Ian Clarke, a 28-year-old who originally hails from Navan, Co. Meath, has recently seen what he calls his “hobby” become a focus of attention for Internet security experts, music fans and the international media.
At issue is a software system called Freenet that Clarke began developing in 1999. A new version of the software will become available later this year. Freenet’s appeal is simple — it enables its users to conceal their identity on the Internet and to thereby share information anonymously.
Clarke believes such software can play a crucial role in encouraging and protecting freedom of speech, and that it will be particularly useful to dissidents in nations that are in the grasp of repressive regimes.
His critics, however, contend that systems like Freenet carry two serious dangers. One is that people with malevolent purposes, such as terrorists, could use it to communicate without fear of discovery. The other is that it may enable the kind of free file-sharing of copyright material that was most famously seen in the first incarnation of Napster — an activity that, according to music industry executives, amounted to the stealing of artists’ creative work.
The first criticism is, in many people’s eyes, the more significant. So-called “darknet” systems, of which Freenet is a leading example, have given security experts cause for concern. Several U.S. senators have also expressed worries over their implications. Criticism does not only emanate from this side of the Atlantic.
Conor Flynn, the technical director of an Irish information security company, blasted Clarke’s system in last week’s Irish edition of the London Sunday Times:
“The ability to remain anonymous while surfing the web is dangerous,” Flynn insisted. “Internet protocol addresses and connection details have been used by police in many prosecutions. With systems like Freenet, the police would no longer be able to get information like that.”
Clarke, contacted by the Echo while vacationing in Austin, TX, offered a robust defense of the software. He contended that it is unlikely that Freenet would be used by terrorists who wanted to communicate one-to-one. According to Clarke, there are already systems that offer encryption of emails and other features that would be better suited to that purpose.
The Irishman also claims that Freenet offers an enhancement of democratic rights rather than a protection for potentially violent activity. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance of freedom of speech and the free sharing of information:
“You and I are lucky enough to live under democratic governments,” he says. “But one of the cornerstones of democracy is that governments are regulated by the people over whom they rule.
“The people need to be able to understand what is going on in order to do that. If governments have the ability to limit access to information, it’s a bit like students being allowed to grade their own exam papers. I don’t believe governments have any legitimate business trying to limit access to information.”
Clarke sees even more value to systems like Freenet when it comes to oppressive regimes. Freenet is intended to operate through trust, whereby someone who downloads the software can invite other individuals to communicate with them, without those communications being accessible to anyone outside the group.
The developer characterizes this system as working “a bit like the French Resistance.” He adds that anonymity is the key factor in Freenet’s operation:
“Nobody can tell who has published what or who’s consuming what. In fact, nobody who you don’t trust can even tell that you are on there.”
Clarke does not dismiss the notion that there is a downside, however. While he pours cold water on the notion of the system being used in the planning of terrorist attacks, he is more circumspect when asked about the possibility of it being utilized by those who want to share illegal information or data, as would be the case if pedophiles sought to swap child pornography:
“That danger does exist,” he says. “And I think anyone found creating child pornography should be sent to jail for a very long time. But there is a broader point here: any tool — and, in fact, any freedom — can be misused. The postal system, for example, was used for many years to transfer all kinds of information, including child pornography. But people didn’t use that as an argument to open every single letter or to say that the postal system was itself dangerous.”
Clarke’s overall argument seems straightforward:
“It would be terrible if Freenet was used to distribute child pornography,” he said. “But the only alternative to accepting that danger is deciding that there would be no Freenet. I think the benefits to dissidents in countries like China or Iran or Burma outweigh the dangers.”
Agree or disagree with Clarke’s arguments, he cannot be accused of making them as a cover for profiteering. Freenet is a not-for-profit organization. The system itself is free to anyone who wants it, and the “source code” — essentially the formula by which Freenet is constructed — is, according to Clarke, also freely available. For the Irishman, the construction of the system is a side-project. His “day job,” in Edinburgh, Scotland, is as the chief technology officer of an Internet company, Change TV Inc.
Clarke also says that the controversy over Freenet’s capacity to be used for illegal file-sharing is overblown. He argues, firstly, that file-sharing is not the primary purpose of the system. He also draws attention to the recent Supreme Court ruling in the so-called Grokster case.
That decision has been widely held to mean that supplying software that can be used for file-sharing is not against the law, but actively encouraging its use for that purpose is illegal. Clarke again argues that his system is designed to help “the dissident in China, not the 12-year-old trying to download the latest Britney Spears song.
“I am convinced that everything we are doing is one hundred percent legal, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom,” he adds.