File sharing networks

Sydney Morning Herald icon coverThis story originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Icon section on April 18 2003. (link is to the story on Melbourne Age web site, the SMH link is broken.)

Some of the links at the bottom of this story may be dead.

Infofile

Many popular file-sharing clients load spyware and other software nasties on your computer. These programs report on your computing activity, trigger ads to appear and reroute your browser to commercial web sites. After testing a dozen programs, we used Ad-Aware 6 (not the original program or link) and found more than 120 suspicious items.

With the threat of viruses, corrupt files and long loading times, downloading music isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Bill Bennett reports.

This story originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Icon section on April 18 2003. (The SMH link is dead.) Some of the links at the bottom of this story may be dead.

You can’t buy the Oscar-winning movie Chicago on DVD yet, but if you know where to look you can download it from the internet. Similarly, fans who couldn’t make it to the recent Bruce Springsteen gig in Sydney can listen to an MP3 bootleg recording made elsewhere on the tour.

Everyone knows the internet has become a giant Aladdin’s cave packed with stolen treasure, but you might be surprised to learn just how much material there is. Just about every commercially recorded song is tucked away somewhere online.

Every imaginable popular media has been digitised, so you’ll find more besides music – from archived episodes of the BBC’s Dr Who TV series to 1940s American radio soap operas and scanned versions of the latest best-selling books. And, of course, there’s a huge trade in pirated software, and you can find the latest games and business applications online.

In almost every case, the files being traded are illegal copies. The authors, composers, filmmakers, programmers and musicians who created them are rarely, if ever, compensated when their work is downloaded. Consequently, many of the industries that depend on copyright for their revenue are hurting. According to the Business Software Association, some 37 per cent of all software in use is pirated. It claims this costs its members about $20 billion a year in lost income.

Peter Smith, a director of the Australian Music Retailers association and marketing director of HMV, says it is noticeable: local music industry sales were down 8.9 per cent in 2002 compared with the previous year.

“We don’t think file sharing is the whole story, but it is one factor behind the decline,” he says.

Smith believes that CD copying and burning is more of an issue for recorded music sales than people downloading and listening to music. “Look at the sales of blank CDRs [recordable CDs]; they’re phenomenal.”

It may be against the law, but file sharing appears to be unstoppable. Every time copyright owners develop a new technology designed to protect material from online piracy, someone learns how to bypass it. Even if they don’t, consumer pressure means anyone using the protection technology has difficulty selling their products.

Hardware companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. Copyright owners would like them to build protective measures into their equipment, but consumers don’t want this at all. In fact, when offered a choice they simply won’t generally buy protected hardware. Just ask anyone buying a DVD player whether they prefer a regional player or a multi-regional one.

At the same time, sales of CD and DVD burners have rocketed. It’s widely recognised in the computer industry that file sharing is one of the few justifications consumers have to upgrade their hardware or move to a broadband internet connection. The money being made on the back of the file-sharing boom might even be greater than the amount lost by copyright owners.

Research reveals that file sharing is now widespread. According to some estimates, up to 70 per cent of all the communications’ bandwidth used by US university students is taken up by people swapping media files.

Last month, in a story headlined “Internet file-sharing bigger than the music industry”, The San Jose Mercury reported that 61 million Americans regularly download free music. That’s about half the online population. Just one file-swapping program, the Australian-owned KaZaA, is said to have 4.2 million registered users and there are at least a dozen worthwhile alternatives.

Jason Ross, who tracks Australian technology trends for AMR Interactive, found in a recent survey that 17 per cent of all internet users claimed to have downloaded a music file in the past seven days. The same survey found 91 per cent of all Australian online users are familiar with downloading files from the net.

The sheer volume of file sharing is causing huge problems for network adminstrators. A small industry has emerged, selling the tools used by managers to limit the amount of file-sharing traffic going through corporate networks.

One way the industry has fought back against file sharers is to seed the online services with dummy or dodgy material. You might spend the best part of a day, and a considerable slice of your monthly download allowance, grabbing a particular movie only to find you have 180 minutes of rubbish. It’s not unusual for a song file to be filled with obscenities or other noxious noises. A lot of pirated software is virus infected.

Another danger is the spyware and other commercial junk installed on your computer by file-sharing software (see Infofile). Getting rid of it can be a nightmare.

File sharing is even more popular today than it was when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) used its considerable legal firepower to close the Napster network in 2001. This triggered the rise of true peer-to-peer swapping services.

Peer-to-peer file swapping takes place when two computers link directly to each other. They may use a third computer to set up the connection, but once the link is made the material travels directly from one machine to another.

Napster routed all connections through a central point, but current systems do away with this altogether. This is smart thinking because the recording industry managed to close Napster’s central servers down and then bankrupt the company. With the newer services there’s no-one to prosecute.

By killing Napster the recording industry won an important battle, but it lost the war. Since then, the cost of storage – usually on a hard disk – has dropped by a factor of 10. Today’s hard disks are 10 times the size and the amount of consumer bandwidth in use has climbed by a factor of 10.

Guess what all that extra capacity is used for?

Infofile: Many popular file-sharing clients load spyware and other software nasties on your computer. These programs report on your computing activity, trigger ads to appear and reroute your browser to commercial web sites. After testing a dozen programs, we used Ad-Aware 6 and found more than 120 suspicious items.

Choosing a network

To test the networks we searched for five multimedia files: three music tracks, a movie and an ancient music video. The networks were all tested using an Ozemail ADSL connection. Where there was a choice of client programs we chose the best performer.

Our test music files were in decreasing order of obscurity: Delta Goodrem’s Born to Try, Oasis’s Wonderwall and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ There, There, My Dear. You can usually find the last track in most large record stores, but getting it online proved much harder.

At first we tried finding the new Ned Kelly movie, but ran into confusion because of earlier films with a similar name. So we ended up looking for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. To save bandwidth we downloaded only the first 30MB in order to check we had the right movie, though one program downloaded the lot. We chose Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody as the pop video, mainly because it is popular enough to be sought after without being too easy to find.

eDonkey

***

eMule

There are two main eDonkey clients, but eMule worked the best. It took a few minutes to find Wonderwall and Lord of the Rings. Queen and Delta Goodrem took a few tries. eMule drew a complete blank on Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Downloading can be frustrating; you often have to wait for days. Curiously, eMule sometimes starts downloading big files from the middle, which makes it hard to check you have the right one. It took three days to download the two found songs. It might actually have taken less but we got bored checking. By the end of the first week we had a few bits of the movie and the video but were a long way from home on both.

WinMX

****½

The most popular file-sharing program was clearly the best at finding files. We located all five in less than two minutes. No rival came close. Downloading was less successful. We had two songs in under 10 minutes, the Queen video took about 30 minutes, but the Dexy’s song took almost two days to arrive. We had some trouble downloading the movie. Eventually we left the system on overnight and woke to find the file sitting there in the morning.

In use, the WinMX program can be daunting for beginners and there are few help files or documentation. However, there are many good third-party FAQs and tutorials online.

FastTrack

Grokster

At least three different client programs will connect you to the FastTrack network. They all assault your computer with pop-up advertising, spyware programs that report your online activities to marketing forms and other annoyances.

Grokster is no better than the others and it loaded at least three dodgy programs onto the test computer. The collateral junk even managed to crash Windows XP, which takes some doing. KaZaA Lite is supposed to avoid these problems, but it didn’t perform very well in our tests.

FastTrack has another trap – some clients limit the bit rate of your downloads – so you generally only find poor quality files. Grokster managed to locate the test files within 30 minutes, downloading took less than six hours. However, the price of this is far too high. We recommend you steer clear of Grokster and KaZaA.

Gnutella

***

Shareaza

You’ll find a number of Gnutella clients to choose from. Some have spyware. We choose Shareaza because it didn’t. Although it was by far the easiest program to use in the entire test, the Gnutella network offered the smallest collection of files. In our test it couldn’t find the Dexy’s song and took a few hours to track down the Queen video. Once it found a file, the download would start more or less straight away.

Others

In addition to the four popular networks above, we also tried DirectConnect and Blubster. DirectConnect is hard to use, doesn’t offer many files and requires you to share (read pirate) vast amounts of data before you can join. We had difficulty getting the Blubster software to work on the test system. Taking an alternative approach, we also searched on IRC and through the various MP3 newsgroups for our test file list. Although both technologies offer many files, finding specific songs through these routes can be extremely hard work.

Verdict

If you must go down this route, WinMX is the best way to hunt down files, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to download them. Gnutella and eDonkey are viable alternatives. The FastTrack network does the job, but the overhead is too high.