Clarke and a growing group of allied programmers are creating a kind of parallel Internet called "Freenet," where censorship is impossible, surfers are anonymous, and content is moved and hosted automatically to points near the people who want it.
The nascent system is a kind of cross between the Net-speeding tools developed by Akamai Technologies and the Napster MP3-swapping software, which is now shaking the music world. Some developers say the mix has created a system that stores and moves content much more efficiently than the ordinary Web.
But at the network's heart lies its creators' conviction that freedom of information should be built directly into the networks, rather than left to the good graces of companies and governments. Freedom from censorship could protect political dissidents and other unpopular speech, but it also means Freenet could provide a safe haven for pornographers and copyright pirates.
And that's fine with its creators.
"Freenet can't afford to make value judgments about the worth of information," said Ian Clarke, the London programmer who began creating the network as a student thesis. "The network judges information based on popularity. If humanity is very interested in pornography, then pornography will be a big part of the Freenet."
Freenet is the latest entry, and perhaps the most ambitious, in a field of new "distributed" network services that are making themselves felt far beyond the technology community.
Programs like Napster, Gnutella, Scour.net's Exchange and others have brought individual computers into the role once played by massive Web hosting services. Want a song, or a video or an image? Instead of searching for it on a Web page, it's now easy to boot up a small program and download it directly from another person's machine.
On a technological level, that's already causing ripples as Internet service providers grapple with the implications of their customers' computers becoming content hosts in their own right. Cox Communications has threatened to drop some San Diego Excite@Home cable-modem subscribers who use the Napster music swapping software, noting that the software clogged its network.
The new technologies are making even more of an impression on the entertainment trade. Napster, Gnutella and their rivals have thrown a panic into the record industry, which sees music listeners trading song files directly, without buying expensive compact discs. Other industries, such as Hollywood filmmakers, also see themselves potentially threatened by the easy file swapping.
Freenet takes these earlier file-swapping programs a step further.
The system is built around the efforts of volunteers, who set up Freenet network "nodes," or connection points, on their own computers to store content. Once a song, document, video or anything else is uploaded into this system, it is distributed around participating computers, automatically stored in nodes near the users who ask for the content, and removed from machines where there is no interest.
The system is designed to be almost entirely anonymous. The actual content on any given host computer changes over time, and will ultimately be encrypted, so no host will know what is on his or her machine. The keywords used to search the network for files are also scrambled, making it extremely difficult for authorities to find out who is hosting what, or who is looking for what particular piece of information.
Critics say this anonymity could protect distribution of genuinely illegal material, such as child pornography or pirated software, music and movies.
While it's impossible to tell how many people are using the system at any given time, about 20,000 people have downloaded an early version of it in the last few weeks, Clarke says.
Anybody can load files into the system and have them hosted by the network's volunteers without paying for bandwidth or a Web site's server space. Clarke uses the example of a band that wants to put its MP3 files online, but can't afford Web space. The band could upload its song onto the system, and as long as people occasionally searched for the song, it would live inside the Freenet.
But others say this is simply transferring the very real costs of bandwidth and storage space to the volunteers in the network. That could make it difficult to keep people participating, as they see their own network connections slowed in the interest of other people's downloads.
"To technologists, that's sexy," said Gene Kam, a Wego.com programmer who is developing Gnutella software. "But to consumers, it's not as good as just logging in and getting free MP3 files."
Others say Freenet, if it is able to get out of its early stages, could be the final nail in the coffin for organizations trying to prevent online piracy. Since Freenet is wholly decentralized, there is no central company to sue for copyright violations. And because each "node" is encrypted, and users anonymous, it will be nearly impossible to track down any individual pirate or pirated work.
"If this takes off, then the (record industry) and (movie industry) are swiftly moving into a world where they have no hope of curbing what they see as a rampant misuse of technology," said Rob Raisch, chief analyst for technology consulting firm Raisch.com.
Industry analysts say the potential for this kind of system, which has added new twists to commercial Internet technologies, has yet to be realized, however.
"I don't think you should think of this as a content distribution system," said Peter Christy, a Jupiter Communications analyst who closely follows the caching industry. "You should think of this as a technology that will allow something else new and exciting that people haven't thought of yet."