The project, dubbed "Publius"--one of the U.S. founding fathers' pen names when they were publishing the then-controversial Federalist Papers--adds new weight to a growing list of services aimed at giving Web surfers unbreakable privacy. A similar project called Freenet is being led by British programmers, and others are springing up at universities and privacy-minded companies around the world.
Like Freenet, Publius aims to make it possible for anyone to put something online without fear of retribution or censorship. Backers cite the advantages this will have for political dissidents or corporate whistle-blowers, who can find even pseudonymous online postings traced back to them fairly easily.
"It's impossible to do anything even remotely anonymously on today's Web," said Avi Rubin, the AT&T Labs security researcher who is leading the project. "This is for somebody who wants to publish something that somebody more powerful than them doesn't want to see published."
But it's exactly this dynamic that is worrying some companies and individuals concerned about copyright piracy, child pornography and other illegal activities online.
The president of Seagram, which owns Universal Studios and the Universal Music Group, recently called for an end to even the limited form of anonymity found online today.
"We must restrict the anonymity behind which people hide to commit crimes," Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman told attendees at a streaming media conference last month. "As citizens, we have a right to privacy. We have no such right to anonymity."
The debate over Freenet, Publius and its peers is just one facet of the larger computer file-swapping universe, which includes more consumer-friendly software like Napster and Gnutella. All of these services are changing the way content is traded online, allowing people to access one another's computers or large numbers of servers on the very edge of the Net instead of forcing them to rely on just a few centralized Web servers.
This model alone, aside from any of the free speech implications or copyright dangers, is already resonating inside the business and venture capital community. Several Hollywood companies are already experimenting with Gnutella or other systems as ways to distribute their content.
How the technology works
The anonymity-focused systems go beyond simple file-sharing however.
Publius itself grew out of earlier work at AT&T Labs dubbed "Crowds," which protected individuals' identities while they surfed online.
The new technology works by breaking a file into small pieces, making many different copies of each piece, and then distributing them individually across a network of volunteer Web servers. Rubin likens the system to putting a photograph on a jigsaw puzzle, making copies, taking the puzzle apart, and then hiding all of the individual pieces.
Using strong encryption technology, Publius develops the equivalent of a Web address, or URL, where the content can be "found." The address contains coded instructions for finding all the hidden pieces and putting them back together. The address can't be used to track down the original author or to track down all the individual pieces and delete them, however.
Authors can update the content themselves, but the URL coding system can detect whether unauthorized changes have been made to the content. A setting also allows the content publishers to keep even themselves from deleting files from the network, lest they're afraid of being coerced by some authorities at a future date, AT&T Labs' Rubin said.
Thumbs-up from civil liberties groups
Free speech groups are welcoming the technology, saying it is a vast improvement on a Web where companies and governments can easily break through individuals' thin shell of online privacy.
"We're very supportive," said Deborah Pierce, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties group. "We think this is going to go a long way toward helping stop censorship."
One open question is what AT&T itself will do with the technology, however.
America Online found itself in a similar situation earlier this year, when it discovered that programmers at its Nullsoft online music division had created Gnutella, a program that could easily be used to pirate music or software. The company immediately shut down the development project, but not before it had moved quickly into the Net's open-source community.
Rubin said Publius is accepting calls for volunteers to help host content in a two-month test. Beyond that, the researchers will likely try to set it up on an even wider scale, but any future AT&T involvement is "unresolved," he said.
Some in the privacy community say they'd like to see some way of distinguishing between legal and illegal content, or see some way that criminals could be pulled off the system and others like it.
"We're glad to see people are doing this kind of research," said Adam Shostack, director of technology for Zero-Knowledge Systems, a Montreal company that creates online privacy software. "But I would like to see someone come up with a way to enable the good things to happen and put some kind of way in to block the bad things."
Others say that seeing pornography, pirated songs and software, and other illegal material traded on these systems is an acceptable trade-off for protecting against privacy and human rights violations.
"It is a concern. These things are out there," the EFF's Pierce said. "But I really think those are the risks you have to put up with when you live in a free society."