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Last Updated: Friday, 9 April, 2004, 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK
File-sharing to bypass censorship
By Tracey Logan
BBC Go Digital presenter

Computer network
The net could be humming with news, rather pop, swappers
By the year 2010, file-sharers could be swapping news rather than music, eliminating censorship of any kind.

This is the view of the man who helped kickstart the concept of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing, Cambridge University's Professor Ross Anderson.

In his vision, people around the world would post stories via anonymous P2P services like those used to swap songs.

They would cover issues currently ignored by the major news services, said Prof Anderson.

"Currently, only news that's reckoned to be of interest to Americans and Western Europeans will be syndicated because that's where the money is," he told the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital.

"But if something happens in Peru that's of interest to viewers in China and Japan, it won't get anything like the priority for syndication.

"If you can break the grip of the news syndication services and allow the news collector to talk to the radio station or local newspaper then you can have much more efficient communications."

'Impossible to censor'

To enable this, Prof Anderson proposes a new and improved version of Usenet, the internet news service.

Prof Ross Anderson
If there's material that everyone agrees is wicked, like child pornography, then it's possible to track it down and close it down
Ross Anderson, Cambridge University
But what of fears that the infrastructure that allows such ad hoc news networks to grow might also be abused by criminals and terrorists?

Prof Anderson believes those fears are overstated. He argued that web watchdogs like the Internet Watch Foundation, which monitors internet-based child abuse, would provide the necessary policing functions.

This would require a high level of international agreement to be effective.

"The effect of peer-to-peer networks will be to make censorship difficult, if not impossible," said Prof Anderson.

"If there's material that everyone agrees is wicked, like child pornography, then it's possible to track it down and close it down. But if there's material that only one government says is wicked then, I'm sorry, but that's their tough luck".

Political obstacles

Commenting on Prof Anderson's ideas, technology analyst Bill Thompson welcomed the idea of new publishing tools that will weaken the grip on news of major news organisations.

Such P2P systems, he said, would give everybody a voice and allow personal testimonies to come out.

But the technology that makes those publishing tools accessible to everyone and sufficiently user-friendly will take longer to develop than Prof Anderson thinks, added Mr Thompson.

Prof Anderson's vision underestimates the political obstacles in the way of such developments, he said, and the question of censorship had not been clearly thought through.

"Once you build the technology to break censorship, you've broken censorship - even of the things you want censored," said Mr Thompson.

"Saying you can then control some parts of it, like images of child abuse, is being wilfully optimistic. And that's something that peer to peer advocates have to face."

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12 Dec 03  |  Technology

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