4.9 Case study 2: beyond Napster – the new P2P technologies

Because of its reliance on a central server, Napster proved vulnerable to legal attack. But other, genuinely distributed, P2P technologies now exist which may be less susceptible to challenge. Freenet and Publius, for example, are file-distribution systems that use the resources of computers at the edge of the internet to store and exchange files without relying on any centralised resource.

Watch the short animation, linked below, of how P2P software works.

Watch the animation by clicking on the ‘Start’ button in the diagram below.

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In thinking about these P2P technologies it is important to remember that a file-sharing system does not just exist for illegally sharing copyrighted material. The files that are shared can be perfectly legitimate documents. And in a world where ideological censorship is rife and where conventional Web publication is vulnerable to political and legal attack, it may be very important to have methods of publishing that ensure the free dissemination of ideas. From this perspective, Publius is a particularly interesting development. It is a Web publishing system designed to be highly resistant to censorship and provide publishers with a high degree of anonymity. It was developed by programmers working for AT&T. Publius was the pen name used by the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. This collection of 85 articles, published pseudonymously in New York State newspapers in 1787–88, was influential in convincing New York voters to ratify the proposed United States constitution.

Publius encrypts and fragments documents, then randomly places the pieces, or keys, onto the servers of volunteers in a variety of locations worldwide. The volunteers have no way of knowing what information is being stored on their server. Software users configure their browser to use a proxy which will bring the pieces of the document back together. Only a few keys out of many possibilities are needed to reconstruct a document. Avi Rubin (Shreve, 2000), the lead inventor of the system, claims that even if 70 per cent of the websites are shut down, the content is still accessible. Only the publisher is able to remove or alter the information.

It is impossible to know at this stage whether P2P technologies will indeed ‘turn the internet inside out’, as one commentator has put it. But they already offer powerful tools to groups interested in the free exchange of ideas and files online, especially if those ideas or files are likely to be controversial. Rubin, for example, has declared that his greatest hope is that Publius will become an instrument for free speech, a tool that could enable dissidents living under oppressive governments to speak out without fear of detection or punishment. Libertarianism may have discovered a new tool kit.

4.8 Case study 2: The implications of Napster

4.9.1 Some P2P legal developments