Amy Alexander on Sun, 14 May 2000 19:04:35 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Gnutella, Napster, Freenet, and individual publication

I've been reading the recent threads regarding the various intellectual
property and economic issues raised by Napster, Freenet, and Gnutella...

Something for us to keep in mind is the potential of software such as
Gnutella and Freenet for increasing publishing opportunities for
individuals. Although both of these programs are in a rudimentary form
at this point, they have some potential in two key areas: putting
serving (i.e. publishing) in the hands of individuals, and creating

A system similar in concept to Freenet but running within the existing
Web structure, was proposed by Ian Goldberg and David Wagner. This
proposed system known as the Rewebber system. In their paper posted at
they point out:

“Yet we must not forget that anonymous publishers have played an
important role throughout the history of publication. Freedom of
anonymous speech is an essential component of free speech, and freedom
of speech is a critical part of any healthy democracy. For instance, the
United States Supreme Court has consistently upheld protection for
anonymous publication of political speech. As Justice Stevens wrote in
the McIntyre v Ohio Election Commission majority opinion,
          ‘Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a
pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an
           honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is
a shield from the tyranny of the

This function of anonymity must of course be kept in mind, as much of
the focus in the media is currently on anonymity's function in hiding
people who duplicate copyrighted pop songs, write viruses, and deal in
child pornography. In particular, the issue of copyright infringement
has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately.
However, copyright infringement turns out to be quite a bit more complex
than “what should we do with people who distribute Metallica MP3's?” For
example, last year I had a run-in with the DuPont Company, in which they
threatened to sue over a net art piece I did. The piece spoofed
corporate takeovers by pretending that my domain,, had
taken over 27 of the world's largest corporations. My position was that
the work was a parody, commentary covered under Fair Use. DuPont's
position was, um... well, they never laid it out in writing, actually.
They did, however, make some scary phone calls to my employer, whom they
assumed was my ISP, to tell them that my site was threatening and
violent, and that they and the other 26 companies would be suing if the
piece in which I mentioned them was not immediately removed. And they
sent an interesting fax with all sorts of  “evidence” against me,
including a copy of a newsgroup posting about some totally unrelated
person called “plagiarist” who had evidently made death threats against
someone from the Jewish Defense League.

My employer asked me to remove the piece immediately, which I did, but I
replaced it with a page documenting DuPont's actions, including the
sending of the erroneous “death threat” page.
A week later, they sent a fax trying to get that one removed too....

When asked three times by my employer to submit written documentation of
what exactly about my piece was trademark or copyright infringement,
DuPont responded each time with “we'll get back to you.”
My intention here is not to start a discussion on the legality of my
project; however, I did want to bring it up as an example of how the
*specter* of copyright infringement can be used to quell free speech
that someone with deep legal pockets doesn't happen to like. (There are,
are of course, numerous other examples of this happening all over the
web.) BTW, in the US, the DMCA, the act everyone loves to hate, actually
has some usefulness here. (Usual "I am not a lawyer" disclaimer applies
here, though I did speak with one.) With regard to ISP liability:  if
the ISP has a registered copyright agent with the US Copyright Office,
then the complainant is required to contact that agent with copyright
complaints, specifying what was infringed upon and what was infringing,
rather than just threatening a lawsuit without explaining what is
legally problematic. (I'm not sure how this relates to international
situations  –  i.e. does it apply if the server is in the US, or if the
complainant's material is?) BTW, although I'm focusing here on issues
stemming from copyright/trademark-related intimidation because of my
personal experience, obviously there are many other impediments to free
expression, including direct and indirect political repression, social
intimidation, employee-whistle-blowing fears, etc.

Anyway, notice how heavily the ISP figured in to the above discussion.
They exist in the current web structure as something of a parental
figure – when the user “misbehaves,” go threaten the parent  (who
doesn't want trouble on account of this bratty little user), and who
will summarily remove the offending material, cut off the user's
account, and probably make her stand in the corner and clean out the
garage, too.  The benefits of both anonymity and somehow running one's
own server become attractive.

The running of one's own server does not need to mean running a web
server in the traditional sense, however. It is one option, but it is
not possible for everyone, for reasons of cost, expertise, local
availability, etc. Even in the US, where high-speed internet access is
comparatively cheap, the affordable, consumer-level DSL/cable accounts
typically offer dynamic IP addressing and much slower upload than
download speeds – in other words, everything you need to be a
super-consumer, but nothing you need if you want to publish (serve) your
own content. And, while operating your own web server gives one a
substantial degree of autonomous control, it currently doesn't offer
much in the way of anonymity. Even in the way of autonomous control,
it's limited – though you've removed one level of the hierarchy, there
is always *somebody* upstream of you (your backbone provider, etc.) This
is where these newer methods of “serving,” i.e. Freenet, Gnutella, and
Napster, become interesting.

First of all, Napster. I find it the least interesting of the three
because a) it's limited to distributing MP3 files, b) it's not really
decentralized – there are several separate Napster networks, with users
logging in to a server on one of the networks, and c) it has virtually
no anonymity. It is also proprietary software, which means that the
public won't have the opportunity to add features or create modified
clients. However, it does allow users with ordinary PC's and dynamic IP
dialup accounts to serve content. This is a very useful functionality.

Freenet holds a lot of promise for both anonymity and server
independence, as the content distributes itself across the network. It
is currently in the most nascent state of the three programs – i.e.
doesn't have a search capability yet, making it hard to find something
you're interested in, and it seems to require a fairly high geek
quotient to get it running. However, it does run on an ordinary PC, and
doesn't require a static IP (though according to the FAQ, they prefer a
semi-permanent net connection, such as DSL or cable modem.) I haven't
tried Freenet out yet myself; perhaps someone who has can give some
insight into his or her experience. Freenet is open source, and as far
as I know, doesn't have limitations on the content types that can be
distributed – at any rate, I'm certain that it's not just for MP3's.

Finally, Gnutella. Gnutella is fairly easy to use, and again, runs on an
ordinary PC. A machine running Gnutella is called a “servent”; i.e., it
is simultaneously both a client and a server. Again, it allows ordinary
users with ordinary PC's and dialup accounts to serve content. Although
a very new program, it already includes a built-in search capability.
And, unlike Napster, it is entirely decentralized; i.e., there is one
large network, with no centralized servers or user accounts. And, it is
open source, so that people can, and already have begun to, write
clients with various features. For example, someone has written a Perl
module that implements the Gnutella protocol/commands... at least some
of them... so, for example, someone could write a web-based interface
into Gnutella, create a project that works between Gnutella and the web,
etc. Although there is no real server anonymity on Gnutella, its
distributed nature gives it an advantage over static web servers. For
example, a search for “DeCSS” on Gnutella yielded many, many sites from
which one could download the DeCSS source code. Although the MPAA went
to great lengths to go after all the static web sites that hosted the
DeCSS code, just imagine what they'd have to do to hunt down all these
home PC's with dynamic IP's and changing content. I'm not saying it's
not possible: look at what Metallica did, although they never did
attempt to match Napster usernames with real identities, and they took
advantage of Napster's centralized nature by making one big complaint to
Napster, rather than 317,000 individual complaints to users or ISPs. In
any case, going after Gnutella servents would seem to raise the bar
quite a bit, and at some point, it becomes too costly and pointless for
corporations (or rock bands) to match the dynamic IP's with individuals
and chase after throngs of home PC users... making Ian Clarke's
assertion of the pending demise of intellectual property issues

Gnutella can be used with all file types. However, in the current
Gnutella software, only MP3 files can be streamed (maybe RealAudio files
too; I didn't check this.) All other file types must be downloaded, then
viewed. It's an odd experience: one can “browse” audio files, but one
must download text and HTML files and manually open them in the browser
to read them. This is no doubt due to the fact that, despite its
flexibility, Gnutella is primarily designed for swapping files, not for
online viewing. However, since Gnutella is open source, anyone can write
a Gnutella client that allows inline viewing of text and image files.
It would also be useful if it could be used to enable individuals to
serve net-radio, but, it presently only streams MP3 files, not live MP3
streams. A workaround, I think, could be to serve the stream on your
dynamic IP'ed PC using a standard MP3 server, and then serve a file on
Gnutella that tells people your IP of the moment.... then they simply
have to search for keywords in your “pointer” file. This is of course a
little clunky, but perhaps someone could write a Gnutella client that
integrates things a bit more?

I'm also not totally convinced of Gnutella's search capabilities.
Gnutella does a “live” search of content being shared by all connected
servents at the moment. (You can also look at the “search monitor,”
which shows you a real-time updated list of all the searches taking
place on your servent; this, of course, can be pretty entertaining...)
Anyway, searching "everywhere" in real time is certainly a slow process,
perhaps infinite. I put a file with a peculiar name in my Gnutella
shared directory, and then proceeded to do a search for that name. I
waited a long time, but Gnutella never found it. I'm not sure if
Gnutella simply ignores the local machine when doing a search, or if
Gnutella just never found it. Of course, this could be figured out by
running two simultaneous Gnutellas on machines with different IP
addresses; has anyone tried this?

So, while the ideal distributed serving situation for individuals may
not be here yet, the options certainly seem to be expanding. I am
curious, though, as to how many individuals will make use of it for
distributing content beyond MP3's, warez, porn, and assorted pictures of
Brittany Spears.  For example, the Hotline program, which offers file
sharing, chat, and newsgroups on an ordinary PC, has been around for
years, but doesn't seem to have caught on much beyond the warez/porn
crowds. I'm curious as to why that is: the server software cost? The
bandwidth? Ties up your machine? Or is it lack of awareness, a
preference for the web, or... ?

I'd like to hear what others think about it all....


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: