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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Web Tool Decentralizes Power

WASHINGTON -- Two months ago, Justin Frankel created an ingenious little software tool that allows users to bypass the dominant Internet companies and communicate directly among themselves. His bosses at America Online Inc., the biggest computing network of them all, were so impressed they tried to snuff it out of existence.

Within 24 hours, AOL officials had removed the tool, called Gnutella, from the web site of its Nullsoft development house. It was, they declared, an "unauthorized freelance project."

But they were too late. About 10,000 people had already downloaded the program onto their own machines, creating bustling networks for the free exchange of everything from digital music files and pictures to political propaganda beyond the control of AOL, its merger partner Time Warner Inc. or anyone else.

Both the beauty and danger of Gnutella are that it is a more sophisticated version of Napster, the infamous and popular program that college students have been using to swap music files over the web. But unlike users of Napster, Gnutella aficionados can trade files without going through a storage center, making it impossible to shut down the system without unplugging every computer on the network and difficult to control by laws because there's no central authority.

Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape Communications and a former chief technology officer for AOL, compares Gnutella to a benevolent virus, a "revolutionary" program that spreads the power of publishing from an elite set of corporations to anyone who has a computer.

"It changes the Internet in a way that it hasn't changed since the browser," Andreessen said.

At a time when the general assumption is that the World Wide Web's destiny will be guided by international conglomerates such as AOL, Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., Gnutella is the unexpected variable.

Its very existence is a statement about the wild nature of the web and how difficult it will be for anyone to tame it. It is also a dramatic display of how easily the Internet can be transformed or at least shaken by smart computer programmers who are barely old enough to drink or drive.

Frankel, 21, and his good friend and software co-creator, Tom Pepper, another 20-something Nullsoft employee, have become virtual cult heroes. Their work is being refined daily by hundreds of young volunteer programmers around the world who hope to extend Gnutella's reach, making it a free search engine for the masses. The decentralization of power that Gnutella represents has revived the romantic dream of many a cyberspace pioneer - that of a truly free realm where no information gatekeeper exists and where all property is commonly owned. But those who hope to profit handsomely from the Internet's transformation into a global marketplace - record companies, book publishers, movie makers and practically everyone else with a stake in selling information - regard Gnutella as a device for thievery.

It was, after all, Gerald Levin, chief executive of Time Warner Inc., which owns the Warner Music label, who called on his AOL counterpart, Steve Case, to quash the Gnutella project.

Carey Heckman, a professor of law and technology at Stanford University, said the software could undermine the foundation of many multibillion-dollar corporations.

"It's about how information flows and who controls it," Heckman said. "The idea of a handful of institutions filtering [content] may be decaying."

The name Gnutella comes from a combination of Gnu, the popular site of free Unix software, and Nutella, the chocolate spread that Frankel is said to favor. It is the most advanced of a new generation of what are known as "distributed network'' programs with names like Freenet and iMesh.

Programs such as Freenet and Gnutella conform to the original vision of the Internet's architects, who imagined it to be a completely decentralized system. But then corporations came along and set up central information storehouses called "servers.''

Any computer running Gnutella, however, can search all the others running the program and retrieve the information that's publicly available. The data still flows over the Internet, but the distributed network theoretically reduces the need for vast content repositories such as AOL.