Date: 2004-09-03 01:25:00
Tags: computers
a week with freenet

The Freenet Project is, to paraphrase the description on the Freenet web site, a decentralized anonymous network where publishers are free from censorship. All communications and data are encrypted both in transit and on disk, so it is not possible to eavesdrop and discover what information a user is reading or publishing.

The Freenet project takes a lofty idealistic view toward free speech: Anybody is permitted to publish anything. The first part of that is enabled by the anonymity principle. All participants in the network are treated identically, with no identifying information attached to content. (If a particular person wanted to publish something that could be attributed to them specifically, they could use for example a PGP signature, but this is not requried by Freenet.) The second part, the ability to publish anything, is enabled by the lack of accountability in publishing. People may publish controversial, threatening, confidential, subversive, or any other kind of information.

Similarly, for consumers of the information available in Freenet, there is also anonymity. As mentioned above, all network communications are encrypted using sound principles of cryptography. Even if an eavesdropper were able to see through the encryption layers, they would still be unable to tell whether a particular packet of information going toward your node would be:

Due to its free speech and anonymity principles, Freenet has a somewhat shady reputation. Although there is lots of good, useful content on Freenet, there is also plenty of content that is controversial, socially taboo, or outright illegal (in some, or most, jurisdictions). Freenet has been labeled as a haven for terrorists and child pornographers, those two hot buttons so ubiquitous in this sort of discussion today. Not to mention the ease with which copyrights may be violated using Freenet.

I believe strongly in the principles of free speech. History has repeatedly shown that repressive governments that do not permit their citizens the right of free speech, invariably falter and collapse. I may not agree with everything you have to say, but I absolutely support your right to say it. But has Freenet taken this one step too far?

Freenet lets anybody say anything, with no accountability. I think the lack of accountability undermines the structure of society and takes it one step closer to anarchy.

From a technical standpoint, information published in Freenet stays published forever (in practice, content that is seldom accessed will eventually become unavailable through attrition). Information is identified by a key (sort of like an automatically assigned URL), so that pages on Freenet may link to other pages just as on the Internet. There are mechanisms that allow information to be updated while still allowing the same key to refer to it, but the older information doesn't really disappear right away - it can still be accessed. There are several ways of publishing information:

For date-based or edition-based publishing, the original publisher retains the publishing keys. Information published in this way cannot be updated by anybody unless they have the publishing keys. So although anybody can say anything, usually only the original author retains the right to update the information they have published.

I believe it is the lack of accountability that is the Achilles heel of Freenet. While this easily and strongly supports the right of free speech, it does so at great, and perhaps fatal, cost.

This cost manifests itself because some of the primary publishers on Freenet support free speech so strongly. Due to Freenet's architecture it is not possible to build a "search engine" in the classic sense of, e.g. Google, without completely sacrificing anonymity (whoever runs the search engine would know what you searched for). So content must be found through index pages, reminiscent of the original Yahoo web index. The people who publish the most popular index pages make a point of not censoring any type of page, as that would run counter to the fundamental principles of Freenet. Some of the index sites are manually maintained; some are automatically generated by spider programs. None of them exclude any kind of page they find (although they may be roughly ranked by popularity, with the least popular sites not shown).

With this sort of "front page" on Freenet, it is no wonder that people tend to associate Freenet with a less-than-wholesome attitude. On this "front page" you might be able to find links to pornography, bomb making instructions, copyrighted movies and songs for download, written accounts by unconvicted serial killers, and other even more distasteful content. It's all right there in front of you, you don't even have to go looking for it. You can certainly choose not to click on the links, but you can't prevent the choice from appearing.

Would all this content be so readily available if publishers were not completely anonymous? One only has to look at the state of the Internet as a whole to answer this question. Using traditional unencrypted means of communication, you are never truly anonymous on the Internet. Publishing pornography is acceptable in some jurisdictions, but publishing child pornography is not. If you do so, and the authorities take notice, your freedom will be severely curtailed in the not too distant future. Similarly, in today's political climate, publishing information about bomb making would almost surely land you in a similar predicament. This is because there is hardly a place on Earth where speech is truly free (except perhaps The Principality of Sealand).

In today's society, without accountability Freenet will not gain the widespread acceptance it needs to grow. In an ideally free society, Freenet would not even be necessary, as people could publish anything they wanted, in any manner, without fear of reprisal.

* * *

I would like to run a Freenet node. However, for various technical reasons it's inconvenient for me to do so right now.

I ran a Freenet node for a short time a few years ago. I tried again last week. I will almost certainly try again in the future. I believe in the principle of free speech, and although I don't believe Freenet can be truly successful today, I would like to show my support for the ideals.

I was a member of a panel discussion at the 2002 O'Reilly P2P Conference and Ian Clarke was a last-minute addition to the discussion. We clashed a bit during the discussion, disagreeing primarily on the dangers of non-governmental censorship (where local social standards effectively squelch speech without the presence of government censorship). Overall though I found him to be a very engaging guy and we had a productive discussion both on stage and in the green room afterwards. Ian, I think, is the inertia within the Freenet project that pushes for the attitude and focus you describe.

I found it refreshing and continue to appreciate that there exists a project of this nature that doesn't seem primarily motivated by theft and misappropriation of music and movies. Far too many distributed storage projects pay lip service to the technology and then set themselves to building the best underground theft ring they can. To Freenet's credit, their focus has always been on allowing oppressed people to publish information safely to avoid persecution. I'm willing to accept quite a bit of objectionable content if they can make that sort of technoloogy a reality.

I'm not sure that Freenet's lack of accountability is as serious a hurdle as you seem to think, though. My own experiences running Freenet (for about a month after I met Ian and a few short-lived attempts since then) have all been thwarted by exactly the sort of technical problems you describe. I'd certainly be willing to run a permanent node if it wasn't such a trememdous pain in the ass to do so. I don't think we're alone in that perspective, either.

If nothing else, though, your post has renewed my interest in the project again and perhaps I'll take another shot at setting up a node.
[info]moonwick pointed out that it might be reasonable to set up a hosted server somewhere like here. With a few people in on it, we could bring the ongoing cost down to a resonable level. Using ssh it's easy to tunnel the browser-node connection across the net. It would just need a local bandwith control to avoid exceeding the monthly bandwidth limit.

I'd probably be interested in such a thing.
Hey, I am actually running on that hosted server system. :) I'm not doing a whole lot with it yet (yes yes, I know I should, gah I'm such a slacker sometimes). It would be interesting to run Freenet as I've been fascinated with it since its beginning. So it sounds like Freenet has a configuration ability to limit the disk usage but not the bandwidth usage (and thus an external program to do so is needed)?

I have no reservations about creating some accounts for you guys if it sounds like something you'd be interested in doing. You know I'm all about free speech and this might be a good way to assist.
PS: I have the Super Server 2.4.
[info]victriviaqueen : on the non-technical side...
Re: "I may not agree with everything you have to say, but I absolutely support your right to say it."

That is so perfectly put; so few people really get that angle of free speech. If I were in the same city, I would be driving over to give you a big hug.

[info]mskala : Re: on the non-technical side...
That's a paraphrase of a famous quote, usually attributed (incorrectly) to Voltaire.
[info]ghewgill : Re: on the non-technical side...
Yeah, as mskala says I'm unable to claim that one. Definitely a good quote though. Thanks for the thought hug. :)
[info]victriviaqueen : Re: on the non-technical side...
The hug still stands, even if the words aren't yours. (Thanks, mskala for the link to the phrase's origins).

I remember arguing long and loudly when some activists were protesting the rental of meeting space to a group which included people who denied the holocaust. I said it was a stupid opinon, but it was their opinion and they had every right to spout it. This did not make me friends. Sigh.
Sealand doesn't have true unrestricted speech - they forbid child pornography. They also don't define child pornography, and the definition is NOT univerally agreed (for instance, can it include words? can it include drawings from imagination?), so I wouldn't use or recommend their service. It's impossible to know in advance whether a given piece of data would be legal in Sealand or not.
i too ran a freenet node for a few months after one of the heavy (at the time) developers chatted me up at a restaurant after seeing my car plastered with unix stickers + got crypto? his name was brandon as i recall and he was somehow associated with UT (his web page was there at least).

anyhow, i thought freenet was pretty neat, but at the time it tended to hang occasionally on my redhate desktop so i just failed to restart it one day after i noticed it was offline. i'd also be interested in funding a more permanent node on someone else's hardware, because the idea is fully appealing.
Greg Hewgill <>