A new file-trading network has sprung up on Internet2, the university network that offers researchers and students a way to communicate at blazing speeds while avoiding the ordinary Internet's data traffic jams.
Dubbed i2hub, the network has drawn thousands of students from universities around the country to trade files and chat at speeds that far exceed what even ordinarily swift campus networks can provide. It has drawn rave reviews on student Web sites and from users but has already sparked concern among other Internet2 denizens.
The students involved say they're simply looking to use unused Internet2 bandwidth, which can be less expensive for their colleges than ordinary commercial Net connections. But some also see it as a way around limitations that many universities have begun to impose on widely used file-swapping applications such as Kazaa.
"Some universities put a restriction on commodity Internet line speeds but don't put any restriction on Internet2," said "Ttol," one of the students managing the project. He declined to give his real name. "The experience of transfers over Internet2 is much faster than on the commodity Internet."
Universities have been at the heart of the file-swapping, controversies since the launch of Napster in 1999. Armed with fast Net connections in dormitories, students have flocked to peer-to-peer services for free music, videos and software, and they have recently been a focus of record industry enforcement efforts.
The Recording Industry Association of America sued a quartet of students who were operating campus network search tools a year ago, settling with each of them for between $12,000 and $17,000. Individual students who have used ordinary software such as Kazaa have also been targeted in the RIAA's more recent wave of lawsuits.
Universities, most of which have strict policies against using their networks for copyright infringement, have begun installing software that blocks or limits the amount of bandwidth used by file-swapping applications. Some have begun investigating tools that actually look inside individual file trades, identify copyrighted music and block the transfers.
Bringing this process to Internet2 could conceivably raise the stakes for the content industries, particularly the movie studios. Using ordinary broadband connections, movies can take many hours to download, particularly if a network is congested.
Internet2 was developed by a consortium of universities and technology companies to provide vast improvements in connections speeds. Researchers use it to exchange large data files, experiments with high-definition video and other applications. But the same speed could make traditional file-swapping happen in the blink of an eye.
The i2hub network is based on a piece of open-source software called Direct Connect, which connects users and allows them to search each other's hard drives, using technology similar to the original Napster. Unlike most recent file-swapping networks, it routes search requests through a central server, which can be operated on an ordinary PC in a dorm room.
This version of Direct Connect links only students at universities with access to Internet2. While this keeps all traffic on the fast network, it's probably not the first time that Internet2 has seen file-swapping incursions. Some schools automatically route students' data traffic over Internet2, if the destination is another participating university. Thus, some students even using older tools such as Kazaa might already be using the fast academic network without knowing it.
Ttol said that about 2,000 people appeared to be online Thursday afternoon, having logged in at different times. Students at about 100 universities are involved, he said.
In the RIAA's crosshairs?
People involved with the project said there is concern that they will be targeted by the RIAA or by school officials, if people on the network do use it to swap large amounts of copyrighted material. But individual users are less worried than the organizers themselves.
"The concern is always there, when you allow 'carte blanche' for people--especially college-age people--to trade whatever they may have on their computer," said "Conrail," who told CNET News.com in an instant-message interview that he is a student at the Widener University School of Law. "As this is a centralized model, and its goal is not to promote copyright infringement, there shouldn't be concern for the users, because they won't be the target."
Officials at the central Internet2 project said they had no theoretical objection to the students' action, at least from the strictly technological side. The network was developed to spur innovation wherever it arises, much as users of the original academic networks developed e-mail and chat features, a representative for the project said.
However, copyright violations should not be tolerated, the representative added.
"The use policies for (the Internet2) backbone network are very clear--that use of the network for illegal means is not allowed," said Greg Wood, Internet2's director of communications.
Network administrators at some of the colleges appeared to be concerned as well.
"Internet2 is for research. It's not for downloading music," said Marc Ray, a senior computer support specialist at Florida State University. He's still evaluating the program, he said. "The fact is, (the network) cost a lot of money, and downloading games and music should be the last priority on any campus network. I think it's borderline taking advantage of the system."