Freenet File Sharing

by Moya K. Mason

Ian Clarke is an Irish computer scientist. He is the project coordinator for Freenet and its original designer, releasing version 1.0 in March 2000. Clarke says he started Freenet to liberate intellectual property using technology. The software has seen many upgrades since then, which can be attributed to its open source model and the number of people who volunteer their skills to make it better.

Freenet is a distributed decentralized information storage and retrieval system that stores, caches, and distributes digital content according to demand. It is different from Napster, for example, because that file-sharing system relies on a single centralized server. Freenet is a system that lacks centralized administration. Information is inserted into the system with a unique description or 'key' and made available to those with an appropriate key. Files are searched for by their unique code.

Information posters are under no obligation to make themselves known and many choose to remain anonymous. Users can use crytography to prove authorship and remain anonymous by creating a persona that protects their real identity and still let them build a reputation of reliability.

Since there are no centralized servers or fixed locations, Freenet is not subject to censorship because documents cannot be traced back to their source. Information is not easily removed from the system because there is no mechanism that will delete documents. Strong encryption protects against counterfeiting, tampering, or spying on the materials that are posted, stored or accessed.

To use Freenet, you will need to run a piece of server software, and possibly a client-side program that inserts and removes information from the system.

First Among Equals, by Will Knight

"Freenet was developed to provide a scalable peer-to-peer file-sharing system that adds privacy as a key element. The system's creator, Ian Clark, says that Freenet can easily scale to millions of users because it searches intelligently, and with no centralized authority. Instead, each computer on the system is considered equal and communication takes place locally amongst a few clients/servers. Searches, on the other hand, use file codes to target documents and get the directions needed to establish location."

Gnutella, by Gene Kan

"Freenet has the promotion of free speech as its ultimate goal, with participants contributing an amount of their hard drive and bandwidth to facilitate the sharing of files in Freenet.

"In a sense, Freenet creates a very large and geographically distributed hard drive with anonymous access. The network is optimized for computerized access to those files rather than human interaction."

In that sense it is unlike Gnutella, which has fewer applications for automatons and more for humans."

Freenet, by Adam Langley

"Freenet is a series of nodes or computers that exchange messages. All are considered equal within the network, and by utilizing system protocols, clusters of computers create spontaneous and efficient networks.

Users can forward requests to a node that is known and considered trustworthy. As a result, often an initial request will be directed at one's own computer. about and trusts (usually one running on his or her own computer). If the document cannot be found, a request will be forwarded to another node that will more likely have what the person is looking for. The document, forming a chain of node requests. Each reply passes back though each of the nodes that received and forwarded the request on until it arrives back to the source of the request. Each node can cache the document so that it will have the document available the next time a request comes along.

"If someone wants to find out exactly what you are doing, then given the resources, they will. Freenet does, however, seek to stop mass, indiscriminate surveillance of people."

Based on the way that Freenet is set up, those on the system have no way of knowing what types of digital content they are storing and forwarding, and there is no mechanism by which they can, for instance, opt out of passing along pornography. If a node is unaware of document content, it means that they cannot be responsible for it either."

David Boies: The Wired Interview, by John Heilemann

"I think the law cannot deal with that as a practical matter. However, there is a real difference between Gnutella and Freenet on one hand and Napster on the other. Central-server directories provide something that totally decentralized services do not: a much greater ability for users to make choices and decisions, because of the centralized index. I think the real danger here is that if you shut down a service like Napster, which has the potential to be much more efficient and more protective of copyright holders, you will drive everybody to a less efficient system that is less protective of copyright holders."

The Noisy War Over Napster, by Steven Levy

"Steven Levy sees Freenet as a radical system since it is decentralized, protects privacy, uses encryption, and randomly distributes files to Freenetters, who neither know what kinds of information is stored on their hard drives, nor have the capacity to trace file transfers."

Listening to Napster, Clay Shirky

"What makes Napster and Popular Power and Freenet and AIMster and Groove similar is that they are all leveraging previously unused resources, by tolerating and even working with variable connectivity. This lets them make new, powerful use of the hundreds of millions of devices that have been connected to the edges of the Internet in the last few years."

Peer-to-Peer Networking, Edited by Roy Tennant

"Not since the release of NCSA Mosaic, the networking application that spawned the phrase "killer app", have we seen the like. Once again it took a youngster (in this case an 18-year-old college dropout) to rock our world - with a networking application that bears his nickname: "Napster". But as quickly became apparent, Napster was just the first salvo in a new battle over freedom, intellectual property rights, and the future of the Internet.

Other clients using the same technology (called "peer-to-peer" networking since it is individual clients (peers) communicating directly with one another instead of through a central server), quickly appeared, with Gnutella and Freenet being among the most widely known. Developments have been happening so quickly that it's hard to believe that Napster isn't even two years old yet, but already the old guard very much has it's guard up. The music industry has hauled Napster, Inc. into court and the publishing industry surely isn't far behind, if they could only find someone or some organization to sue. But there's the rub. With anonymous applications like Gnutella and Freenet, there is no one to sue. We're in an entirely different ball game. But don't take my word for it. This month we've reviewed some of the best articles we could find on this new phenomenon. They speculate on the future of creativity, publishing, and access to information in the wake of an unstoppable technology that will change everything. Can I possibly be any clearer?"

Cohen, Adam. "A Crisis of Content." Time 156(14) (October 2, 2000): 68-73.

"When Time magazine "gets it," you know the rest of the population can't be too far behind. And this article shows that they do. What they "get" is that where intellectual property rights are concerned, the cat is out of the bag, the cow has vacated the barn, and the bottle no longer holds the genie. Napster is just the tip of the file sharing iceberg. As new peer-to-peer clients like Gnutella ( and Freenet ( show, any intellectual content is at risk of being freely shared on the Internet. To demonstrate this, Cohen uses such examples as sewing patterns (about as non-Napster like as you can get), which are being freely (and illegally) swapped online. For a taste of what Cohen has to say about all this, here are a couple quotes from this piece: "There is no underestimating the threat that all this free file sharing poses to existing business models" and "The only thing that is certain in the content business is that everything is up for grabs." And if you think this only affects businesses, and not non-profit libraries, think again."

Interview with Cory Doctorow, Part One

"While you're downloading, you're also uploading. So while you're downloading your chunks, you're also available to serve the chunks that you have in your cache to anyone else in the network. Because there are 256 times more chunks than you actually need to reassemble the file, you don't have to negotiate to say, "Give me chunk 1" or "chunk 7", I just say, "Give me random chunks," because the odds are 255 and 256 that you're not going to give me a chunk I already have. What this means is that the more people there are who are currently requesting the file, the fewer chunks I end up having to serve. Once I push an entire copy of the file out into the network, it just pingpongs back and forth and all I'm serving are pointers to people who have previously downloaded the file, who in turn serve pointers to people who have previously downloaded the file.

Except this is doing it in real time. What Freenet is doing is what Napster does, right? It will let you download a whole file and then make you available as a place where someone else can download the whole file. That doesn't help me if I'm the only person on the network with a 500MB iso-image of the latest Debian release, the latest Linux iso-installer CD. I'm the only guy on the network and I'm getting completely denial-of-serviced by a million people trying to download a copy at once. I can't even squeeze one copy out. What this does is scales availability as a consequence of demand, not..."

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