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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Darknets: The invitation-only Internet

When the music-recording industry took a hard-line legal stance against file sharers, it alienated its customer base and hurt its own sales. A similar battle is brewing in the movie industry, as faster Internet speeds and video compression are making it easier to download entire movies over the Net for free. Rapid-fire advances in technology have transformed home entertainment. Not only can we store hours of television programming and music on hard drives, software has made it easy to create our own movies and songs, splicing and sampling professional-grade material into amateur productions. Entertainment conglomerates are understandably concerned. But, Hollywood studios, which are treating ordinary users like thieves, placing such shackles on digital media that we can't legally make a backup copy of a DVD we own and soon restricting the copying and sharing of high-definition TV. Contrast this with the freedoms that computers give us to remix, copy, and paste video and to author DVDs, and you have a scenario where ordinary producers of creative art become felons. as companies continue to try and take down peer to peer networks, so called 'darknets' will emerge to take their place. A darknet generally refers to a system running on the Internet which cannot be accessed or even easilly detected by most users. They work on an invitation only basis and unless you have access you won't get in. This is more how the Internet operated way back in the days of BBS. One would connect to a server but wouldn't be able to see its contents without registering, and registering wasn't simply a case of filling in a form - many bulletin boards would require their owner to personally permit your access. The general idea of networks operating 'below the radar' isn't at all far-fetched. The Internet carries a lot more traffic than people seem to assume. A good example of a network with access control is an instant messenger: while a system like MSN messenger is public access, only those who you allow may see and communicate with you. Those record distributers desperately trying (and failing) to stop file sharing fail to take into account the reality that there is almost nothing they can do to stop someone sharing music and movies among their friends. This kind of transaction is done in a completely closed environment. A more sophisticated way to distribute files, and one which was once quite popular, is FTP. Here a person might set up an FTP server on their computer and put music, videos and illegal software on there. Then they would only let their friends access the server, or people who they have met online and have decided to trust. The nature of the Internet is such that it cannot be controlled. An old saying says that: "the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it". This is true of attempts to control what can and cannot be distributed. And even if companies tried to impose limits by making deals with major software vendors like Microsoft to control what people can do with their files, they will not be able to control the Linux world. It is possible to go further than FTP. It is possible to create a network of machines behind firewalls which are configured to only respond to a pre-set list of other trusted IPs. In this scenario you would not be able to even ping an IP which belonged to such a network unless you also belonged to it. Of course ISPs might be able to detect the traffic and cut people off, but encryption goes a long way to solving that problem. However the problem is that big companies don't care if a few thousand geeks have the know-how to build an impenetrable network for sharing files, as this won't impact their profits anywhere near as much as if the majority of people are doing it. I implied in the title that I'd be prophesizing their failure, and I am in a way, but the way things look it seems that major peer to peer networks will be driven out of existence soon enough and replaced with much smaller underground networks. The so called 'darknets' are on their way...

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