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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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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