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March 21, 2002 Robin Hoods of the Net By Charles C. Mann

Vigilantes or heroes? These guys target spam, pop-up ads, copyrights, and other ‘evils’ of the net establishment. From Yahoo! Internet Life

The Robin Hood of legend stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Today’s online Robin Hoods are after something less tangible. Using methods that range from the infuriating to the borderline illegal, they seek to deprive governments and corporations of control, and to give that control back to anyone with a modem. Some of these people are well known: Napster inventor Shawn Fanning was on the cover of countless magazines after setting off an explosion of file-sharing that has yet to end. Eric Corley, publisher of hacker journal 2600, made the front page for publishing the code that lets people break the encryption on DVDs. Phil Zimmerman gained notoriety for creating the Pretty Good Privacy software that allows senders to encrypt their e-mail‹and he faced years of legal harassment after releasing it.

But other Robin Hoods of the Net are less celebrated. Some are entrepreneurs seeking to make their fortune by selling Net users the means to fend off concentrated economic and political power. Some are simply seeking to make information available to the public, even if corporations or governments would rather not have it available. Some openly break what they regard as unjust laws. And others‹well, in this confusing new wired world it’s sometimes hard to tell what side of the law they fall on. Here, Y-Life uncovers some of the Net’s most wanted.

The Code Breaker

Jerome Rota

Why are millions of people able to freely exchange music files over the Internet? One reason is that the European inventors of the MP3 format did not keep its specifications private‹its technical underpinnings are available to anyone. As a result, hackers around the world could construct their own rippers and players, setting off an explosion of activity in the music world that has not stopped. The film industry vowed it was not going to make the same mistake. Net-video formats such as Microsoft Windows Media Video (.wmv files) and Apple QuickTime (.mov files) are decidedly not open to the public. Meet Jérôme Rota, a young French hacker known as Gej, his online sobriquet. Cleverly gluing MP3 audio to a cracked version of Windows Media‹which was then coupled with DeCSS (the software that breaks the encryption on DVDs)‹Rota and a few others assembled rip-and-play software for movies that is now called DivX. (The name is a joking reference to the original DivX, a failed format from Circuit City that permitted consumers to play DVDs only for specified lengths of time.) The result: an instant underground of illicitly ripped DVDs‹and a major headache for Hollywood. To avoid a legal onslaught, Gej and his buddies rewrote DivX without any proprietary code and began an L.A. startup to convince the movie industry that it should live with the Net. To date, film moguls have not changed their minds. But DivX threatens their power to dictate solutions.

The Ad Blocker

Horst Joepen

With almost touching modesty, Webwasher describes itself as “a small contribution on the road toward a responsible information and communication society.” Based in the central German city of Paderborn, the company began as an in-house effort of industrial giant Siemens to increase its workers’ productivity by speeding up their Internet connections. Siemens decided to put Horst Joepen in charge of the project. He discovered that a major time-waster was having to wait to download online advertising‹banners, inserts, and pop-ups. Siemens’ ad-blocking software proved so popular that it spun off Webwasher [webwasher.com] as a separate company in 1999. Joepen and two colleagues were its first employees. Today the company has 65 employees and, Joepen says, is “cash positive.” More than 5 million Net users have downloaded its free software, the company says, and some 4,000 organizations have employed the pay version. “What company can afford to tie up this valuable resource [the Net] with megabytes of deadbeat data every time an employee clicks on a Web site?” asks Webwasher. “Whose Internet is it, anyway?” Good question.

The Tattletale

John Young

A Manhattan architect who traces his political leanings to the 1960s, John Young developed a Web site that has been an irritant to the powers that be since 1996. His modus operandi is simplicity itself: He obtains documents that could embarrass or annoy the powerful and he posts these documents, usually without comment, on Cryptome [cryptome.org]. “Our goal is to be the most disreputable publisher on the Net,” he says, “just after the world’s governments and other highly reputable bullshitters.” Cryptome’s principal themes are “freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, and intelligence.” Most Cryptome files come from public but easily overlooked sources such as the Federal Register or court filings. But some Cryptome postings come from more suspect places. Last October, for instance, someone anonymously e-mailed a program that evaded the copyright protection scheme in Windows Media. Because many activists believe that industry heavyweights such as Microsoft are trying to control what people watch and listen to on their computers, Young posted the software on Cryptome, from which it was downloaded thousands of times. The prospect of becoming the next Eric Corley‹who is now in federal court for posting the code for software that broke the copyright protection on DVDs‹didn’t make Young blink. “No word from Microsoft or DoJ [Department of Justice],” he e-mailed recently about the Windows Media crack. “Do you think MS would ask its archenemy to prosecute a violator, or the two gang up on us with a civil-criminal combo? We can only hope so.”

The Spam Buster

Paul Vixie

Can anyone stop spam? Paul Vixie, for one, thinks so. A computing pioneer who worked on some of the software underlying the Net, Vixie decided to keep track of the Internet servers from which spammers operate; then he compiled a list. Friends heard about it and asked to borrow it. Vixie‹quietly joined by his friend Dave Rand, another Net pioneer‹ended up founding @MAPS: Mail Abuse Prevention System [mail-abuse.org]. When computer networks become havens for spammers, victims can ask MAPS to add the miscreants to its Realtime Blackhole List, a tally of known spam sources. Vixie left MAPS last year for another company, and Rand became executive director. But MAPS hasn’t changed. It still makes no threats and issues no commands. Network administrators around the world simply use the Blackhole List as a guide, refusing to accept any e-mail from the networks on it until they clean up their act. (If your ISP doesn’t use the list, you can pay MAPS $50 a year to filter your existing e-mail account.) Spammers loathe MAPS, maintaining, for instance, that blocking unwanted messages about increasing penis size is an attack on their First Amendment rights. Not surprisingly, the small company has been sued five times in the last two years. MAPS vows to fight on. Sure, you probably still get a lot of spam, but here’s a thought: There would be even more of the stuff if Vixie and Rand weren’t on the case.

The Privatizer

Lance Cottrell

In the early days of the Internet, The New Yorker ran a now-famous cartoon of a dog at a keyboard, with the caption “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (which this magazine brought to life in March 1999 with a William Wegman cover). Wrong! Lance Cottrell realized that software tools such as cookies mean that not only can advertisers find out that you’re a dog, but they can also track the last 100 Web sites you stopped to sniff at. Cottrell had been concerned about privacy since the early 1990s, when he was an astrophysics graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. Cottrell agitated against a government proposal, eventually dropped, that would have allowed the FBI to eavesdrop on encrypted telephone and computer transmissions. By then he had become aware of the threat to privacy posed by digital technology. One of Cottrell’s first actions was to write Mixmaster, software that allows people to send e-mail anonymously, covering their tracks so thoroughly that even the National Security Agency is unlikely to be able to trace Mixmastered messages. It is now used by a floating group of “remailer operators,” privacy activists who believe that the right to speak anonymously is crucial to liberty. (Indeed, remailers have been essential to political dissidents from China, Kosovo, and elsewhere, but it is believed that terrorists also use them.) A self-described “hard-line privacy advocate,” Cottrell then went on to found Anonymizer.com, a company that provides software allowing people to surf the Web without leaving electronic tracks. Law enforcement is ambivalent about Anonymizer, Cottrell concedes, but there’s nothing illegal about his products. And it bears remembering that anonymity is not only for outlaws: A few days after September 11, Anonymizer created a special link to help people‹say, disaffected associates of al Qaeda‹send anonymous tips to the FBI.

The File-Sharer

Vincent Falco

As soon as Vincent Falco heard of Gnutella, he realized it was a technology that could at some point make the Internet uncontrollable. Gnutella is software that, in theory, allows individual computer users to hunt for and download files from one another without any supervision. It can’t be shut down, Falco says, because there’s no central facility, just hundreds of thousands of users individually connected throughout the infosphere. The first test version of Gnutella was released by two employees of an AOL subsidiary; AOL yanked the program off the Net that same day, but not before it had been downloaded thousands of times. Ever since, developers around the world‹including Falco‹have been devising newer, more robust versions of Gnutella. Falco’s brainchild, BearShare [bearshare.com], may be the latest but is surely not the last. “Ultimately,” Falco says, “these technologies will really be unstoppable. There will be battles and skirmishes, but it’s inevitable that we’ll see distributed systems that don’t have any accountability. For better or worse, the power really will be in the hands of the people.”

The Librarian

Brewster Kahle

This Robin Hood offers a model for all Robin Hoods‹a man who meant well, accidentally annoyed some powerful institutions, and ultimately worked out a solution that both pleased the annoyed and served the masses.

Brewster Kahle traffics in information. Working with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Science Foundation, and Compaq, Kahle’s Internet Archive [archive.org] records all publicly accessible Web pages, whether brilliant, incriminating, or utterly embarrassing. This feat is made possible thanks to automated software bots that have been dispatched on the Web; the bots download the pages, index them, and keep them on their servers. A preliminary version of the archive‹called the Wayback Machine, after Mr. Peabody’s invention in The Bullwinkle Show‹opened in October, giving the world free access to a storehouse of information that was already five times larger than the Library of Congress. Why does this make Kahle a Robin Hood? Because this digital Library of Alexandria may be the world’s largest copyright violation. As one Net-speech lawyer pointed out soon after it opened, “Every Web site that ever did a takedown in response to a copyright owner is now magically resurrected.”

Kahle counters, “Complaints happen, but given that people can put a robot exclusion on their site and thereby have their content removed from the Wayback Machine, the issue dissipates.” But does it vanish? Controversy over the Wayback Machine may endure way into the future.

The Global Swapper

Niklas Zennstrom

On July 26, 2000, a U.S. federal court issued the first injunction against Napster, creating headlines around the world. Two days later, a Swedish entrepreneur with a Net address on the South Pacific island of Niue announced the launch of a global file-swapping service based in Amsterdam. The entrepreneur’s name was Niklas Zennström; the service’s, Kazaa [kazaa.com]. Kazaa’s FastTrack software lets users download movies, images, and documents in addition to music. And because FastTrack, unlike Napster’s software, does not rely on a central index of files, it is less subject to supervision and shutdown. By last fall, Kazaa and its two sister services, Morpheus and Grokster, were exceeding Napster’s peak volume. In October the inevitable legal barrage from record labels, film studios, and music publishers commenced. This time, though, the circumstances were different. FastTrack’s use of encryption and lack of a central index means, according to Zennström, that‹unlike Napster‹Kazaa cannot observe or control the behavior of its users. Zennström struck back by suing his principal hometown adversary, the music-publishing organization Buma/Stemra, for its alleged failure to discuss licensing his operation. Just before press time, Kazaa was sold to Sharman Networks, and file-trading on Kazaa’s network continued. Citing the litigation, Zennström was not available for comment, although the continuing storm over file-sharing suggests that the copyright wars are far from over.

Charles C. Mann is a Y-Life contributing writer.

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