Both of these events have sounded a clear warning that the Authorities, whoever they be, are increasingly aware of the power of the internet in the sharing of radical and independent news and information across any imposed 'realworld' borders. Censorship has always been a powerful weapon in the armoury of the state from the well known and publicised examples of book burning to the less obvious examples of film, television and radio censorship that goes on daily at the beheast of all governments in all countries.
Given the casual use of censorship by the state it shouldn't really come as a surprise to find the relative freedom of the internet now coming under attack. Yet when something like the seizing of the Indymedia servers occurs it is a shock because using a medium like the internet, freed from the constraints of everyday censorship, we are able to make our own choices as to what we want to read or not, what we choose to view or not and what news information we choose to access. It's only when the state and its ally big business interests attempt to censor our choices that we become aware again of how natural it feels to be able to decide for ourselves what information we wish to share, and with whom, free of government interferrence.
So how do we defend the free flow of information that has emerged as internet access has grown? There are many ways, for example IMC UK has decided to introduce secure browsing to safeguard viewers and contributors privacy from any potential prying. Another more secure way of ensuring anonymity and the free flow of information was raised by Ian Clarke in 1999 in his paper: "Freenet: A distributed decentralized information storage and retrieval system" ( http://cornersoul.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=81&Itemid=56). This laid the foundations for the Free Network Project now better known as Freenet.
What is Freenet?
In simple terms Freenet is a totally free software package that allows you to remain anonymous while sharing information on the internet. It bypasses any attempts at censorship by ensuring you can view, publish and store information without hinderance or having to offer up identifying information. Freenet is an ongoing project but has five core design principles:
- Anonymity for both producers and consumers of information
- Deniability for storers of information
- Resistance to attempts by third parties to deny access to information
- Effiecient dynamic storage and routing of information
- Decentalization of all network functions
It has been described as a peer-to-peer file sharing network but with some major differences.
Anonymity for both producers and consumers of information
Freenet has no central server(s) that can be hacked or seized. There is no one person or organisation that has control over Freenet, and that includes the designers of the concept. All the internal network functions are anonymised via encryption. Each person involved in Freenet gives over a portion of their hardrive and some bandwidth to the network but doesn't know what information is being stored there or for how long or where it then moves to. Each user or datastore is classed as a node. When you request a piece of information, for example a website, the request and the information itself is encrypted and passed anonymously through other nodes before reaching its destination.
Deniability for storers of information
Because information is encrypted and often broken down in to smaller pieces which are stored randomly throughout the network no one, in theory, can be held accountable for Freenet files held on their computer at any given time. Unlike other peer-to-peer file sharing networks Freenet users do not have control over what information they store. Throughout the network files are held or discarded according to their popularity with least popular files being removed. There are of course issues around storing information without having control over what the information is but the Freenet philosophy is that without the anonymity freedom of speech and thought are not possible.
Resistance to attempts by third parties to deny access to information
This really lies at the heart of Freenet. Information cannot be censored because there is no one person or organisation to target. Instead all information is completely decentralized, anonymised and stored throughout many thousands of nodes worldwide. As it says on the Freenet project site: "Without anonymity there can never be true freedom of speech, and without decentralization the network will be vulnerable to attack. ". At the moment the Freenet software is being distributed within China to ensure that the Chinese government cannot censor the information available to the people. No doubt it is also used in many other places where state surveillance and censorship impinges on peoples choices to share whatever information they wish to.
Efficient dynamic storage and routing of information
Now for the technical bit. As mentioned earlier each Freenet user once they have the software installed becomes a node in the peer-to-peer network. Every node stores some documents which are associated to certain keys along with a record of of other nodes and their performance in finding other documents. In order to request information, such as a freesite, the user sends a message to a node on their host computer using the key for the document. If the document is not already being stored locally by the user then a request is sent to a neighbouring node based on the datastore of other nodes and their performance in finding documents. If it is not found there then it is relayed by the neighbouring node using its own datastore of nodes and so on until the document is retrieved and then passed along various nodes to the recipient. Neighbouring nodes constantly change based on the information they are storing. Also while a request is being passed through various nodes some at random may decide to store the requested information locally ensuring that information is never centralised at one node but randomly stored throughout the network. The process of storing and routing information can take time compared to searching for a document through a regular search engine, but this is the price for ensuring anonymity and dynamic storage.
Decentralization of all network functions
As described above complete decentralization of all the network functions is the basis of Freenet. This dynamic process ensures that once information is stored within the network it can never be censored by a third party. Even if there was a way of preventing access to the original document copies of it will be stored randomly throughout the worldwide network of nodes. As long as the information retains its popularity it will not be removed or overwritten. The complete anonymity by encrypting all information, relaying anonymously and completely decentralizing the whole network ensures that the stored information cannot be censored even by the most oppressive states.
By downloading the Freenet software and running it on your own computer you are helping to ensure that there is space on the internet where state censorship doesn't happen, where you are free to decide for yourself what information you have access to. Also you are helping to ensure that other people are also given that choice, free of government interferrence.
If you have a website or blog then by publishing it on the Freenet network you are also ensuring that if at some time in the future the Authorities attempt to seize it or force its closure the information on it can still be shared freely and anonymously with other people.
Download it now - http://freenet.sourceforge.net/