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A Visit to EarthStation 5
April 22, 2004
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EarthStation 5 (also known as ES5 or ESV) wanted to be known for its unrivalled level of anonymity and the organization’s brutal honesty for saying that the software has been made for users to break copyright law. After what was perhaps the worst public relations campaign ever, ESV instead became known for spamming and dishonesty. Trouble between peer to peer portals and ESV ensued.

To solve the situation, which was quickly becoming out of hand, the top P2P portals decided to go nuclear on ESV. Since then, ESV has remained an outcast from the P2P community.

It needs to be remembered that there is more to a program than arguments between forums and the developers’ relationship with the community. There is the program itself.

The last time a large sampling of file sharers tried the program, it was fraught with problems. The ESV site and program had an unbearably tacky space theme and the software was buggy and bloated with useless features such as a dating service. Even if users managed to find a file they wanted, downloads were slow. The program also took a hit from news that the software contained malware code. ESV claimed that it was code left behind after the auto-update feature was removed. The definitive reason for the code has never been found. Whatever the intentions, the code has since been removed.

Since there has been little hearsay recently involving ESV, it now seems a sensible time to try the software again.

There are two main claimed advantages to ESV. The first is complete anonymity and hence protection from lawsuits. The second is the ability to penetrate any firewalls so users can file share without detection on a LAN. P2P Watchdog, who specializes in software for stopping/detecting P2P traffic, have so far remained ahead of ESV’s attempts to hide its traffic. Although ESV still remains undetectable by most firewalls, users should avoid being drawn into a false sense of security.

The anonymity features of ESV have so far proven true. No file sharing software has fallen into the RIAA line of fire as quickly as ESV did, yet so far there have been no lawsuits involving users of the software. Independent checks for security loopholes have finished empty handed.

The main page has thankfully scrapped the space image. It now resembles a scam K-Lite page, with flashy graphics, sound and even a link to promise users that they are not criminals. The set up is a far cry from the SourceForge development pages. Having a top ten movies download list is a nice touch, but none of this either helps users get their files safely and securely, or what I have come for - the installation files.

The download is a hefty one at 6.19mb. This is nearly twice the size of the latest Kazaa Lite Resurrection (KLR 0.0.7) (3.36mb) and over five times the size of Ares (1.14mb). For installation, 15.9mb are required. It is fair to say that there will be some prices to pay for the added security, but remembering that KLR is laden with additional software, it is difficult to imagine that the file space is being used efficiently.

Upon loading the program, users will be pleasantly surprised. The space theme has, in the main section, been scraped. It has been replaced with cool blue colors. Other skins are also available, but they are generally ghastly.

With ESV’s claims of “no adware”, users will be surprised to see two banner adverts. In today’s P2P climate of open source and advert-free file sharing, many consider banners to be unacceptable.

Faced with a 28 page beginners’ guide, users will quickly realize this is not going to be as simple as Kazaa. There is a lot to read through and understand, little of which has been proofread. After download and installation, it took about 2 hours to read through the documentation, set up the program and download a file whilst having maximum “stealth.” Newer P2P users may be more overwhelmed.

The forums are a matter that would ideally be avoided in an article about the program, rather than one about the politics. However, when starting out, the forums are often needed for help. It is important to remember that there is still bad blood at ESV involving P2P portals. During my research, an active thread was discussing whether the Zeropaid poll was a honey pot, which logged the IP addresses of those who admitted to breaking the law. This is an extreme example. After a quick search, it is clear that the thread was the first of its kind in a few months. Many visitors would call the more regular topics nothing short of scaremongering. The forums should therefore only be used for help and general discussion, not as a factual source.

Some old problems with the program are clearly persistent. The software still feels poorly built. There are minor bugs such as empty help boxes that sometimes appear, graphics and text not displaying correctly and even a dead shortcut on the start menu.

More importantly, within a few hours’ use, I found some larger bugs. For example, the software crashes during automatic restarts to initiate changed settings. Further to this, after 122 warning messages that I was trying to test too many proxies at once, the program crashed out.

As I continued to test the program and change settings, I was faced with a barrage of apparently meaningless error messages. Lots of the messages would not just appear once, but continually pop up until the program has been restarted once or twice. Even when shutting down the program, it would not close properly. ESV provides two buttons to minimize to the system tray, but none to close the program. Even when closing the program once it is docked in the system tray, it is not until the program crashes that it has closed completely. Users can alternatively use Ctrl+Alt+Del to terminate EarthStation 5’s processes.

I also experienced 100% CPU usage.

It would be unfair to say that everyone will experience these problems, or that they could not be sorted with a trip to the forums. However, it illustrates the poor build quality of the program.

The dating service is still regrettably there, along with video chat. A light version of the program to remove these features would not go amiss. However, the programmers have stated that a light version will not be developed. Instead, the program is due to be bundled with more software, such as an auction feature. ESV plans to turn a profit on the program by adding such services.

There are a couple of other new important features to ESV. The new Proxyless eXchange Protocol (PXP) builds use a novel solution to remaining anonymous without using proxies. The seeding IP address is spoofed when sending information. Along with packets of the file, ten return addresses are provided. One of these will be the real IP address of the sender. Ten times the usual traffic is therefore needed to respond to the sender. Response packets are only small, so it is a small price for not using proxies. Not everyone can spoof their IP address, but with sufficient fake IPs circulating, those not spoofing should remain safe.

The second addition to the software is the inclusion of giFT. Many file sharers complained about the inclusion of this software, which leeches from the FastTrack and Gnutella networks. However, ESV now uses a later version of giFT, which can also upload to the networks. The giFT build currently used supports the FastTrack network. The option to upload is switched off by default, so users may still be leeching unwittingly.

The inclusion of giFT will be important for the growth of ESV. The theory of network externalities suggests that users will not join small networks until there are more files, but there will not be more files until new users join. With the inclusion of giFT, ESV is instantly a large network with lots of files. Users, who will notice that the large majority of their search results are from FastTrack, can see the importance of giFT.

Proxies can be used for downloading, uploading, or both. In light of current lawsuits, proxies for downloading are currently redundant.

Users are provided with large lists of proxy addresses and other sources for acquiring addresses. These can be copied and pasted into ESV. ESV then uses a system whereby slow proxies are removed, leaving only the faster ones. Because this is done locally, those with slower connections can continue to use a proxy that others would reject. This maximizes choice and the upload speed capability of the network. Although faster than MUTE, downloads are still slow from other ESV nodes.

This is, again, where giFT works its magic. Assuming users do not have download proxies enabled, downloads from FastTrack and Gnutella are as fast as any other software using giFT.

With giFT now acting as the life and sole of ESV, users have to question why they are using ESV. There are plenty of high quality giFT based programs that are not riddled with the bugs found in ESV.

This brings us back to what ESV is all about – anonymity. File sharers need to consider whether the extra time it takes to use ESV, and the problems they will inevitably face on the way, is worth the extra security. It should also be noted, before choosing this program, that it is closed source and contains adverts.

Currently, for many file sharers, there are more important considerations than complete anonymity. Light weight, ease of use, choice of files, download speeds and open source code are all properties of a p2p program on users’ wish lists. ESV can not compete on any of these properties.

Most importantly, other developers should not ignore this program. Although badly implemented, the ESV developers have found innovative solutions to keeping file sharers anonymous. These ideas should be shared, discussed and further developed. Anonymity will become the ultimate goal of every future P2P application.

My time at EarthStation5 has been enlightening. However, it is now time for me to return to my favorite P2P programs. I just have to tidy up from the uninstallation, which is as messy as ever.

EarthStation 5, beam me down…


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