Information just wants to be Freenet

Rob Kramer and Ian Clarke's new venture, Uprizer, wants to be the Red Hat of peer-to-peer networks. What's behind their wall of secrecy?

Published August 28, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

About a year ago, Rob Kramer read about Freenet and wanted to get involved. The recording industry hadn't yet sued Napster, "peer-to-peer" was still not a buzzword and Ian Clarke, the creator of this Napster-like network called Freenet, was still an unknown Irish programmer. But Kramer -- who had only recently sold his stake in Moving Pixels, an animation company -- saw value in Freenet's decentralized file-sharing network, and contacted Clarke just days after finding the Freenet Web site.

Now the fruits of that correspondence can be seen. Or rather, they can almost be seen. Uprizer, the company that Kramer and Clarke have formed, remains mysterious. There is no Web site, and when I talked to Kramer, who is the CEO, he refused to say when the Los Angeles company would release its first product. He also refused to talk about funding except to say, "We have some." Even the number of employees remains a secret.

Is Uprizer trying to be the Transmeta of P2P? Kramer, 40, says that he is reticent to talk because the details are still being worked out. "Ian [Clarke] is only now on his way here to California," he says.

Still, some things at Uprizer are set in place -- like what the company is not, and what peer-to-peer will eventually be. Kramer was more than happy to discuss these subjects.

What exactly is Uprizer?

Uprizer is a technology infrastructure company, which will leverage the Freenet platform.

Leverage it into what areas?

I can't tell you that.

Well, are you taking the same tack as, making deals with the record and movie industry?

That's always been Scour's main focus, but let's just say a majority of our business model is not focused on content distribution. We are not the next Napster. Everyone thinks that Ian is starting this company for file-sharing; that because Ian is a stalwart for the freedom of information, that's all he wants to focus on. We applaud him in that, but that's not what Uprizer's all about. Uprizer is about leveraging a technology that has powerful functions.

And there is a wireless play involved.


I can't tell you about that either.

Well then maybe you can tell me why you think the record labels won't come after you just like they've gone after and

We're not a consumer play. Freenet is Freenet. We won't control and can't control Freenet -- even if you put a gun to Ian's head, as he's said. Freenet is out and it will do what it does the same way that people will use videotape for legal or illegal purposes. We are not the next Napster, therefore we are not trying to aid and abet a Napster-like environment. We will support content consumer plays but we will support them as a technology infrastructure company.

So you're hoping to let the consumer plays take the fall or at least test the waters ...

We have no intention of breaking laws. We have no desire to do that. We're not 19-year-olds; that is not our mission in life. Our mission is to efficiently flow information through Internet, intranet, extranet and closed-network environments.

Technology infrastructure is a broad term, though. Are you focusing solely on selling to businesses, like Digital Island?

Uprizer is focused on both enterprise software and consumer applications; it's both for business and the consumer. But I just want to reiterate that Freenet is Freenet and Uprizer is Uprizer; Uprizer is not the next Napster. Scour wants to be the next Napster; AppleSoup wants to be the next Napster. That's not our goal in any way, shape or form. We have a much different business plan.

We believe this could be an alternative, better, synergistic Akamai [which minimizes Web congestion to sites like Yahoo and CNN by regulating traffic through its servers]. It's a multi-level network. Akamai has 4,000 servers; we could have millions of servers, servers being a euphemism for computers.

And what would happen to Freenet if Uprizer becomes commercial? Will additions and improvements to it remain open-sourced?

Freenet will stay open-sourced. We support that in the same way that Red Hat supports Linux.

What advantage does Freenet have over Gnutella?

Freenet and Gnutella share only two things: They're both peer-to-peer, and they're both decentralized. That's where the similarities stop. Freenet is a very powerful peer-to-peer platform. The reason it's so powerful is that it takes data onto the network, it migrates the data toward demand and it mirrors that data so that it enables high-bandwidth data to move efficiently through the system. Here's the picture: With Gnutella, if someone wants something they go out into the middle of the street and they say, "Does anyone have Britney Spears," or "Does anyone have X document?" And if 1,000 people have it, 1,000 people are going to shout back and it's going to get really noisy. And when 1,000 people send it to you, they'll clog the network.

With Freenet, someone says, "Hey, does anybody have it?" and the information is sent to that person once. So, for instance, let's say there is a request for information "A" in London -- a music file or a piece of financial information -- and that info currently exists around nodes in Chicago. When enough people request it around London, the information will be sent once under the Atlantic. It will then mirror itself and spread itself among multiple nodes so that when you request in London it will be on a node that's closest to you. In other words, if there are 1,000 people in London that request that data, it's right there; whereas with the Internet or Gnutella, 1,000 requests translates to 1,000 messages that are sent under the Atlantic. That's what makes today's World Wide Web so inefficient. Freenet, you see, operates on the Internet, but outside the Web.

But when you make multiple copies, don't you run into another kind of redundancy? Instead of clogging the network aren't you just filling up hard drives? For example, how long does that piece of information from Chicago stay on the computer in Piccadilly Square?

It will stay there on the basis of demand. The specifics can vary, but popular data thrives on the network and unpopular data does not thrive. It's very Darwinian. It's a very intelligent and adaptive system; as Freenet learns the behavior of the flow of that information, it will respond accordingly. For Gnutella to achieve any of those things, as Ian would say, "They would literally have to start from scratch."

OK, if Freenet is indeed better than Gnutella, how do you plan to differentiate yourselves from other Uprizers, other Freenet-based businesses?

We have not only the creative architect and founder of Freenet, we also have a lot of the development team who are familiar with the environment. We can't stop anyone from building on top of Freenet. You can do it today. But I think we have a little more insight into what the possibilities are based on the nuance of the architecture.

Ultimately, where do you think all of this is going? You've made Freenet out to be the Internet's savior -- do you really think it can re-architect the Net?

Well, the original Internet is peer-to-peer, but when the Internet became commercialized it became centralized. The implications from a bandwidth standpoint are less than spectacular because it's not an efficient means of distribution. It doesn't handle high-bandwidth data efficiently.

But whether we could re-architect the Net is a bigger conversation. It's like the conversation about decentralized eBays, which sounds like a good idea but there probably needs to be some central place where the exchange is based, and that's eBay.

Really, the point is that the whole peer-to-peer story has been focused so far on Napster, Gnutella, Freenet and how artists and copyright-holders get ripped off. That's not the conversation that Uprizer is having. Uprizer is having a technology conversation. We believe peer-to-peer computing, distribution and infrastructure is the wave of the future. Everyone's focused on music, on movies; I think it's going to be 5 percent of the story relative to peer-to-peer. We really believe there is a serious paradigm shift occurring as we speak.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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