Networking

A new hope for BitTorrent?

Unreleased Exeem could make BitTorrent more lawsuit-resistant, but questions remain.

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By John Borland
CNET News.com

Just weeks after legal attacks crippled the popular BitTorrent file-swapping community, an underground programmer from its ranks has stepped forward to announce new software designed to withstand future onslaughts from Hollywood.

Dubbed Exeem, the software has already been distributed in a closed beta, or early test format, by the creators of the SuprNova.org Web site, which was until late last month the most popular hub for the BitTorrent file-swapping community.

Last week, the head of that now-defunct site, a man known as "Sloncek," officially announced the Exeem project in an interview on the NovaStream Webcasting network. He said that it would be a modified version of the popular BitTorrent technology, but transformed into a decentralized, searchable network similar to Kazaa or eDonkey.

Reports from some beta testers are now beginning to come in, as the private testing nears its end.

"The system seems to work pretty well," said Simon Bauman, who operates the Mitosis.com Web site and has tried the software for several weeks. "It seems faster than other peer-to-peer programs right now, but with only 5,000 people, it's hard to really gauge it."

Official confirmation of the Exeem program, released at a time when BitTorrent Web sites are under aggressive legal attack from Hollywood, raises the potential of mass migration for the millions of people around the world who have grown accustomed to using the technology to download movies, TV shows, music and software.

The shifting loyalties are now a familiar phenomenon in the peer-to-peer world, as lawsuits from the record industry or Hollywood studios have repeatedly driven users away from other once-popular networks such as Napster, Scour and Audiogalaxy. In each case, new services have eagerly risen to take their place, despite legal risks.

Among modern file-swapping services, BitTorrent has been uniquely vulnerable to legal attacks by copyright owners, because it has required that links to files be posted on Web sites. The Motion Picture Association of America launched an international legal assault on the most popular of those Web sites last month, helping to take some of the biggest ones offline.

SuprNova was one of the sites that vanished not long after the MPAA announcement, along with Youceff.com and several others. Another, dubbed LokiTorrent.com, remains operating despite having been sued by the MPAA in Texas, and has already raised close to $34,000 in donations to a legal defense fund.

Exeem is aimed at eliminating these easily targeted central points. Like other file-swapping applications, a decentralized service would be made up only of individual users, none of whom control the network.

"Basically it is a P2P program with the same specifications as BitTorrent had, but with its own network and its own files on it," Sloncek said in last week's interview, now reposted at the SuprNova site. It's "Kazaa and BitTorrent all together."

However, Sloncek's announcement has raised as many new questions as it has answered.

The program itself is being developed by an anonymous company that contacted him several months ago, the SuprNova administrator said. He's now officially working for that company as its representative, he added.

"Exeem has nothing to do with BitTorrent...It's just yet another warez tool."
—Bram Cohen, BitTorrent creator

Some hints may be given by the Exeem.com domain name, which is registered to a Swarm Systems. The listed address for that company is in the Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts & Nevis, at the local office of IFG Trust Services, a company that helps set up and administer offshore companies.

A telephone number provided along with the domain name information appeared to be incomplete or out of service. An IFG representative did not return calls seeking comment.

Older file-swapping companies have tried to incorporate themselves outside the reach of traditional legal or tax authorities. Sharman Networks, Kazaa's parent company, is based in Australia but incorporated on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, for example. That hasn't prevented the company from being sued in courts in the United States and Australia, however.

The Exeem technology could find itself in some of the same difficulties faced by other file-swapping networks.

Much of BitTorrent's popularity has come both because of the speed of downloads and the assurance that files were real instead of the decoys or damaged content often found on other file-swapping networks. Indeed, a recent academic study attributed much of BitTorrent's strength to the influence of moderators at the SuprNova Web site, who hand-checked files to ensure they were genuine.

"One of the big advantages of BitTorrent/SuprNova is the high level of integrity of both the content and the meta-data (information such as movie name or file size)," Johan Pouwelse, a Delft University of Technology researcher, wrote in a recent paper. "A decentralized scheme such as in Kazaa has no availability problems but lacks integrity, since Kazaa is plagued with many fake files."

Exeem includes tools to write comments or rate files, which Sloncek said would help eliminate fake files. However, Kazaa has included similar tools, and some researchers have found that up to 70 percent of versions of popular songs are actually fakes.

The software is being launched without any participation from Bram Cohen, the original BitTorrent creator. He dismisses the project as simply the latest in a long line of Kazaa clones that has little to do with his own software, even if it uses some of his technology.

"Exeem has nothing to do with BitTorrent," said Cohen, who is continuing to improve his own technology in hopes of seeing it adopted by big online businesses. "It's just yet another warez (a slang term for pirated content) tool."

In his interview, Sloncek said Exeem would be free, but ad-supported. A public version will likely be available "very soon," he said.

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