Freenet: a Drive on the Information Super Highway

Cities mark the map of a civilization, illustrating the milestones of cultures and generations past, present, and future. Each building calls out to passersby beckoning them inside to share in whatever experience lies within those open doors. Whether the visitors partake in one destination or another is entirely up to them, their personal preference ruling the day. Some may visit a museum, others a theater, and yet some may choose a bar or local nightclub. However, there are always those seedier places that cater to the tastes of a select few where most people dare not tread. What determines these choices is relative to each individual and cannot be quantified on a global scale, but instead must be examined on an individual basis. Similar to the vast cities that make up a nation, the Internet’s destinations call out to surfers across the world. What websites people visit is solely based on the user experience and is as individual as snowflakes, but like dangerous neighborhoods the Internet also has a dark underworld that few see. One such place is called the Freenet or the Internet Two as many cyber cultures have dubbed it. Understanding how the Freenet works, who uses it, and its purpose can shed light on its social implications and effects on technology and culture around the world.

What is the Freenet? Freenet is the basic concept behind the original Internet in which users “ping” or call other users computers via various protocols through network connections. The difference between Freenet and the Internet is that its connectivity is solely based on peer to peer computing which sometimes use Darknets, the act of hosting an online connection with known individuals only and hiding IP addresses. Adam Langely, one of the volunteer C++ programmers working on the Freenet project, discusses the goals laid out by this technology:

In the case of Freenet, decentralization is pivotal to its goals, which are the following:

• Prevent censorship of documents

• Provide anonymity for users

•Remove any single point of failure or control

•Efficiently store and distribute documents

• Provide plausible deniability for node operators (Langley 123)

The technology which enables Freenet to function is called peer- to-peer networking which is often abbreviated by P2P, and allows users to share files transferring items from their computer to other end users’ machines. Many peer-to- peer based applications exist online including Napster, Limewire, SETI@Home, and Gnutella that enable users to search other users’ computers for files or harness the computing power of other machines using the Peer-to-Peer networking protocol. Most P2P networks are associated with file sharing often giving many people a negative view of this technology, but as Ian J. Taylor expresses in his book, From P2P Web Services and Grids, P2P sharing will enable the evolution of the Internet:

Recently, there has been an explosion of applications using peer-to-peer (P2P)

and Grid-computing technology. On the one hand, P2P has become ingrained

in current grass-roots Internet culture through applications like Gnutella [6]

and SETI@Home [3]. It has appeared in several popular magazines including

the Red Herring and Wired, and frequently quoted as being crowned by Fortune

as one of the four technologies that will shape the Internet’s future. The

popularity of P2P has spread through to academic and industrial circles, being

propelled by media and widespread debate both in the courtroom and out.

However, such enormous hype and controversy has led to the mistrust of such

technology as a serious distributed systems platform for future computing,

but in fact in reality, there is significant substance as we shall see. (Taylor 1)

 

Freenet differs from other peer-to-peer based applications in that the users’ identity is masked as are the files being shared by using random identification numbers. When a user searches for a file that file name will not be stored on any hard drive, but the identification number associated with that file will be. The files are also spread out among various users across the network preventing all information from residing on one hard drive further ensuring anonymity. According to Ramesh Subramanian and Brian D. Goodman, the use of numeric values in contrast to traditional filing systems was the driving force behind Freenet, “The reason behind this is Freenet was developed with the aim of creating a network in which information can be stored and accessed anonymously” (Goodman and Subramanian 10).

Online privacy and security has always been an issue for web users who want to protect bank information, personal data, and other private details. One of the reasons Freenet was established was to create a forum where people could use the Internet without having their personal information sold to advertising agencies, shop without being tracked, or simply browse web pages without having every keystroke recorded by their ISP.

The fear of government control over the Internet has always existed, but CNET’s Declan McCullagh  reports that fear is coming to fruition with the recent bill passed by Congress dubbed the ISP snooping bill, “A last-minute rewrite of the bill expands the information that commercial Internet providers are required to store to include customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses, some committee members suggested” (McCullagh 1). The bill will allow ISPs to save any information deemed “questionable” for a period of one year from users’ computers without their consent. The bill entitled the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 was introduced to Congress with the pretense of protecting children from pornography online.

However, California Representative Zoe Lofgren believes otherwise,” It represents ‘a data bank of every digital act by every American’ that would ‘let us find out where every single American visited Web sites’(McCullagh 1). Those supporting the bill simply state that people who break the law do not do so from home which contradicts the need for passing a bill on such a national scale. If in truth those individuals who perform illegal acts from libraries, Internet cafes, or public locations there would be no need to pass a bill with such a long reach.

Not all lawmakers agree with government controls on the Internet, and believe that the web falls under the protection of the First Amendment. In the book, Free Expression in the Age of the Internet, authors Jeremy, Harris, and Lipschultz describe the case Reno v. ACLU where Judge Dalzell ruled in favor of protecting individual’s right to unregulated freedom of speech,” I conclude that the CDA is unconstitutional and that the First Amendment denies Congress the power to regulate protected speech on the Internet” (Jeremy, Harris, and Lipschultz 102). Several members of Congress and the Senate are trying to fight an uphill battle to guarantee the right of privacy of Internet users, and maintain freedom of speech.

Fighting the invasion of privacy is only one of many reasons that Freenet was created, limiting the right to free speech is another pivotal part of its existence. In order to guarantee a web browsing experience without ISP spying, Freenet embraced the decentralizing technology of their P2P module. Freenet’s use of decentralization, not having all data located in a set number of servers and a particular location, makes it much more difficult for ISP’s to track and record user data and information. Using decentralized services like Freenet makes web surfing not only faster, but private giving users the ability to stay hidden behind their screens.

The level of anonymity offered by Freenet has a negative side, like the darkened alley in an urban city, not everything that remains anonymous is safe. Several types of illegal activity can be found on the Internet, but the most commonly focused upon are child pornography, illegal downloads of copyrighted material like music, movies or software applications.

One of the most heinous and disturbing crimes associated with the Internet is child pornography, defined as the act of buying, collecting, trading, possessing, producing, or distributing material which depicts a child in sexual situations actual or simulated.

Companies and individuals which distribute child pornography are always targeted for legal action, but often escape prosecution. While most cases of child pornography tend to be circumstances in which individuals trade images or videos more companies that film, distribute, and sell this illegal material are surfacing. Max Taylor and Ethel Quayle discuss a recent FBI raid on one such company,” November 2001, abc News.com reported the results of an FB investigation into a child pornography web site operated by Landslide Productions. This company’s web site sold subscriptions to web sites offering child pornography. Landslide Productions grossed $1.4 million dollars in one month, and on investigation revealed 35,000 individual subscribers within the USA. This is the largest such site to be detected to date, but indicates both the scale of both the interest, and the potential profit” (Taylor and Quayle 5).

Many sex offenders use bulletin boards, P2P or other underground means of communication online to disseminate such tragic accounts of child abuse. In their book, Investigating Child Exploitation and Pornography, Monique Ferraro and Eoghan Casey describe the chilling percentages of child pornography found using several P2P networks:

In March 2003 the United States General Accounting Office offered testimony to Congress detailing the prevalence of child pornography trafficking using P2P applications:

What GAO Found

Child pornography is easily found and downloaded from peer-to-peer networks. In one search using 12 keywords known to be associated with child pornography on the Internet, GAO identified 1,286 titles, and file names, determining that 543(about 42 percent) were associated with child pornography images. These results are consistent with increased reports of child pornography on peer-to-peer networks; since it began tracking these in 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has seen a fourfold increase- from 156 in 2001 to 757 in 2002. (Ferraro and Casey 38-39)

The constant battle of trying to prosecute offenders of child pornography and protect children from such horrid acts is ongoing, stretching across the world. Attempting to balance the regulation of explicit and illegal material without infringing upon the right to free speech has always been a debacle.

Legislators, government officials, and the populous of many countries try to find the balance between illegality and individual rights, and thus far it has yet to be achieved. The wax and wane of the individual rights and moral code will always be an area of debate within most democratic countries, but on child pornography there seems to be little room for debate.

While more cases of child pornography seem to occur, conversely so do arrests of offenders write Kerry Sheldon and Dennis Howitt,” Much of the concern about the Internet and sex offending centres on the issue of child pornography. As far as can be ascertained, child pornography is the major activity that constitutes Interne-related sex crime at the present, certainly in terms of convictions “(Sheldon and Howitt 7).

Freenet is not immune to the reprehensible act of facilitating child pornographers and viewers. The anonymous capabilities of this peer-to-peer application are a breeding ground for the dark belly of the Internet.

However, some theorists believe that hackers and hactivists alike allow the level of freedom on Freenet to ensnare such immoral individuals forwarding their details to authorities for the last people on Earth who want the law “regulating” them, is Freenet. Some scholars including Philip Jenkins, author of Beyond Tolerance, believe that Freenet is in fact aiding law agencies by reporting child pornographers, “To the best of my knowledge, this newer network still exists…unless, of course, it is a well-concealed snare prepared by some law enforcement agency to flush out major figures in the trade” (Jenkins 79).

Child pornography is not the only dark alley Internet users may wander down. One of the most common and most known forms of illegal activity online is the piracy of copyrighted material.  Downloading movies, music, and software has become such a trend in this Internet Age that it is not uncommon for almost every household, at one point to have obtained copyrighted material without express permission by its owner.

Who are these pirates? Are they gamers, hackers, or disenchanted youth? While most Internet pirates make up younger generations they are not the only ones pirating, but they are the ones being caught. J.D. Lasica’s book Darknet gives example after example of how diverse the faces of illegal downloaders have become using examples of teenagers, priests, and counselors (Lasica 300).

The high profile cases with companies like Napster were only the beginning, music and movie companies alike are gunning for any and all individuals who perform acts of piracy using the recent ISP snooping law as a means to make this happen. Kristen Schweizer and Adam Satariano describe the enormity of the issue in a Bloomberg article,” Millions spent suing alleged pirates have earned the music industry negative press while failing to stop the practice. Despite the success of online music retailers like Apple Inc.’s iTunes, 95 percent of music downloads are illegal” (Schweizer and  Satariano 1).

The line between what is the intellectual property of the company and the individual has become blurred in recent years. People making their own version of songs, clips from movies, and other such instances have created completely new circumstances regarding copyrighted material. The act of consumers becoming more involved in their media experience and engaging in participatory forms of media has changed everything. J. D. Lasica agrees, “Copy right law was crafted with consumers in mind. But what happens when audiences create media as well as consume it? As we sample, quote, reinvent, and share media in the new participatory culture, the law and our digital lives are diverging at an accelerating clip”(Lasica 137).

The idea of consumers and Internet users becoming part of their media experience is another proponent for the existence of unregulated Internet usage by Freenet. Enabling downloaders a place to gather music, movies, clips, and other files to create their own artwork or digital presentation is just another reason Freenet justifies its existence. Amy White affirms that regulating Internet communication can create a never ending spiral of censorship resulting in the potential loss of art or music that defines a culture:

If the Internet is regulated, it is entirely likely that much material that contains artistic and informational value will be lumped in the category “sexually explicit” and made inaccessible on the Internet. Historically, such generalization has been the norm and I can perceive of no reason why it would not be the case in regard to Internet relation, some of the greatest works of art could certainly be labeled sexually explicit, inappropriate for minors, morally objectionable and/or degrading to women. If regulation can be justified on the aforementioned grounds, some masterpieces will doubtlessly be regulated. (White 132-133)

Once regulations and censorship begin, most people worry there will not be an end. ISPs being able to collect the most intimate details of any of their consumers and social media websites like Facebook selling personal and demographic information to retailers are just a few of the fears Freenet advocates have.

In a collection of essays by numerous artists authors and editors, Svetlana Mintcheva and Robert Atkins describe the perfect form of censorship,” The ultimate dream of censorship is to do away with the censor” (Atkins and Mintcheva 299). Mintcheva describes the need for self-censorship, hoping that Internet users, artists, patrons, or any member of a community will take responsibility for their own actions and censor themselves. The current culture may not be evolved enough to fully embrace and exhibit such forms of censorship, but many like the programmers of Freenet hope one day it can.

The threat to the freedom of speech and expression will always be at the heart of any argument concerning the Internet, but Freenet hopes to continue their project to enable free online services for all without restriction.

Websites, like buildings within a city, are places for web users to visit and experience creating memories, making friends, or learning new things. Technology like Freenet and other peer-to-peer systems are merely the road by which users travel by- where they wind up is entirely dependent on the stroke of the keyboard or the click of the mouse.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Atkins, Robert, and Svetlana Mintcheva. Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression. New York: New Press, 2006.299. Print.

Ferraro, Monique M, Eoghan Casey, and Michael McGrath. Investigating Child Exploitation and Pornography: The Internet, the Law and Forensic Science. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2005. 38-39.Print.

Jenkins, Philip. Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet. New York: New York UP, 2001.79. Print.

Langley, Andrew, and Oram, Andrew.”Freenet” Peer-to-peer: Harnessing the Benefits of a Disruptive Technology. Beijing: O’Reilly, 2001. 123.Print.

Lasica, J. D. Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005. Print.

Lipschultz, Jeremy H. Free Expression in the Age of the Internet: Social and Legal Boundaries. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 2000. 102.Print.

McCullagh, Declan. “House Panel Approves Broadened ISP Snooping Bill | Privacy Inc. – CNET News.” Technology News – CNET News. 28 July 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20084939-281/house-panel-approves-broadened-isp-snooping-bill/&gt;.

Schweizer, Kristen, and Satariano, Adam. “Bloomberg.” Bloomberg – Business & Financial News, Breaking News Headlines. 13 Feb. 2009. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&gt;.

Sheldon, Kerry, and Dennis Howitt. Sex Offenders and the Internet. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.7. Print.

Subramanian, Ramesh, and Brian D. Goodman. Peer-to-peer Computing: The Evolution of a Disruptive Technology. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Pub, 2005.10. Print.

Taylor, Ian J. From P2P to Web Services and Grids: Peers in a Client/server World. London: Springer, 2005. 1.Print.

Taylor, Maxwell, and Ethel Quayle. Child Pornography: an Internet Crime. Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge, 2003. 5. Print.

White, Amy E. Virtually Obscene: The Case for an Uncensored Internet. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2006. 132-133.Print.

 

 

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