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Napster, Round 2 

Genie 1, Bottle 0

Wednesday, May 24 2000

There is technology out there that is being developed as we speak that is going to make Napster look obsolete any minute.

—Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, to ABC News

Lars, it’s already here. It’s called Freenet. Created by Ian Clarke, a 23-year-old Irish programmer, Freenet lets users trade files directly, without having to go through a “middleman” computer. Like the legally beleaguered Napster and its now open-source cousin Gnutella, Freenet is absolutely fascinating from a software-engineering point of view. But for music and film artists, record labels, movie studios, and other copyright holders, it’s a vision of the apocalypse.

“I can’t envision a way to shut down Freenet without shutting down the Internet,” Clarke says.

In essence, Freenet uses the Net as a giant communal hard drive. Users download the Freenet code and agree to allot a certain number of megabytes on their hard drives to the storage of Freenet files. Any sort of information can then be stored on the participating computers. This is where it gets most interesting. Freenet was created for anonymity. By design, it is difficult to find out what is being stored — and where. Like soldiers on active duty, files “ship out,” when requested, to new locations.

Freenet relies on “keys” to point to the files. The keys are roughly equivalent to URLs. You put up, oh, let’s say, your illegally decrypted copy of The Matrix DVD. You give it the key “The Matrix,” and someone searching on that key will turn it up. But they won’t know that the file originated with you. It may not even be on your hard drive anymore, having migrated to another computer whose owners won’t know it’s there, because it’s been encrypted. All they will know is that something is taking up space on their hard drive. By comparison, the weak link that opened Napster and hundreds of thousands of its users to litigation is a centralized directory in which user IDs are stored. Gnutella goes one better by having no central directory, but it still relies on static IP addresses, the digital equivalent of yelling, “Hey, I’m over here!”

Clarke designed Freenet’s anonymity and encryption features specifically to protect users against legal liability. Special Agent Ramiro Escudero, an FBI spokesperson, says Clarke’s scheme “might possibly” work. The argument would go like this: Someone left a locked suitcase in my closet. I can prove it doesn’t belong to me, I can prove I don’t have a key, I can prove I have no idea what’s inside it — all I did was agree that it could be left with me. “According to this scenario,” cautions Escudero, “it would not appear that you would be criminally liable, but it’s always case by case.” The law looks differently at you storing a suitcase left by your mother vs. your brother-in-law the Mafia kingpin, Escudero explains. In other words, should Freenet eventually become known as a place where bad people hide bad things, some of the shielding might disappear.

John Markoff of The New York Times, in a front-page story, portrayed Clarke as an arrogant, capitalism-challenged anarchist. You can almost feel the mano-a-mano thing going on in the interview between the veteran technology reporter and yet another genius kid.

With me, Clarke is at great pains not to be provocative, and I am equally at pains to be fair. But, listening to him offer the disclaimer that “If you sell water in the desert, but one day it starts to rain, there’s no one for you to sue,” I can’t help but think of Tom Lehrer’s parody tribute to Werner von Braun (I’m sure there’s an illegal copy online somewhere): “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department!”

Freenet is like many double-edged-sword technologies — one can imagine a thousand benign and even laudable uses, e.g., fighting a government that imprisons people for advocating freedom, or a corporation that fires people for telling the truth about their products. “I think freedom of information should be total,” says Clarke. “You can’t pick and choose. It’s incredibly patronizing to think that if you give people ‘wrong information,’ they’ll do the wrong thing. By removing censorship, you remove the crutch, this intellectual narcotic.”

But Clarke, who majored in artificial intelligence at the University of Edinburgh (one of the best computer-science schools in the United Kingdom), says his motivation in creating Freenet was not political but, rather, technical. Now working for Dynamic Blue, a Web-design firm in London, he says Freenet grew out of a paper he wrote in his final year at Edinburgh. “Not to create havoc with copyright or even a way around censorship,” he insists. “I was fascinated by complex systems which consisted of individuals following simple rules, where no one individual was fundamental to the operation of the system. Consider a flock of birds in formation. If you were to shoot one bird, it wouldn’t destroy the formation — because it doesn’t rely on any one individual bird.”

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