Interview with Niels Boeing, FT Deutschland

September 1, 2003

Niels Boeing: How far has the anonymous P2P development evolved? GNUnet seems to be some time away from public use, Blubster's Manolito P2P was repeatedly criticized for not being able to hide the IP address completely. So I'd just like to know what's feasible right now and what's not.

Rupert Scammell: Compared to other 'Net technologies, anonymous P2P nets are still very much in their infancy, although mainstream interest seems to be growing as some of the teething problems seen in the early anonymous network protocols and software get resolved. Specifically, problems with network reliability, scalability, performance, and finding information on the nets has kept the traditional user base of these systems fairly small.

It's been shown time and time again that given a choice between a system that provides anonymity and/or encryption, but sluggish performance, and a system that provides little or no privacy protection, but more information, and an easier search interface, people will sacrifice privacy and security in a heartbeat.

I think that one of the lessons learned early on when anonymous P2P nets began to be developed, was that performance decreased exponentially as additional layers of privacy and anonymity were implemented. Freenet is a classic example of this problem -- early versions of the software were nigh unusable , at least from the standpoint of being able to find information. It has been quite some time since I've tried the system, but I understand that many of the performance problems have been improved.

In the next few years, I predict that anonymous P2P nets will become as prevalent, if not more so, than their unencrypted counterparts, such as Gnutella, Limewire, and WinMX. Like any technology, migration from unencrypted nets to their encrypted/anonymized counterparts will be gradual. Encrypted links and stores will probably take a back seat to anonymity as the software and nets move into the mainstream. People want to share information with one another, but frequently would rather that the information not be traceable back to them.

Ironically, the people and (mostly media) organizations who have historically attempted to quash P2P technology development, are actually promoting it in a backhanded fashion, as draconian legal and technological actions encourage people to search for better methods of keeping information flowing. The transition in the late 1990's from the centralized sharing model of Napster, to decentralized P2P nets, is a salient example.


NB: What are the problems to be overcome?

RS: Getting people to transition from technology that they're comfortable with, even if it's inferior. Technology change is driven by necessity. Using the Napster example again, I doubt that we'd be seeing P2P nets that are even a fraction of their current size, had the earlier method of centralized sharing remained accessible. Also, people aren't willing to switch to a new system unless it's equal to the old system in terms of content, but there must be a substantial contingent of early adopters in order to produce the content base. So, that Catch 22 is also challenging.

NB: Do you expect the content industry and internet providers to block the use of anonymous P2P networks (at least future ones)?

RS: If their violent opposition to every major information sharing advance since the development of the player piano is any indication, then yes, definitely. However, I think that it'll be the content industry, rather than the ISPs and backbones, taking most of the actions to suppress the growth of the networks. Content on P2P nets plays a major part in selling broadband connections, home networking equipment, faster processors, larger drives, better video cards, and more memory. The recent spate of subpoenas by the RIAA against file sharers using Kazaa brought forth a counter-suit by SBC Communications (see http://siliconvalley.internet.com/news/article.php/224317). Despite receiving well-deserved plaudits on Slashdot.org and other technology news sites, it's clear that SBC's motive in filing such an action is financial rather than altruistic. SBC, and other large telecommunication companies such as Verizon, who's engaged in a similar action against the RIAA, know that broadband (and, indirectly, the P2P nets that sell connections) are increasingly responsible for a substantial portion of their revenue. Allowing the RIAA and MPAA carte-blanche to subpoena their customer base hurts their bottom line.

That being said, anonymous P2P nets aren't yet large enough to warrant the same attention as the much larger conventional P2P networks, at least yet. Expect the same attention to be lavished upon them in coming years, when their user bases and amount of content warrant it.
Rupert Scammell
Last modified: Sat Feb 5 12:24:19 PST 2005