Recent court decisions against MP3.com and Napster suggest that the Internet has lost its potential as a giant anarchic state where information flows freely and policing is off-limits.
But if Ian Clarke has his day, anarchy will return. The 23-year-old Irish computer science grad is the founder of Freenet, and if he's successful, the industry-smashing actions of Napster will seem like child's play.
Not to be confused with the free ISPs set up around the globe, Clarke describes his Freenet -- found at http://freenet.sourceforge.net -- as an "information publication system." Here's how it works.
Unlike the Internet, which is based on easily traceable centralized servers, Freenet is premised on decentralization. Information is stored on the machines of volunteer subscribers around the planet. It's published anonymously and can only be retrieved on demand if you have the Freenet software installed on your machine and if you know exactly what you're looking for.
It sounds very cloak-and-daggerish, but for a good reason. Freenet is all about anonymity. The information posted is untraceable, eliminating censorship, libel and pretty much any other law you can think of.
There are no search engines. Instead, the "key" you need to access the info -- essentially, the location of the person storing it -- is passed around either by word of mouth or through other Freenet postings.
Voices heard In his extensive FAQ, Clarke envisions Freenet being used by all sorts of freedom-loving, copyright-cracking people, including dissidents in oppressive countries hoping to have their voices heard.
Music pirates looking to take bootlegging one step beyond Napster will also enjoy Freenet. The downside is that absolute anonymity is likely to be abused by pornographers, though Clarke insists the good must come with the bad.
The project is still in its early stages, and the number of people willing to host Freenet connection points is quite limited. Still, the idea of a totally free and open online community is an intriguing one.
Libel lawyers and the Recording Industry of America ought to be very concerned.
Wish you could see Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie's wedding certificate? Want to see Dennis Rodman's arrest warrant, or the ballistic reports filed after Malcolm X's assassination? Smoking Gun's got 'em. How they get the info isn't clear, and the same goes for why anyone would really care, but here it is. -- MG