This article was written by Keith Dawson for's DigitalMASS Internet column. It is archived here for informational purposes only because it no longer appears on the DigitalMASS site. This material is Copyright 2000 by

Undernet serves as hearth and home for high-tech anarchists

Keith Dawson
Author's Note: When I wrote this piece for 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 property.

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, 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 bootleg.

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?") 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,, 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

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 Days later, this same student had published the results of what he calls a "hack analysis": the protocol spoken between Napster clients and Others were doing similar analyses in more detail. Efforts sprang up to devleop Napster workalike programs, some of which have borne fruit.

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 dubbed 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 it.

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 has become.

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.