Peer-to-peer networking is back

Wait long enough and everything comes back into fashion. With the return of bell-bottoms and platform shoes, are we really surprised to see peer-to-peer networking making a comeback?

Wait long enough and everything comes back into fashion. With the return of bell-bottoms and platform shoes, are we really surprised to see peer-to-peer networking making a comeback?

Peer-to-peer technology isn't new, but how it's applied is. Peer-to-peer is poised to shake up everything from search engines to free speech.

The frenzy over p-to-p can be credited to Napster, but current peer-to-peer mania is more than swapping music. Apps such as Napster, Gnutella (the open-source analog to Napster), and the fascinating Freenet are leading the way toward a new Internet -- ironically, one that's truer to the Net's original design.

These p-to-p apps promise to change everything with their emphasis on communal sharing of computer resources, without the baggage of centralised authority.

Using Gnutella, Gene Kan, Yaroslav Faybishenko, and Cody Oliver developed a proof-of-technology search engine called Infrasearch and recently took on the moniker "Gonesilent" as they put together a business.

Angel investors such as Marc Andreessen are dropping bags of cash on start-ups such as Gonesilent, hoping to build a better search engine with p-to-p technologies.

Instead of a central database that crawls Web sites, Infrasearch uses p-to-p technology to essentially get a site to crawl itself. Participants share information about themselves with other computer users in the network.

Next, imagine an auction system that requires no central Web site, its users connecting directly to each other. The potential exists for auctions without centralized authority -- something unfriendly to eBay Inc.'s profit and loss statement, unless they develop it first.

As the government starts sniffing around digital exchanges, it's ironic that the potential also exists for a self-organising exchange, one devoid of any hosting company. With digital exchanges, the possibility exists for the company hosting the exchange to abuse the system to its own advantage, hence the Federal Trade Commission's interest.

But consider the business-to-business equivalent of Infrasearch. Solve some sticky security, scalability, and latency problems and anyone who wants to participate in an exchange downloads the client in the same way someone installs Napster and starts swapping MP3s.

Finally, taking the p-to-p phenomenon to its extreme, consider Freenet from developer Ian Clarke. Although in its infancy, Freenet is either an absolute right to free expression or the online equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

When a Freenet participant puts something on the Freenet network, the file is encrypted and moved around the system. The digital data ends up on someone's disk, but nobody knows whose specific disk it lands on and nobody knows who posted the information.

In other words, Freenet allows near-perfect anonymity. Good luck to Metallica and RIAA on their lawsuits -- there's no way of knowing who posted a pirate copy or what computer it's on, and there's no way to remove it.

This also applies to copies of Stephen King's Riding the Bullet, your medical records, child pornography, libelous screeds, pirated copies of The Matrix, tobacco industry e-mail messages,and naked pictures of Dr. Laura. Once something enters the Freenet system, it's out there for the world to see -- pretty much forever.

Peer-to-peer is not without problems. Users tacitly agree to open their computer and bandwidth to the community. It lacks scalability. And as a peer community, the systems are only as good as the trustworthiness of participants.

Trojan horses and viruses are a significant threat, but perhaps not any worse a threat than those posed by faulty e-mail applications. Finally, consider the possibility of outright deception, such as someone labelling a Pat Boone MP3 as the latest hit from Britney Spears. (Your age will determine what you find horrifying in that situation.)

The return of bell-bottoms portends nothing more sinister than badly dressed teenagers, but the comeback of p-to-p heralds a round of struggles over disintermediation, intellectual property, and free speech. Time to get ready for the next big shakeup.

Sean Dugan is senior research editor at InfoWorld.

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