Playing In The Dark

  • Share
  • Read Later
Muffin man has more than 2,000 songs on his hard drive, and he's happy to share them. He's a big fan of bands like Pearl Jam and the White Stripes, so there's plenty of hard rock in his collection.

But chances are you'll never get to it. The 21-year-old pizza cook, who asked to be identified by his online nickname, makes his songs available only through private file-sharing networks known as darknets. Unlike such public networks as Kazaa or Morpheus, which let you share songs with anyone, private networks operate more like underground nightclubs or secret societies. To gain access, you need to know the name of the group and a password. And the only way to get that information is from another member who invites you in. Some darknets even encrypt files and mask your identity within a group to keep eavesdroppers from finding out who you are and what you are sharing.

It's a handy invention now that the recording industry has taken to suing kids who share music online. But darknets are not just for digital music files. Carving out a bit of privacy online has wide appeal; students, community groups and even political dissidents can use these hidden networks to share projects, papers and information. One part of the allure is anonymity; the other is exclusivity. Since participation is limited, file searches don't turn up a lot of junk or pornography. Darknets offer the convenience of the Web without a lot of the bad stuff.

You need special software to start a darknet of your own. The two most popular programs are Direct Connect by NeoModus (at neomodus.com) and an open-source variation of it called DC++, available at sourceforge.net. More than 800,000 copies of DC++ have been downloaded since mid-July. A third program, called Waste (also at sourceforge.net), automatically encrypts files but is much harder to use.

There are no good estimates of how many people use darknets. Lowtec, a college sophomore studying computer engineering, figures that 10% of the students at his school (which he declined to name) share files through Direct Connect. "It's much faster than Kazaa," he says. That's because private networks typically link small, close-knit communities in which all members have superfast connections.

The recording industry so far hasn't put much effort into combatting the secret networks, but its neglect might not last long. If networks like Kazaa become too risky, darknets could quickly rise to take their place. And if that happens, the music industry could find itself chasing users who are that much harder to catch.

Questions for Anita? E-mail her at hamilton@time.com