Hotline to the Underground
HOTLINE TO THE UNDERGROUND | It was invented by a teenager. It's simple to use. And it can turn anyone's computer into a server of legal or illegal files.
BY JANELLE BROWN
Hundreds of international DJs, producers, audio engineers and other music enthusiasts have converged for the past few years on a private server called digitalacid. Hosted whenever his whims dictate by "Jewboy," a recording engineer in his mid-20s, digitalacid is where these techno-philes trade the loops and samples they use to make their own music. It's where they swap tips and chat. And it's where they, occasionally, pick up a "cracked" (illegally duplicated) copy of a piece of expensive audio software. Which, of course, is why Jewboy prefers not to use his real name.
Jewboy, digitalacid and its visitors are all part of a growing online underground that's generally referred to by the name of the product that makes it possible: Hotline.
There have always been netherworlds on the Net -- realms existing parallel to the Web, populated only by "in the know" geeks and boasting troves of illegal files. If you could figure out how to use some of the convoluted IRC or Undernet software, you might be able to worm your way into these worlds, try to meet some genuine hackers or pick up a cracked copy of Photoshop. But doing so was daunting enough that most people wouldn't even try.
Hotline, on the other hand, makes underground access a cinch. But Hotline is not your typical underground. It's largely Mac-based, for one, so its labyrinthine community is populated not just by hackers, gamers and bored teens but by graphic artists, printing companies, university professors, college students and even online newcomers. It's produced by a young company that is trying, painfully, to shed its shareware past and become profitable -- a move that has sparked a bitter lawsuit with Hotline's founder. And it is one of the best places online to study how good shareware can breed a devoted community.
Hotline, the product, is a series of shareware applications distributed by Hotline Communications Limited. An Australian teenager named Adam Hinkley created the programs in 1996. Based on a proprietary file transfer protocol, Hotline allows anybody to turn a computer into a server in less than a minute. Visitors to that server can upload and download files, chat and post messages to bulletin boards.
Users love Hotline because it incorporates the utility of Internet-standard protocols like FTP (file sharing), IRC (chat) and Usenet (bulletin boards), and does so via a svelte and simple graphical program. It's phenomenally stable, and, by some estimates, 30 percent faster than FTP. Best of all, it's shareware -- which, for most users who don't bother to cough up a voluntary $30 fee, means "free."
There are roughly 1.5 million Hotline users, but the servers are dominated by quasi-legal -- or downright illegal -- detritus. The software most visibly serves a constituency of boys between the ages of 13 and 30, who swap MP3 files and porn and impress each other with "kewl" chat.
To really explore the underworld of Hotline -- the private servers like digitalacid -- you have to be invited. Explains Jewboy, "Hotline is a place where you have to invest a lot of time. If you're into it, you're way into it, you know where to go and who to know and you have passwords and accounts at private servers. And if you take time off Hotline, people forget who you are, you need updated Hotline software, you have to get new accounts, you have to get started from scratch again."
Noah M. Daniels, a 22-year-old software developer and student, is a venerable member of the Hotline community, and can boast of using Hotline back when there were just a few hundred users and a handful of servers. In those days, he explains, Hotline was distributed by word of mouth, and enthusiastic fans would chat nightly with programmer Hinkley and offer their suggestions. Those suggestions would sometimes show up in the product the next day.
These days, Daniels runs a private server with an offering of classical MP3s and shareware applications; on most days you can find him chatting with his fiancée (whom he met on Hotline), friends, Hotline buddies and co-workers, nattering a flow of indecipherable in-group slang. His bulletin boards are full of gossip about Hotline, Apple and other geek interests, and the same five or 10 people are logged on to his server almost constantly. He also writes for the Hotline fan news-and-gossip site the Hotline Conspiracy.
"Hotline has become primarily a place to download warez or MP3s, but it's also one of the best multiuser chat environments out there," explains Daniels. "The difference between Hotline and other virtual communities is that there is a core of users that's always there. Then there are people who treat Hotline as a way to get files that they are looking for, and just don't care about the sense of community. Unfortunately, the latter group is what exploded with the popularity of Hotline."
Since Hotline began as a Mac application, it has evolved into the only Net underground populated heavily by Mac devotees. Although Windows users have grown to 60 percent of the Hotline population since a Windows version arrived last year, most files on Hotline servers are still in Mac-friendly formats, and the servers abound with Mac software and Mac-hacking manuals. The default operating system referred to in Hotline chat room discussions is Mac.
"The Mac community did show its colors on Hotline -- it is very unique. The average Mac user is more knowledgeable about the insides of the computer and how it works. They are tinkerers," explains Hotline vice president of business development Jason Roks. "Hotline has drawn a different sort of crowd. It's a lot easier to use than IRC ... and it's more visual -- you see the person you're talking to, their icon, what's going on." (Hotline's Macintosh inheritance is also on display in the "icon wars" between dueling groups of graphic artists, like Bad Moon and SoSueMe, who design the strikingly elegant icons often used in Hotline chat rooms and battle to win the widest following among Hotline users.)
The Mac users bitterly blame the new Windows users for the onslaught of piracy and porn. "When Hotline first started, it was only Mac, and since it was on the Mac it was mostly people into creative arts -- audio heads, graphic heads, 3-D heads. There were some porn sites, but for the most part it was pretty much art," explains Jewboy. "As soon as the PC software came out, the porn servers started exploding."
Hotline, the product, consists of three separate shareware applications. The server allows anyone to turn his computer into a Hotline server, and the client enables users to enter those servers and upload and download files. Then there's the tracker, which enables users to build their own special "indexes" to Hotline servers -- like personal hotlists or bookmark lists of servers that users scan to find servers that fit their interests.
The HLTracker is the "official" tracker of Hotline -- Hotline Communications Limited itself runs it and lists only "clean" servers (i.e., nothing illegal here, kids). This, of course, means that on an average morning, only 56 servers will appear in its ranks. Among those recently listed: "The Humor Archive," where you can peruse more than 700 jokes and Monty Python scripts; a Marathon server, where gamers can swap level add-ons and tips; Symphony Imaging, a graphic arts production company that maintains a server so its customers can easily transfer files; and a site called the Oracle, where a philosophy enthusiast will answer all your uploaded questions about the meaning of the universe (the poor philosopher seems to field a lot of chicken-or-egg-first questions from smartass teens).
But HLTracker is not the only tracker out there. There are, for example, roughly 50 other trackers listed at Troutmask, a kind of meta-tracker Web site that keeps tabs on which trackers are up and down. And these "unofficial" trackers, which don't diligently discriminate against porn, warez or MP3, sometimes have nearly 1,000 servers in their ranks. Among the 777 servers recently listed on tracked.group.org, for example, you'll find "Cherry Poppin' Warez" ("3 Gigs -- Warez - Appz - Porn - MP3z"); "The People's Porn" (for self-produced amateur pornography); MP3 servers specializing in every music genre under the sun; and a number of other servers boasting "genuine" naked pictures of teen star Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Most of these public smut-warez-and-MP3 servers contain, not surprisingly, most of the same files. You'll see the same broken copy of Norton Utilities and the same lewd snapshot of "Amy the Cheerleader," for example, in a multitude of scrappy servers. This, complain Hotline old-timers, is mostly due to the influx of young would-be capitalists who are nabbing files to pad their servers in hopes of turning a profit from Hotline.
On Hotline, capitalism has taken the form of "banner sites" -- servers, mostly chockablock with porn, that allow you to download their goodies, but first send you on a wild goose chase to Web sites where you must click on a banner and hunt for a password. The proprietors of the servers participate in banner ad networks where they receive a few cents for every banner click-through on their shoddy home pages. On many public Hotline servers, the proprietor will sporadically send out an instant message begging visitors to go "click on my banners."
Such banner sites can't be particularly lucrative. Daniels estimates, "If somebody made more than $10 a week from a banner site, I'd be surprised. Each visitor, after all, will only click once, and only the best servers get more than 1,000 visitors a week. If that buys you a couple six packs of beer for the weekend, great. But I don't see people earning much money from that."
The banner sites offering porn are at the bottom of Hotline's hierarchy of piracy. Most Hotline community members jump quickly to the defense when you mention the warez-porn-MP3 triad. As Jason Roks explains the rationale, "MP3s aren't illegal, porn isn't illegal and warez, well, serial numbers and cracks technically aren't illegal -- they are the property of the person who made them, but the person who uses them is a problem. The laws are very vague. Laws need to be made to address the crimes that are being done out there." Wild estimates of the amount of piracy going on via Hotline range from a tiny percentage (according to Roks) to near 70 percent of total Hotline traffic (according to other Hotline users).
The "pirates" also aren't exactly major criminals. Jewboy, for example, began using Hotline in 1996, when he was a multimedia student who would use Hotline to swap the sounds and images that he used as inspiration for his art. He credits Hotline warez with helping jump-start his audio engineering career: "I don't condone piracy, but audio software is so expensive, too expensive for students. The use of pirated applications has allowed me to get where I am now -- I'm buying these applications for real now, but I might never have gotten here if I'd had to learn this stuff at school and gone home and had nothing to play with."
The Software Publishers Association, of course, probably wouldn't agree with his rationale. And it does have its eye on Hotline, although it won't reveal to what extent. Several conspicuous warez sites have been taken down in the last year. SPA chief technologist Lauren Hall explains that the anti-piracy organization has been monitoring Hotline for the last year, but that "lots of applications can be misused to facilitate piracy; we have no policy on Hotline the application."
Hotline, however, is better suited for piracy than IRC or Usenet or the Web, since you can have a persistent central storage repository for your warez, and file transfers are quick and easy. And, most importantly, you can keep your server "private" by choosing not to register it with a tracker -- most servers where the hot action happens invite only a select few into their midst. Hotline veteran Daniels describes this subversive trade as being "like the difference between having a storefront that sells something illegal and selling it from the back of a van."
"Hotline will tell you that piracy happens on the Web and via FTP too, but it's just not visible," explains Phil Hilton, the 18-year-old former public relations director of Hotline Communications Limited. "That's true. But because it is more visible on Hotline, it's more of a problem. It tarnishes the image. A lot of colleges and schools won't use Hotline because their students are going there and downloading 'bad' things."
And Hotline is not all horny teens pics and Photoshop cracks. In many ways, Hotline is a microcosm of the Net at large -- with all the valuable tools and all the digital junk that you'll see anywhere else in the ether. There are plenty of users like Jason Fields, a technologist at the Web studio Metadesign, who started using Hotline as a quick way to transfer large Photoshop files to his clients in Europe.
"Hotline is like an iceberg -- the little visible tip is the public communities," explains Roks. "When you get beyond that and talk to people in the underground of Hotline, people will give you servers and tracker addresses and you can find a whole other world out there. What you have below the water is the real depth of what Hotline is -- private servers, schools, corporations. There is a much larger private work system that exists, but they don't want the general public to see it because they don't want to be associated with the underground. That's the real bulk of where Hotline is right now."
Hotline Communications officials are eager to push this image as they embark on a quest to make Hotline a profitable -- and reputable -- software company. Right now, estimates Roks, less than 5 percent of users actually pay for their software (the client costs $29.95, the server $99.95): Teens and GenXers haven't proven to be a lucrative market. Instead, Hotline is working hard to reposition itself as a "corporate tool" for "vertical markets," and the executives are trying to downplay its more illicit uses.
But the company's move away from the "shareware perception" and toward profitability, as CEO Steven Bielawski describes the new strategy, is shaking the Hotline universe to its core. Not only is Hotline Communications pursuing a bitter lawsuit with Adam Hinkley, the young engineer who built Hotline when he was 17, but it's also suffering a storm of discontent within the community of Hotline aficionados who have long called the software their home.