June 19, 2001 4:00 AM PDT

Networks promise unfettered file swapping

The fate of the free Net may rest in the hands of a university student in Sweden making less money than a coffee slinger at Starbucks.

While the first generation of file-trading technologies fights over Napster's leavings, more radical Net programmers are still committed to building a wholly anonymous, virtually untraceable way of communicating and trading files online. Chief among these is Freenet, an open-source project viewed by many as the ultimate inheritor to Napster's original promise of free online file swapping.

For the first time, the largely volunteer effort has hired a paid staffer, Swedish student Oskar Sandberg, who will get $2500 for two months of work, using funds from an online donation pool. Developers hope that allowing one of their members to work full time on the project will help the completion of a new release, the first in almost a year, that finally will make Freenet faster and easier to use.

"This release will move away from Freenet as a research platform," said Ian Clarke, the British programmer who originally conceived Freenet as a university thesis. "We never expected it to be used widely this early in its development."

Freenet is the most prominent, and perhaps the most ambitious, of a growing number of projects aimed at giving people the ability to communicate online without being tapped, traced or monitored by anyone--whether it be repressive governments or record labels looking for pirated MP3s.

Harbored in the loose online communities of open-source programmers, it is these projects that are now thought likeliest to emerge as tools that could permanently shift the Net's balance of power, as Napster and the first generation of file swappers did temporarily.

One of the newest radicals emerged last week, in the form of a Canadian project dubbed Cryptobox. Though Cryptobox is not as far along as Freenet, the academics behind the project are aimed more at keeping information and communications out of corporate hands rather than away from prying governments.

"The threat comes from companies," lead Cryptobox developer Nick Bobic wrote in an e-mail interview. "Everyone's Web browsing habits will be under a microscope, and all of that information could end up for sale."

Keeping prying eyes away
The drive for absolute privacy online has bubbled up from several different sources in the past few years, as technology for tracing surfers online has improved, government monitoring tools such as Carnivore and Echelon have come to light, and file-trading services such as Napster have entered the public spotlight.

Death of the free Web Web services that shield a surfer's address and identity are relatively common, though they're rarely used by mainstream computer users. But the developers behind Freenet, Cryptobox and other services are trying to provide something more.

Freenet in particular marks an attempt to create a network that exists as a parallel Internet, where content of any kind can be uploaded and downloaded without any way to track who created a given "site," or to take down a given piece of content once it is in the network.

Like peer-to-peer networks such as Gnutella, the system draws solely on individual computers to host content and relay messages around the Net. But unlike other such peer systems, Freenet has a built-in method of pushing content between different computers, so that a given file can migrate around the network between different people's hard drives until it is stored near regions where it is most often used.

People who give up portions of their hard drives as Freenet "nodes," or storage centers, can't decode this portion of their drives, so nobody--not even the hosts--can tell just what they're storing at any given moment. These features provide the strong protections against censorship and tracking that Clarke and the other developers have sought since the beginning.

But at the same time, these protections have made it more difficult to create the kind of point-and-click interface that made Napster a hit even among the most technically illiterate. As a result, the system has seen more public attention than it has actual use by consumers.

Recently, a few Web-based interfaces to the Freenet network have made it easier for the less technically literate to use. But the system still lacks familiar tools such as a search feature that can instantly find specific files, for example.

Clarke and the other developers stress that Freenet was never intended to be a fully functional network this early on in its development. The burst of publicity sparked by Napster's rise illuminated a project that would ordinarily have progressed in obscurity for years more, they say.

Even with substantial hurdles, however, people around the world have started using the network as a way to store and share content. Much of this content is MP3 files or pornography, but some of it is political, including a site in Chinese dedicated to news of that country.

"That's a little scary," Clarke says of the dissident site. "They could be in trouble if we've made any mistakes."

Outside projects are also building on top of the Freenet framework with more specific applications. A group called Espra is creating an application designed for anonymously sharing MP3 files, for example, while FreeWeb allows people to create their own Web sites inside the private Freenet network.

The Cryptobox developers are concentrating more on ensuring absolutely private communications than on creating a way to publish content free of any censorship.

The technology under development would protect communications between computers, allowing people to send instant messages or e-mail that couldn't be read by outsiders and masking the communications in fake data to make it unclear whether any messages are being sent at all. Anonymity built into the system is intended to make it difficult for any outsider to determine the sender or receiver of any message.

A darker side?
For the last year, Freenet's Clarke has made the rounds of conferences and online venues as one of the most articulate defenders of the virtues of absolutely free communication, with no restrictions based on copyright or any other local legalities. A relatively popular notion when talking about criticism of repressive governments, the idea has made Clarke less popular with the Recording Industry Association of America, the movie studios, and others that see Freenet as a potential file-swappers' refuge.

Cryptobox, too, will see its own criticism similar to that which marked the encryption debates in Congress several years back--that criminals and terrorists could use the secret communications systems without any ability for law enforcement to track them.

But these types of criticisms don't weigh heavily on the developers' minds.

"Every piece of technology can be used for illegal purposes; the word processor that I'm using just now could be used for writing a ransom note, for example," Cryptobox's Bobic wrote. "But the benefits do outweigh the possible damage done by a few rogue users."

 

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