The suit is now pending; by the time it's heard it will be far too late. It is
already too late.
A college student sees the Net from the business end of some of the fattest pipes
anywhere. In mere seconds she can download a several-megabyte MP3 file and enjoy a
cut from an album, pouring from her speakers in near-CD quality. Most likely another
college student's machine has served up this song for her. Multiply this scenario by
several thousand in every minute of the day and night and it begins to look like a
commercial company, Napster.com, is building its business on the bandwidth of
institutions of higher learning.
Within a month of Napster's beta release, colleges had begun
taking steps to shut off student access to the
metadata at Napster.com.
The Internet, axiomatically, abhors censorship, and so also do the hundreds of
thousands of students who have become accustomed to quick and easy access, at the
whim of a moment, to music from a library that spans much of the recorded output of
humankind. Before long, a Stanford student had posted step-by-step
instructions for getting around the barricades schools were erecting against
Napster.com. Days later, this same student had published the results of what he calls
a "hack analysis": the protocol
spoken between Napster clients and Napster.com. Others were doing similar
analyses in more detail. Efforts sprang up to devleop Napster workalike programs,
some of which have borne
Napster only knows about music files in the MP3 format. Its metadata and
distributed storage system could not be leveraged to share other types of files, such
as programs or documents. Recently a developer
demonstrated a way around this limitation. On March 21 he released a simple program
Wrapster, which wraps one or more files of any kind so that they masquerade
as a single MP3 file. Participants in the Wrapsternet can freely share any types of
files, leveraging the infrastructure that Napster has built. Suddenly the developers
of other kinds of intellectual property, such as software and videos, have more
reason to worry about the Undernet.
One week before, on March 14, a tiny and free-spirited AOL division called
Nullsoft had released open-source code that took a big step beyond Napster. Gnutella
allows the sharing of any types of files, and its metadata is not centralized. If the
Gnutellanet grew, the RIAA and the MPAA and the SPA would have no one to sue: no
point of control.
And grow it did. AOL
pulled the plug on downloads of the Gnutella code before a day had
elapsed, but not before 10,000 copies had gone down the wire, thanks to a mention on the developer site Slashdot. (AOL was watching out
for the future value it is about to acquire in the intellectual property of Time
Warner.) Since Gnutella is open-source code, half a dozen projects
have sprung up to carry on and extend the work that Nullsoft began. Here's a
Web interface that lets you search the Gnutellanet, but not download.
So, Napster is a proprietary program that facilitates sharing of MP3 files with
central metadata and a distributed database. Wrapster lifts Napster's MP3-only
limitation. Gnutella is an open-source program that allows sharing of any files with
distributed metadata and a distributed database.
Gnutella and its clones make it very difficult to control the free spread of
intellectual property -- difficult but not impossible. A determined opponent could
conceivably trace the migration of a particular file of interest, locate the
client/servers on which it now resides, reconstruct what machines had downloaded
Imagine an open-source, peer-to-peer network like Gnutella, but deliberately
designed to obscure the location and travels of any file. Such an Undernet is being
developed. Its name is Freenet. Its
beta code will be released within weeks.
According to its inventor, Ian Clarke, Freenet implements free speech. Any item
posted to Freenet will be nearly impossible to censor or to remove. Freenet not only
facilitates sharing of any files with distributed metadata and a distributed
database, it is also adaptive. It contains code to detect attempts to pin down the
location of any particular file. Such attempts cause a Freenet client/server
proactively to distribute the file even more widely. Files tend to migrate to servers
near where demand for them is highest, so Freenet will scale efficiently. Future
releases will encrypt all communication among Freenet client/servers.
Arguably, the recording industry has lost its chance to outflank the spread of
free MP3 wares. That toothpaste is not going to go back into the tube. Had the
industry been willing to embrace Internet distribution and to supply what its market
wanted, so cheaply and easily that illegal copying would not have been worth the
bother, then the trickle of bootleg MP3s would never have built into the torrent it
It's not too late for the purveyors of other forms of IP to learn from the
recording industry's missteps. But they need to learn quickly. Expanding bandwidth
will soon make feasible the illicit sharing of much larger files, eventually
including DVD movies. Intellectual property in the form of bits cannot be secured,
not by laws and not by technology. Its makers need to listen hard to what their
customers want, and then to give it to them at the right price with unbeatable
convenience. If they don't, then the rise of the Undernet guarantees that the
effective price of their wares will be zero.