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Ian Clarke's peer-to-peer debate

The programmer invented Freenet, a network for reading and distributing content anonymously. Now he responds to critics who claim that the network could be abused by terrorists.

At the peak of Napster's popularity, programmer Ian Clarke emerged as one of the most articulate spokespeople for absolute anonymity and free speech online.

Clarke created Freenet, a network for reading and distributing content built around absolute protection of people's anonymity and defense against censorship. When the record industry began training its legal guns on file swapping, his no-compromises approach drew considerable attention to a technology that was barely out of the conceptual stage.

But the world is a different place today. Napster has effectively been sued out of operation. New, decentralized file-swapping services such as Kazaa and Morpheus have arisen and are considerably harder to shut down.

Moreover, in the wake of the World Trade Center's destruction, complete anonymity online is a considerably more controversial notion. Early critics noted that Freenet's censorship-blocking abilities could be used by terrorists. Those fears have become more salient since Sept. 11.

Clarke, however, dismisses these concerns as misguided. Freenet allows widespread dissemination of information, not secret communication, he notes. If anything, the push for more government control of the Net has made more people aware of the need for Freenet's existence, he says.

As the furor over Napster has died down, so too has the ruckus over Freenet. It was once viewed as the most secure replacement for Napster. But other services have captured people's attention while Freenet's team of volunteer programmers has labored over a more ambitious project. The project has finally reached a level where the network functions fairly well but still has a small base of users.

Meanwhile, Clarke's start-up Uprizer has finally launched its first product, a content-distribution system for businesses' internal use that's based loosely on Freenet.

CNET News.com recently talked to Clarke about Freenet and the continuing peer-to-peer debates.

Q: The landscape has changed considerably since you started the project, both in terms of legal rulings and the other types of programs people are using. Do you see the need for Freenet as strong as it ever was?
A: I think more so. Freenet was very much a thought experiment initially. It was what would happen if the Internet ever came under significant attack from powerful organizations or government. One of the interesting things is, that theory has repeatedly become reality.

"Ironically, 9/11 and the new, oppressive laws which followed it in the ironically named "Patriot Act" has made people realize that we might need something like Freenet sooner than anybody thought."
When I was first dreaming up Freenet, I never thought a software engineer would be jailed for writing a piece of software that let people read PDF documents. I never thought the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would be enforced in the way that it is. I never thought that senators would be proposing bills that would mandate digital rights management (DRM) technology in all computers--effectively, in my view, crippling all computers.

Unfortunately, I think my worst fears have been repeatedly realized. It has actually led to a sense of urgency with Freenet. Previously we would do things that would have led to some vulnerability for Freenet but were useful because they helped us develop it more quickly--really, crutches while Freenet was in its early stages of development. Now, one by one, we've been forced to remove those crutches because we credibly believe that Freenet could be under threat.

Because of what's happening legally, and the fact that a lot of the threats that only six months ago were theoretical are now becoming increasingly plausible, we're being forced to explore quite radical ideas...so that if the doomsday scenario should occur, we're ready for it.

What effect has Sept. 11 had on your drive for online anonymity? Are there more concerns today that Freenet could be used for terrorists' or other lawbreakers' activities, and has the project itself felt any official pressure because of it?
Well, since Freenet is a publication mechanism, the only way that terrorists could really use it would be to share information with the general public, such as why they must resort to terrorism. Personally, I think this is a good thing. I grew up in Ireland, parts of which have suffered from terrorism for most of my youth. One thing that taught me was that the only way to resolve issues such as terrorism is to understand the other point of view. Simply dismissing people as "evil" won't do anything to resolve the problem.

Ironically, 9/11 and the new, oppressive laws which followed it in the ironically named "Patriot Act" has made people realize that we might need something like Freenet sooner than anybody thought. I have received numerous e-mails from people inspired to support Freenet out of fears surrounding the government reaction to 9/11.

Where is Freenet right now? A lot of focus in the peer-to-peer world has shifted to the FastTrack networks, such as Kazaa. Has that lessened some of the demand for Freenet?

"Even though the mainstream press isn't paying as much attention as it was before, we're actually seeing the same level of demand."
In terms of downloads of the Freenet software, it's always been pretty steady at about 3,000 downloads a day. Whether it's during the height of Napster's popularity or today, the number of downloads that Freenet has received has remained pretty steady throughout. So even though the mainstream press isn't paying as much attention as it was before, we're actually seeing the same level of demand.

What about work on the technology itself? Is it finished, or close to finished at this point? Or close to a 1.0 release?
You know what they say about finishing...

We're actually making a lot of progress. At the moment the software is usable. There are a number of Web sites on Freenet, many of which are published Some of them have established, regular readerships. There is third-party software, which allows things like message boards over Freenet, effectively like Usenet but with Freenet's anonymity.

The difference between now and (a year ago) was that Freenet (then) was very much a research project, and I would imagine that a lot of the people who downloaded it probably couldn't get it to work or didn't really understand what it was supposed to do. I think now what's happening is that people are downloading it and actually getting it to work, and using it, and developing third-party software for it.

So Freenet has really matured in that regard, in that we really do now have a user base. And that's people using not just because they want to try out Freenet, but actually using it because they think it's of practical use to them.

It's certainly not finished yet. There are issues we're working on. We've done a lot of work in terms of making it easy to install, particularly on the Windows platform, but also on other platforms. What we're doing now is actually releasing a new version of the software every day. We don't feel any immediate need to do a big milestone release. People are really getting the best version of the software already.

How many people are working on the project now?
We're still pretty much the same: a core group of four or five people, depending on how you count them, and a periphery group of 20 or 30 people, some of whom are developing third-party products, some of whom are creating content for Freenet, etc.

How much of Uprizer's technology comes out of your Freenet experience?
Uprizer's product and Freenet obviously have different goals. The goal of Freenet is to provide a forum for free distribution of information. Obviously, the goal of the edge distribution network is to allow people to efficiently distribute information and save money.

While there is some overlap, the core differences in goals are, firstly, Uprizer's product doesn't care about anonymity. A lot of the cryptography and a lot of the heavy work that in some ways slows Freenet down a little bit, we don't need to worry about with Uprizer. With Uprizer's product, only information that is digitally signed by the administrator of the network is allowed on the network, whereas with Freenet, anyone can place information onto the network. There are also some more technical differences.

In some ways you could look at our software here at Uprizer as a highly customized, in some ways stripped-down and some ways beefed-up version of Freenet, which uses some of the same technology principles to achieve a different goal.