The Infoanarchist

  • Ian Clarke boots up a computer in a house he shares with two flatmates in a gritty London neighborhood, across the street from Brixton Prison. With a few quick keystrokes, he downloads a free copy of Britney Spears' new single, Oops!...I Did It Again. As Britney's sugary lament fills his dorm-style bedroom, bouncing off the unmade bed and the laundry bag on the door, Clarke insists he feels no pangs of conscience. "Copyright is a crutch," he says. "It's inherent in nature that information wants to be free."

    Ho-hum. Just another Gen Y geek pirating music on the Net. Napster--the file-sharing system that lets people download free music--and its close kin Gnutella seem so 10 minutes ago. The recording industry has Napster on the run, with a federal lawsuit pending to shut it down for copyright violations. And now , another music-sharing service, has settled with two record companies (including Warner Music Group, a unit of this magazine's parent, Time Warner) on terms favorable to the industry (see following story).

    But Clarke wasn't using Napster or . He downloaded Oops! on Freenet, a next-generation Napster-like program of his own creation that ratchets file sharing up to the next level. What sets Freenet apart is that information on it travels from PC to PC anonymously. There's no way to tell who posts a document and no way to tell who downloads it.

    The implications are profound. Dissidents in totalitarian states could use Freenet to post samizdat that once had to be cautiously hand-circulated. Whistle-blowers could safely bring smoking-gun documents to light. But Freenet could also be put to less high-minded use. Critics say it will be a boon to drug dealers, terrorists and child pornographers. And it poses a new threat to intellectual-property rights. With Napster, at least there's a company to sue and a way to trace individuals who have downloaded CDs. If Freenet catches on, it may be impossible to find anyone to punish.

    Clarke, a lanky, earnest 23-year-old, became fascinated with computers after seeing the 1983 hacker-fantasy flick War- Games as a child in Navan, Ireland. A computer-science major at the University of Edinburgh, Clarke developed Freenet as a student project over the summer of 1998. His key innovation was the element of anonymity. PCs hooked up to Freenet (the software can be downloaded from ) become "nodes," meaning they are host to data files deposited on them for varying amounts of time. There's no central server, as with Napster. And there's no need for users to sign on or identify themselves.

    Clarke is a true anarchist about information. He believes no one should control it. Not governments, not corporations. "An attempt to control information should be just as disturbing as an attempt to control the air we breathe," he says. He dismisses critics' concerns. Musicians will always find ways to make money, Clarke insists, by sales of T shirts and other ancillary items, perhaps, or even voluntary payments from their fans. As for terrorism and child pornography, he doesn't believe humanity should be denied free speech because "a few people might use it for something unsavory." Ultimately, Clarke says, Freenet makes debates of this kind moot. "If you had to convince everyone freedom of information is a good thing, it would never happen," he says. "The point is, I made it happen."

    Or, more precisely, he's still trying to make it happen. Clark has a day job, working for a company that consults for online auctions. (He makes no money from Freenet, and since he doesn't claim to own it, he can't sell it.) He spends much of his free time--along with volunteer code writers from as far away as Stockholm and Houston--working out Freenet's kinks. It's in a creaky early version right now, so hard to use that only some 35,000 people have hooked up. High on Clarke's to-do list: create a search engine so users won't need to consult informal lists like "Steve's Key Index" that volunteers have assembled.

    As for actual content, the pickings are still slim, but it's not hard to see Freenet's vast potential. Clarke scrolls down an index looking for items of interest and calls out what he finds. The Communist Manifesto. The U.S. Constitution. A document purporting to be a British Intelligence report on Libyan spying activities in Britain. A lot of files have names suggesting they're pornographic; a few seem to be child porn. There are files that appear to contain secret "OT" documents of the Church of Scientology. If they're real, they illustrate Freenet's power: the Scientologists have obtained court orders in the past to yank such documents off the Net. Another file purports to be secret coding from Microsoft, also a vigilant defender of its copyrights. Clarke says he's never been contacted by Microsoft or any of the other entities whose content has been posted, and he doesn't expect to be. After all, he doesn't control what gets posted on Freenet. "There's nothing I can do, and they probably know that," he says.

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