AT&T vows no censorship on new network
By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
August 7, 2000, 4:55 p.m. PT
Ma Bell has opened the digital doors to an online system designed to let
Web surfers publish any content without fear of censorship.
Dubbed Publius after one of the founding fathers' Federalist Paper
pseudonyms, the system promises to be one of the strongest tools yet
designed to protect anonymous publishing online. The software allows anyone
with a Web browser to post a file online, with almost no fear of being
traced or of having the content removed from the system without permission.
The network adds to a growing number of network technologies designed to
protect content from interference by corporate or government forces.
All of these systems have come under fire from critics who charge they
could be used by criminals to exchange information or to post dangerous
content online such as bomb-making instructions or child pornography, for
example. Ideas for trimming back online anonymity have emanated repeatedly
from circles such as record executives and international policymakers in
But the AT&T developers say those risks are worth taking, in order to
protect free speech.
"The ultimate kick for us as developers is if some organization such as
Amnesty International starts to refer people to our systems," said Avi
Rubin, the AT&T Labs researcher who is leading the project. "We'd like to
see it used in the real world, by real world people who can't express their
Official announcement of the launch will come tomorrow, according to an
AT&T Labs spokesman.
Because it allows free distribution of files online, without any checks by
copyright owners or law enforcement, Publius has been talked about in the
same breath as Napster, Gnutella and Freenet.
But the designers hope this won't be the focus for the system and have
built in a few safeguards.
At least in its first release, the system will accept documents only 100
kilobytes in size--much too small to accept an MP3 or video file.
And unlike Napster, the Publius system does not have a search feature. Easy
searches are partly what have made file-sharing systems such as Napster so
popular so quickly.
In order to reach a file, a Publius surfer must have access to the file's
complicated URL. The Publius project will provide a list of files it
considers interesting, but this will not include music, pornography or
anything else deemed "uninteresting."
"We don't view this as censorship," Rubin said. "We view what we're doing
as a directory for things we think are interesting. For now, people
publishing content on the system will have to email URLs and descriptions
of their files to be included, although a search feature might be added in
a later version, Rubin added.
That's been enough to win praises from anti-censorship groups, some of whom
are actually hosting Publius servers during the trial project.
"We think the way this system is set up goes a long way towards helping
individuals voice their opinions and protecting democratic values," said
Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and
Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group. The center is one of
the groups hosting a server for AT&T's trial project.
Rubin says AT&T has supported his project completely--an important factor
given an environment where America Online shut down a similar internal
development effort that produced the Gnutella file-swapping technology.
The Publius system can be compared to a jigsaw puzzle, in which the entire
picture can't be seen until all of the pieces have been put together.
When a document is published on the Web using Publius, the software
scrambles the file using nearly unbreakable encryption technology and then
distributes this jumbled set of data to a large number of Web servers in
In order to recreate the original document, a reader must put together a
predetermined number of "shares" or "keys" to unlock the document. These
keys are found inside the URL, or Web address of each published document.
Each URL might contain a coded reference to 10 or more Web servers that act
as keys; if three or more of these can be found the document will be
unlocked. If not, then the document is lost.
This system allows a large number of the servers hosting the document to be
shut down without blocking the document's retrieval, as long as the minimum
number of keys can be found.
In the initial test of the service, AT&T Labs has attracted about 40
volunteers to host Publius servers and plans to reach about 10,000 files.
The number of servers will expand later as the system works into a final
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