[Salon] The Gnutella Paradox.

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From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Thu Sep 28 2000 - 22:12:46 PDT

Gnutella is flawed beyond belief: it has no community. No paradox
there. The thing that makes Napster, ICQ, and other p2p programs fun to
use are their communities. Gnutella has no community, just a bunch of
people hoping to download files from each other that contain what their
filenames actually say they contain. There's no instant messaging, no
presence, no socializing, and no incentive to share with others. "Free
riding also means that Gnutella won't scale" -- that says it all. If you
want to be Internet-Scale, you need more than decentralization.

[Peeve: they still refer to Gnutella as open source, which it wasn't.]

I do like the fact that Justin Frankel, Ian Clarke, Gene Kan, Rob Lord,
Shaun Sidwall, Sebastian Lambla, and Shawn Fanning are all in the 18-to-25
age demographic. Viva la revolucion, let the script kiddies take us to the
next level... "nihilist media terrorists", indeed. Hey Rohit, you're still
25, right? And Kragen's 23.... :)


The Gnutella paradox
As soon as an online music-trading service gets big enough to be useful,
it's doomed.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Janelle Brown
Sep. 29, 2000 |

"There's always Gnutella."

If you care about music on the Net, you've probably been hearing this
refrain a lot lately, repeated by MP3 traders, geek programmers and digital
music industry types alike. On Monday in a courtroom in San Francisco, a
judge will decide whether to uphold a preliminary injunction against
Napster, potentially shutting down the music trading service -- but as a
fallback, there's always Gnutella. Frightened by legal threats from the
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Scour may have laid off
its staff and put its future in jeopardy -- but there's always Gnutella.
And sure, the arcane file sharing software Freenet might not be ready for
your average consumer yet -- but, of course, there's always Gnutella.

Is there, though?

Next week, Napster goes back to court to find out whether the service will
be shut down for the duration of its trial. The Net is holding its breath
in anticipation of the answer. If Napster is taken out, more than 30
million MP3 fans will surely flood the Net looking for a new home; Gnutella
will probably be the first program many of those people download. Gnutella
is not only already being heralded as the next Napster, but it's also
considered by its most avid fans to be a better Napster: an open-source
software program that is decentralized and anonymous, harder to sue than
Napster and versatile enough to support all kinds of files.

Gene Kan, 25, Gnutella's lead evangelist and the man behind the Gnutella
portal at gnutella.wego.com, believes that the software is prepared for
widespread use, even if he admits that it currently is still flawed. "It
was really clear to us from the outset that Gnutella software had a long
way to go," Kan says, but he believes that most of the program's biggest
problems have been solved: "Gnutella isn't perfect, but there's no huge,
glaring thing missing." And, he says, "Gnutella is very popular; it's
already very successful."

But according to critics, Gnutella is hardly ready for prime time -- and is
facing dilemmas almost as worrisome as the Napster lawsuit. Over the last
month, users of the system have noticed a dramatic slowdown in
responsiveness, and a number of reports have revealed serious instabilities
in the Gnutella network. The open-source software developers who nabbed the
program after America Online forced its programmers to abandon it are still
striving to learn how to work together. And Gnutella's legal status is also
murky: The RIAA is already hinting that it may be preparing a strategy to
attack Gnutella.

Defenders of the Net love to believe that "The Man" will never be able to
shut down their decentralized, "peer to peer" (P2P) way of life. Their
faith is not unreasonable. File-sharing programs (not to mention chat,
e-mail and other means of shooting packets of information back and forth
across cyberspace) are built into the fundamental structure of the Net, and
will never be entirely eradicated. But it's also quite true that corporate
America can still make things very difficult for would-be challengers.

Consider this: File-sharing systems work best when they reach critical mass
-- only once they have a significant number of users is it likely that
someone out there will have the file you want. That's why Napster has
continued to grow; with 30 million users the odds are in your favor that
one or two of them will have what you need. But as soon as a file-sharing
system has critical mass, it's big enough and threatening enough to become
the copyright protectorate's next legal target; and those file-trading
masses are also going to strain the network to its capacity and beyond.
That's the Gnutella paradox. The attainment of widespread popularity may in
fact signal a file trading software program's imminent demise.

If the decentralized Gnutella can't handle the legal and technical threats
that come from mass usage, what system can? Or are music traders doomed to
confront a future in which each new "next Napster" is progressively
undermined by its own success?

It's June 1999. The programming community is shocked. Justin Frankel, the
talented young programmer who helped create the Winamp and Shoutcast MP3
players, had sold his company Nullsoft to America Online. For at least a
year, Winamp had been the most popular software program in the MP3
underground, one of the first tools that made it really easy to listen to
music nabbed off the Net. Frankel was an icon for script kiddies
everywhere, and had a history of doing whatever he felt like doing -- but
selling out to AOL? Even though the price tag was rumored to be $100
million (and Nullsoft was also seeking relief from a troubling lawsuit that
alleged that Winamp stole its code), many found this hard to swallow; even
more suspected that AOL might not know exactly what it had gotten itself into.

For nine months, Frankel and his team worked in silence behind the
corporate wall of AOL, in the company's San Francisco music headquarters.
And then, one day in mid-March, the statement: a little program called
Gnutella, hidden on a back page of Nullsoft's Web site. It was an early
"alpha" version of what was to be an open-source (the code would be freely
available to all) file-sharing system, like the increasingly controversial
Napster program, but lacking the vulnerabilities -- centralized servers,
lack of anonymity -- that made Napster so easy to attack.

What was Frankel thinking? AOL was in the process of merging with Time
Warner, which in turn owns the EMI and Warner Music record labels. And EMI
and Warner Music, as two of the five biggest members of the RIAA, are not
fond of programs that allow users to pirate MP3 files. The program appeared
on the Nullsoft Web site for just a few hours before AOL yanked the page
down, issuing a terse statement declaring that "the Gnutella software was
an unauthorized freelance project." Was Frankel trying to peeve his new
corporate owners?

Nullsoft engineers had been watching the controversy surrounding Napster,
and threw together Gnutella in the space of a few days as a way to prove
that a decentralized system could out-geek the law. Their goal was less to
annoy their new owners than to figure out how to improve upon Napster. As
one person close to the Nullsoft staff explains, "They have 'fuck you
money,' they can do whatever the hell they want and AOL can't take back
what they gave them. I don't think that Gnutella was just done to [thumb
their noses] -- AOL is insignificant. It was just the most interesting
thing you could possibly be doing, AOL or no AOL."

AOL's punishment for its rogue programmers was minor: The company publicly
disassociated itself from Gnutella, forbade Frankel to work on the program
and hoped the embarrassment would end there. (Although Frankel, six months
later, unleashed a second surprise for AOL: a little program called
AIMazing, which helps eradicate ads from AOL's instant messaging program
... but that's another story.)

AOL's actions did not mean, of course, the end of Gnutella. Avid developers
were savvy enough to download Gnutella before it disappeared, and before
long they had reverse-engineered the program and distributed the protocols;
in a matter of weeks, the Web was peppered with sites offering both the
original Gnutella program and a number of clones. Six months later, more
than two dozen versions of the software have been released by assorted

The initial Gnutella software was hard to use: It had a confusing
interface, and to connect to the network users had to scramble to find the
Internet address of another Gnutella host (not always an easy task). But
new versions such as Gnotella incorporated friendly Napster-like
interfaces, let users design their own skins and smoothed out some basic
networking issues. Shaun Sidwall, the Canadian programmer behind Gnotella,
plans to incorporate a built-in host in the next version of his software,
so that newbies can automatically connect to the network.
Dozens of programmers were thrilled to get a chance to tinker with
Gnutella. But any technology needs its figurehead, and with Frankel hidden
away in the back rooms of AOL, Gnutella needed a new spokesperson. It found
one in Kan.

Gnutella -- and, for that matter, the entire P2P movement -- couldn't ask
for a better representative. Like Frankel, gonesilent.com founder Kan is a
quiet and youthful programmer with a love for technology. Unlike Frankel,
however, he's a master at industry diplomacy. He's young and soft-spoken
and chooses his words as carefully as a law professor, excising any "ums"
or "likes." He sits stiffly, with his hands in his lap, and other than his
collection of zippy cars (including an RX7 and a BMW) is utterly lacking in

Kan has done an excellent job as an evangelist: He's appeared in the pages
of the New York Times debating industry heavyweights like RIAA president
Hilary Rosen and antitrust attorney David Boies. He's flown to Washington
to discuss policy with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and earlier this month
attended a P2P summit organized by computer book publisher Tim O'Reilly.
Thanks to all the free publicity, Gnutella's traffic has steadily grown: A
recent study measured 35,000 users in a 24-hour period. Much of this growth
came during the days after the RIAA won a preliminary injunction against
Napster, as fans rushed to find a new program to use. (An appeals court
later stayed the injunction until next week's hearings.) Kan estimates that
roughly a million copies of the program were downloaded from his site that
day. Today, on an average day, tens of thousands of users use Gnutella to
exchange MP3 files, plus porn, pirated software "warez," illegal movies and
other digital detritus, both pirated and legitimate.

But all the traffic has put a strain on Gnutella, and the program's
weaknesses are starting to show. Kan, ever the upbeat evangelist for the
technology, cheerfully admits that Gnutella has had its faults; but he also
believes that Gnutella is ready for widespread use. "At first you focus on
building the car, and once the car is built then you focus on refining the
car," he enthuses. "We knew the refining was around the corner and it just
takes some time. We wanted to accelerate the best we could by coordinating
developer efforts and encouraging them to raise the bar on usability. And
it happened."

Kan's optimism, however, is not matched by researchers who have released
critical reports in the last month. A recent study by Eytan Adar and
Bernardo Huberman of Xerox PARC examined the traffic on Gnutella and
discovered that there were an awful lot of "free riders," users who were
happy to download files but weren't willing to share their own. In fact, 70
percent of all Gnutella users don't share files, and of the 30 percent who
do, the top 1 percent share 40 percent of all files. During a 24-hour
period, Adar and Huberman observed 31,395 hosts -- but of that group, 314
hosts were serving the majority of the files.

It's the tragedy of the commons, writ for the digital age: Shared resources
are being gobbled by users who get more than they give.

"There's very little reward for you sharing your files, and there's a high
cost," explains Adar. "You're anonymous so you can't get credited for doing
what you're doing -- no one says 'good job' for doing this. And it's a high
cost, because [due to bandwidth limitations] even if you're on a DSL
connection you can't do other things that you want to do. People realize
that they come out on the negative side and don't want to share files."

The most obvious drawback of free riding is that if only a tiny percentage
of users are sharing, it will be harder to find the files you want. Kan
shrugs: "The providers of goods are always fewer than the consumers of
goods; even if the study were true it's not such a terrible thing. Even if
all the Starbucks closed, you'd still find a morning cup of coffee. Even if
those people who share files are shut down, others would take their place.
Gnutella didn't get here because nobody shared."

But free riding is more problematic than Kan will admit. Free riding also
means that Gnutella won't scale: Each search query plugged into Gnutella
has a certain "time to live," and will expire after it has queried a
certain number of hosts. If the network continues to grow, and no one is
providing any files, your query will hit its expiration date before it
arrives at a useful host. The legal implications are also worrisome;
although it's widely believed that the decentralized nature of Gnutella
will make prosecuting users impossible, it's much easier to target
scapegoats if only a few hundred hosts are actively dispensing files.

Adar hasn't written off Gnutella. He believes a more successful and
scalable system is possible, but would require trade-offs such as decreased
privacy and a few centralized network machines. Future versions of Gnutella
could also include a system "default" that forces all users to share, much
like Napster. Otherwise, Adar believes, Gnutella won't be able to hold up
under the strain if it is flooded by Napster-like traffic.

Earlier this month, researchers from Clip2 Distributed Search Services
published a report documenting another major flaw. According to the report,
the Gnutella network is only as strong as the bandwidth of its weakest
users -- too many people using 56K modems are being required to channel
traffic, causing the entire system to slow to a crawl. The report pegs the
"scalability barrier" at 10 queries per second; any more, and the network
will break down.

It's not surprising that Gnutella has deep problems in its infrastructure
-- after all, it was "barely in alpha" when released by Frankel. In fact,
Frankel's own release notes reveal that Gnutella was designed for use by
roughly only 350 "nodes" (or hosts); in a widely distributed e-mail
attachment he posited that Gnutella wouldn't be scalable past 5,000 users.
It's incredible that the software has survived the wear and tear of
hundreds of thousands of users to this point. But it's also looking
increasingly doubtful that it will be able to handle much more traffic; the
system is already slowing to a crawl, and Gnutella's more devoted
developers are worried about what is to come.

Eighteen-year-old Gnutella developer Sebastian Lambla of Paris is
concerned. "Gnutella is not really adapted to a large number of hosts, and
is not at all adapted [to] a context with spammers and flooders on the
network," worries Lambla. "Free riders and slow links are two of the
biggest problems of the current protocol."

Lambla has some suggestions for improving Gnutella, and he and other
developers are attempting to act upon them. But because Gnutella is not
owned by any single entity, the process is moving slowly -- especially
compared to the increasing speed with which the recording industry is
finally beginning to respond to threats.

Gnutella's developers are not a cohesive group. They are scattered all
across the globe, and range from teenage hackers to experienced
programmers. But some are trying to form virtual networks to work on
next-generation protocols and software development. Still, many programmers
are prickly about letting anyone "take over" Gnutella; and when
enterprising developers have attempted to spearhead the development of the
client and protocol the community's reaction has been decidedly mixed.

"The general agreement is that the future designs should be by committee;
there should be agreement. It doesn't help to have the babble that's
initiated by independent development; it doesn't help anyone to have a
whole bunch of separate systems that don't communicate with each other,"
Kan says. "It's a challenge, however, to coordinate the efforts of
everybody; particularly because there are very, very few commercial
enterprises that are devoted to Gnutella, and so it's impossible to get
everyone into the same room so that they can have interaction."

As a result, there are initiatives such as gPulp -- spearheaded by Lambla
-- which hopes to draw up next-generation protocols for Gnutella that will
expand the system's distributed search system beyond simple file-sharing
capabilities. But the gPulp group, in turn, is competing with Intel's P2P
Working Group, which is also trying to develop standard protocols that will
work for all P2P software products. And then there's the Gnutelladev
Working Group, set up to provide services for developers who want to create
their own clients.

"It's difficult to make any arrangement to get together," says Shaun
Sidwall, the Canadian programmer who assembled the Gnotella client.
"There's definitely some competitiveness, though; everyone would like to
have the best clone out there, or the No. 1 client. Everyone likes to be
No. 1, of course."

This is not unfamiliar territory -- the open-source community has been
successfully tackling the issue of cooperation for years, and Linux and the
Apache Web server are both excellent examples of how virtual programmers
can work together toward a common end. Gnutella may well fix its technical
problems in the coming months; but if Napster is shut down next week, such
help won't have come fast enough.

Even if all the technical problems were fixed immediately, however, that
still wouldn't put Gnutella in the clear. The enthusiastic response that
first greeted Gnutella had as much to do with its seeming immunity from
legal repercussions as it did to its technical, open-source backend.
Gnutella's more high-profile developers would seem to be the most
vulnerable to lawsuits, but even they feel relatively safe from the record

Kan, for example, believes that he's safe from any blame for
Gnutella-facilitated piracy: "Insofar as my role with Gnutella is
concerned, I would question what benefit there would be in coming after
someone like me," he says. "First off, there are many like me. And
secondly, what would they get? There would be little potential for
recovering any financial damage, there is absolutely zero potential of
shutting down Gnutella and in any case Gnutella is nothing but a
communications protocol. It'd be like suing English."

Or, as Sidwall believes, "The RIAA would have taken action by now, I bet,
if they were going to."

Gnutella fans may be lowering their guard a bit too soon. The RIAA has made
it clear that it does have its eye on Gnutella. Cary Sherman, general
counsel of the RIAA, explains that "Gnutella is certainly one of the issues
on our radar screen." Sherman says that he is already thinking about ways
that Gnutella could be legally threatened, if necessary. As he observes,
"Gnutella is the name of a program that is a P2P network; to the extent
that there's no central source running it like Napster, it's true that an
injunction can't bring it down. But there are also people disseminating the
program, and people who are using it to disseminate materials. There could
be legal strategies to address that." He also observes that the free-riders
research done by Adar and Huberman proved just how few hosts there really
were: "There's an enforcement strategy there if we wanted to pursue it," he
says. "We'll monitor the situation and proceed accordingly."

The RIAA may try to make an example of Kan, Sidwall or any of a multitude
of Gnutella users or developers, even if they can't shut the P2P protocol
down. And if enough users are scared off, Gnutella will lose the critical
mass it needs to be successful. Those who are left could potentially
splinter Gnutella into dozens or even hundreds of secret sub-networks in
order to evade legal scrutiny -- creating smaller groups of hosts linked
together, perhaps around specific interests, rather than the one
mega-network that currently exists -- but this would basically turn
Gnutella into an insiders-only club: hardly the kind of mass phenomenon
that would be a threat, or useful, to anybody.

The RIAA could also, conceivably, sue AOL, since AOL programmers originally
created the program. But odds are that they won't. Time Warner's EMI and
Warner Music are heavyweight members of the RIAA so AOL's ties to the RIAA
are close, to say the least. Indeed, had Gnutella been created by anyone
but AOL, many observers think that the RIAA already would be serving up
legal papers.

The RIAA's Sherman scoffs at the notion that AOL is being given an easy
ride by the record industry. "That's absolutely not the case," he says. But
others plan to take AOL to task for its role in the creation of Gnutella.
MP3Board.com, a Santa Cruz, Calif., start-up that offers several Web
interfaces for finding MP3s -- including Gnutella -- is currently being
sued by the RIAA. In a third-party complaint filed in early September,
MP3Board struck back at AOL, claiming that if MP3Board is found guilty of
copyright infringement by the RIAA, then AOL should also be found guilty
since it produced Gnutella in the first place.

MP3Board's lawyer Ira Rothken argues: "AOL owns the intellectual property
[of Gnutella], they own the copyright, they put it up on the Web site, they
should have known it didn't have safeguards in place for Digital Millennium
Copyright Act compliance. They had the right, given the fact that they own
the copyright to the code, to go out and get a restraining order against
people who did use it. And they didn't." So if MP3Board goes down, he
thinks it's only fair that AOL goes down too -- if, that is, MP3Board can
afford to battle the monolith of AOL in court.

In any case, Gnutella's fate is undeniably tied to that of Napster. If
Napster wins its fight against the preliminary injunction next week,
Gnutella developers will be able to breathe easy for a while; as long as
Napster is still around, Gnutella developers should be able to work on
fixing the software's problems without an onslaught of MP3 trader traffic.
But if Napster loses to the RIAA, it will be an entirely different story.

Gnutella and Scour Exchange are the only two file-sharing applications that
have even a tiny amount of the critical mass required to make the systems
work smoothly. But Scour Exchange is owned by a corporate entity and is
already facing a lawsuit from the RIAA; if Napster is closed then Scour
will probably face the same future. Gnutella, if it survives the onslaught
of millions of new users and grows into the biggest MP3 trading community,
would be the RIAA's next target -- and this time, the RIAA would have a
legal precedent in its pocket that declares that technologies that let
users infringe on copyrights are illegal.

Yes, there will always be another P2P file exchange program -- CuteMX,
Napigator, OpenNap, MojoNation and Freenet are some lesser-known programs
that would happily step into Gnutella's place -- but if Gnutella, which has
some of the best open-source programmers on the Net behind it, can't
survive the technical or legal challenges of critical mass, how will the
other programs be any better prepared?

At least that's how it looks right now. But perhaps Gnutella's problems
will be fixed, and future versions will be both technically sound and truly
anonymous, making it impossible to figure out who's doing what where. It's
worth remembering that Gnutella is as much an ideology as it is a software
program. There's a great deal of emotion invested in Gnutella, and in the
long run that passion may well prevail. The subtext of the chant that
"there's always Gnutella" is a giant middle finger waved in the face of a
music industry that is perceived as greedy and exploitive.

As Justin Frankel himself put it in June, "Nullsoft is and was about all
these good things that ultimately don't matter to most businesses. The
people, the environment, the blatant disregard for conventional thinking.
We did shit because it was cool, and because it was what we wanted to do."
Or, as Rob Lord, one of the original Nullsoft employees, is quoted on the
Nullsoft home page: "We didn't get into this 'space' cuz we're Internet
gold-seeking cockos. We're legitimate nihilistic media terrorists, as
history will no doubt canonize us."

Justin Frankel, the patron saint of P2P? Let the church of Gnutella endure
forever. Amen.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
About the writer
Janelle Brown is a senior writer for Salon Technology.


I woke up this morning, then I went back to bed. -- "Weird Al" Yankovic, "Generic Blues"

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