Freenet May Make the Internet a Wilder Place

BOSTON (05/23/2000) - When Napster Inc.'s music-finding software appeared late last year, it helped fuel a global feeding frenzy in unauthorized MP3 music files by using the Internet to link the hard drives of millions of music fans.

But the Napster/MP3 controversy pales in comparison to what the future holds. A wave of more ambitious Napster clones is appearing, the most powerful of which is Freenet. The software's chief architect claims the program will achieve nothing short of "near-perfect anarchy."

The software promotes unfettered distribution and replication of digital information on the Internet. Right now, the most conspicuous target is music, but other forms of copyrightable content, such as books and movies, will soon also be digitized and therefore will be vulnerable.

The Freenet programmers, all of whom are volunteers through The Freedom Network Project, say the system "is completely decentralized, meaning that there is no person, computer or organization in control of Freenet or essential to its operation."

Like Napster, Freenet can link a vast number of users. But with Freenet, data is constantly shuffled from one user to another, and a computer owner doesn't know what's stored on his hard drive at any given time. Once a piece of information enters the Freenet maw, it can't be expunged.

The program was designed so that:

-- Both authors and readers of information can remain anonymous.

-- Information can be distributed throughout the Freenet network in such a way that it's effectively impossible to determine its location.

-- Anyone can publish information - you don't need to buy a domain name or even a permanent Internet connection.

With respect to copyrighted material, two groups are directly affected. First are the artists, including musicians, authors, poets and film stars. As a society, we must devise ways to protect their livelihoods. Second are the companies that control the distribution channels, such as the record labels, publishers and television networks. To survive, they clearly need to reinvent their business models around the Web, rather than pretend it doesn't exist.

But the copyright issue is just one piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, Freenet also makes it easier to distribute such material as hate literature or child pornography. The program's proponents acknowledge this. Yes, they say, child pornography will be available, if that's what people want. On the other hand, voices of democracy will be able to speak loudly in countries suffering repression. So there are costs, but there are also benefits.

Don't underestimate Freenet just because it's being developed by an ad hoc group of volunteers. The same methodology produced Linux, one of the best operating systems available.

The most recent version of Freenet was posted on the Web earlier this month (http://freenet.sourceforge.net). As we reflect on its fallout, we should remember that a prerequisite for a successful strategy is to recognize reality.

Don Tapscott is chairman of Digital 4Sight (www.digital-4sight.com) and co-author of the newly released book Digital Capital. Contact him at dtapscott@digital-4sight.com.

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