Each time the music, business software and motion picture industries develop new technical and legal weapons to combat Internet piracy, cyberbuccaneers attack on a new front. And Ian Clarke, a 23-year-old Irish programmer, is mounting what is likely to be the most challenging battle to date.
Clarke is the creator of Freenet, a computer system which allows anything that can be digitalized — from political tracts to pirated music videos to child pornography — to be traded anonymously on the Internet. "Anarchy means without a ruler and that sums up the architecture of Freenet," says Clarke. "It does not have any kind of centralized control. In fact, it is designed in such a way that it is impossible to control."
He started developing the system in 1998 as part of his course work for a degree in artificial intelligence and computer science at the University of Edinburgh. (He got a B for the Freenet project.) From an ease-of-use angle, Freenet (freenet.sourceforge.net) still has a long way to go. It requires an always-on, high-speed Internet connection and does not yet include a search engine. PCs hooked up to Freenet become "nodes," meaning they are host to ever-changing data files. Today its users number only 35,000, but within two years once more people have broadband connections, Clarke says he expects Freenet to become mainstream.
While it will allow anonymity and free speech on the Internet to flourish, Freenet will also pose a serious threat to intellectual property rights — and the firms that profit from them like book publishers and record companies. "It would be nice if the system were used only for wholesome purposes such as allowing people in China to access political information they might not otherwise get," says the boyish-looking Clarke. "But I know it will also be used for other purposes such as distributing music without paying for it. You have to take the bad with the good."
Freenet does not require users to sign on or identify themselves, and its decentralized setup means there is no person, computer or organization in control of the system or even central to its operation. That means Freenet cannot be attacked in court in the same way that the music industry is now going after Napster, a centralized file-sharing system that lets people download free music. And while Gnutella, a competing open source distributed computing system, makes no effort to protect users' identities, Freenet's approach will be more difficult to combat technically and legally.
"The problem [with going after Freenet] is there is no there there," says Bob Kruger, Washington D.C.-based vice president of enforcement at the Business Software Alliance, which represents leading software developers such as Microsoft and Apple. "We have to think long and hard about who would be the target for any type of enforcement action. It's like a wheel — when you can't attack the hub then you are forced to go after the tops of the spokes and here we may be talking about lots of people."
Freenet is not the only threat to content providers. New online services that help people to circumvent the law are cropping up regularly. In response, some lawmakers are proposing that governments take drastic measures. For example, a bill pending in the U.K. would give the government the right to monitor all online activities. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill is said to be aimed at criminals but opponents say it would lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy. A final reading and vote is expected in the House of Lords in July.
Content providers say they do not want to rob people of their privacy. "We are working to ensure that governments worldwide adopt a balanced approach to the issue of anonymity on the Internet, one that guarantees basic rights, but we believe that details of identity must be available to law enforcement authorities and to rights holders under appropriate legal safeguards," says Dara MacGreevy, regional director for antipiracy at the Motion Picture Association in Brussels.
Internet experts say it will be very difficult to track the identity of Freenet users. Requests are passed through numerous computers. Each knows about the computer that came before and the computer that comes after but not who made the original request or the final destination of the data. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to track who is doing what. Still, content providers are not giving up. The Business Software Alliance and ifpi, a London-based organization representing the international recording industry, are separately looking at ways of taking legal action against users of distributed systems like Gnutella and Freenet. "There is a difference between browsing and running an infringing server," says Paul Jessop, ifpi's technical chief. "People belonging to systems like Gnutella, in which they illegally post files to other users, are opening themselves to legal action."
Physical recordings — like the millions of CDs produced illegally in southern China each year — still account for the vast bulk of the $4.1 billion global trade in bootlegged music, but online piracy is a growing threat. Last year ifpi found pirated music files on servers in 50 countries.
Clarke says the music industry better get used to online piracy and develop new business models. In the world according to Clarke, artists may have to ask people to pay them what they think the music is worth — sort of like virtual buskers performing along the on-ramps to the information super- highway. Or perhaps musicians will only be able to cut an album after online fans raise a certain amount of money. Clarke doesn't see much of a role for music middlemen like recording giants Warner Music and EMI. "They ask how are we going to maintain profit margins, and I just say, ÔWell, you are not, and you probably don't deserve to because your profit margins have been ludicrous,'" says the Web anarchist. Content providers disagree of course. As far as they are concerned, Clarke is making the battle more difficult but the war is not over yet.