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Internet World: Ian Clarke may make us forget about Napster

Jul 23, 2000, 15:29 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by David Lipschultz)

By David Lipschultz, Internet World

There are tons of tech-savvy Web geeks out there who love the fact that new technology is creating anarchy in the world. There are countless hackers who purposefully try to exploit what inklings there are of it. Then there is Ian Clarke, who just wanted to build a better mousetrap. It turns out he may have created more anarchy in cyberspace than anyone before him.

Clarke designed a software program called Freenet (not to be confused with any of the hundreds of free Net access services). Freenet is, in essence, the next step up the food chain among file-sharing protocols, such as Napster and Gnutella, and has the ability to completely shake up the copyright world. While magazines like Fortune plop Napster's founders on its cover, calling their inventions the next big thing, the boyish-looking, 23-year-old Clarke is relegated to some paragraph toward the end. Bad call: His program has the potential to wreak much more havoc than any other file-sharing scheme out there.

"In both Napster and Gnutella, you know who's getting what when; there's no anonymity," Clarke says. "With Freenet, there's total anonymity."

The way this universe works is that the software program enables a user to circumvent the Web and hook into other users directly. With Napster, a user first has to go to a central point before being connected to another user to share files. Want the latest Beastie Boys tune? If someone on the Napster network has it on his hard drive, you can grab it from him. But because it goes through a central server housed by Napster, the giver and the receiver can always be known and lawyers for the Recording Industry Association of America have been able to haul Napster into court.

Gnutella eliminates the central server by connecting each user to each other, making each individual computer the node or the server, but it still allows others to track the action on the network.

With Freenet, each user acts as a node without any central server, just like Gnutella, but everything just floats in an anonymous universe. Participants on the network can upload and download any file without the action ever being traced.

While this may sound complicated, it boils down to this: Everything is free game on the Freenet network, without any recourse. As you can imagine, this could throw a formidable monkey wrench into the businesses of music and film content in general. If you can't catch people pirating, it makes it difficult to charge for content. And if you can't charge for anything, well, you know the rest.

"Everything should be free on the Internet," Clarke says. "It's going to happen whether anyone likes it or not." While he seems to be championing anarchy on the Net, Clarke says that he did not set out to create this kind of free-for-all when, as a 20-year-old undergraduate at Scotland's Edinburgh University, he designed Freenet.

"You shouldn't be forced to pay for content like music and books," Clarke continues. "If you want to pay for it, like a donation, then that's great, but otherwise it shouldn't be required."

That, of course, leads to some major problems. If content creators can't charge, they have less incentive to produce, which surely would put a damper on the amount of creativity out there. "People will make sure it still exists," he says, brushing off the hypothesis a bit.

This whole argument may be a bit premature. While tens of thousands of people have downloaded the program since it was posted on the Freenet site in March, it is by no means a widespread phenomenon, and it doesn't have the steam behind it that Napster and Gnutella do. Still, the entertainment industry is concerned.

"It does allow for easier piracy right now, which creates problems," says Leonardo Chiariglione, executive director of SDMI. Chiariglione, whose association represents companies in the music business and helps build standards and security for that industry, doesn't appear particularly worried about Freenet. But members of his association have expressed their anxiety over Freenet and other file-sharing programs.

"I have no shortage of gray hairs from worrying about these programs," Talal Shamoon, an industry executive who is also a member of SDMI, told The New York Times. A glance at the current state of anti-piracy efforts certainly justifies his concern. There are several competing digital rights management (DRM) technologies, which basically force each listener to pay no matter how the music is distributed. But the industry cannot find common ground, which makes it difficult to stop piracy.

Once the industry does begin to agree, Chiariglione says, Freenet may, ironically, help the business in the end. "It is an incredibly powerful tool for distribution," he says. "It could work out very synergistically with the producers of content."

It would appear that Clarke will see no financial rewards directly from Freenet. "People get confused. Freenet is not a commercial product; it's a piece of software," says Clarke, who is, like many other programmers, toiling away at a London startup. He is, however, getting ready for the lecture circuit.

Does he worry that his software will wind up fostering things like child pornography? "I created a tool. It's up to the people how they use it," he says. "You can't blame a knife manufacturer for a stabbing."

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