A sheltered internet technology created by an Irishman has opened an anonymous world to Chinese dissidents and child pornographers alike.
The internet has revolutionised communications in many respects, but limits on freedom of expression still exist. Indeed, as Jo Glanville, editor of the ‘Index on Censorship’ has said, “The internet has been a revolution for censorship as much as free speech”. But what if there were a way to share any kind of information over the internet without detection? Freenet, a programme created by Meath native Ian Clarke, allows just that – freedom of communication with absolute anonymity. Freenet was conceived by Clarke, while he was studying computer science in Edinburgh University in the mid 1990s. At the time, the internet was heralded as a new revolution for free speech, but Clarke wasn’t convinced. “I realised [that] it would be far easier to censor and monitor the internet than e-mail,” says Clarke. Motivated by a quest for ‘free speech’, Freenet was eventually launched in 1999. It has grown steadily, with over two-million downloads to date.
Accessing Freenet could not be easier: download a small file, answer a short series of set-up questions, and hey presto. The bland, uninspiring design is a throwback to the mid 1990s dot com revolution – a grim reminder of how the internet used to be. Browse a little further though, and differences fast become apparent. Glancing through the list of freesites a world far removed from the everyday internet is revealed. The freesite ‘Arson Around with Auntie’ offers a “how-to guide on arson attacks for animal rights activists”. Another offers evidence of a leading multi-national’s illicit anti-competitive behaviour. More sites offer pornography, pirated music and movies and all manner of libellous material. Mostly, however, the sites are no different from what you would find on the regular internet and even some of the more shocking sites have mirrors on the regular web. And, of course, if we want to download the latest movies we can use peer-to-peer sharing. So what’s the big deal? The answer is twofold.
Firstly, news and literature taken for granted in western liberal democracies are not freely available behind the borders of censor-intensive countries such as Iran. Freenet allows internet users in these countries to access this information with total anonymity, as well as enabling free discussion on political issues. “If you say that discussion of politics on Freenet is minimal, you can be right,” said Freenet user MathFox on the Freenet Message Service (FMS). “English language discussion is minimal, but there is little need [for those in English speaking countries] to move to Freenet”. Because of Freenet’s promotion of anonymous freedom of communication, the programme has already been made illegal in China, with illicit copies being passed on between friends on CD. It is distinguishable, however, from Google which has been censored, albeit (disgracefully) self-censored. Estimates currently suggest that five per cent of Freenet users operate from behind the borders of authoritarian countries but because of the nature of the system it is impossible to be definitive. One thing at least is clear, the potential is momentous.
However, there is a darker side to Freenet. Most of the more controversial communication happens in the maximum security ‘darknet’. Events here are totally invisible to any Freenet user who is not directly connected to the person sharing it. While this allows free communication for those behind the borders of authoritarian regimes it also allows the unmonitored sharing of, for example, pirated music and movies, and child pornography. It is no coincidence that Freenet is popular in Russia where criminal groups appear to have begun to take advantage of the anonymity offered by the system to distribute illegal pornography and share criminal information. None of this activity is visible to the majority of Freenet users. For Clarke, however, this is a necessary evil, “If the trade off is that we’re going to deny everyone the freedom to communicate just because a very small number of people might use [Freenet] for child pornography, I think that’s a bad trade off”.
An anonymous user on FMS alerted me to another disconcerting feature. “You say you didn’t see much child porn?” asked the user. “That is not surprising given the fact that the main indexes don’t index child porn freesites. That doesn’t mean that it’s not all over your datastore in bits and pieces”. In other words, the nature of data communication on Freenet is such that to access it, even innocently, is to leave yourself open to the possibility that a tiny file fragment of child pornography is stored on your system or ‘node’. Ostensibly, this leaves users open to criminal prosecution. However, the difficulties of detecting the data and proving intent to access make a successful prosecution almost impossible. Indeed, several days after putting straightforward questions to the Garda Press Office about Freenet, no response is forthcoming. The flipside of that is that users are equally likely to store censored information, helping citizens of countries such as China or Iran gain free access to that same information. In other words, it is true freedom of communication – for both good and ill.
Is this a good thing? It depends on your point of view. Those who value absolute freedom of speech will undoubtedly look on Freenet as being revolutionary, but the ethical questions regarding criminal activity on the system still remain. Clarke, however, defends the system fiercely, “Child pornographers have used the postal system, nobody proposes that we shut down the postal system. They use e-mail: nobody proposes we shut down the internet. You can’t condemn a tool just because a small number of people might use it for something you disagree with.” Perhaps, however, the final word should fall to one of Freenet’s many anonymous users. “[Freenet] is a truly neutral, censorship-resistant online medium. How many of those are there?” A forum where anyone in the world can air their opinion without fear of interference is rare indeed, but that is exactly what Freenet offers. Free speech can exist after all.