Ian Clarke boots up a computer in a house he shares with two flatmates in a gritty London neighborhood, across the street from Brixton Prison. With a few quick keystrokes, he downloads a free copy of Britney Spears' new single, Oops!...I Did It Again. As Britney's sugary lament fills his dorm-style bedroom, bouncing off the unmade bed and the laundry bag on the door, Clarke insists he feels no pangs of conscience. "Copyright is a crutch," he says. "It's inherent in nature that information wants to be free."
Ho-hum. Just another Gen Y geek pirating music on the Net. Napster--the file-sharing system that lets people download free music--and its close kin Gnutella seem so 10 minutes ago. The recording industry has Napster on the run, with a federal lawsuit pending to shut it down for copyright violations. And now MP3.com another music-sharing service, has settled with two record companies (including Warner Music Group, a unit of this magazine's parent, Time Warner) on terms favorable to the industry (see following story).
But Clarke wasn't using Napster or MP3.com He downloaded Oops! on Freenet, a next-generation Napster-like program of his own creation that ratchets file sharing up to the next level. What sets Freenet apart is that information on it travels from PC to PC anonymously. There's no way to tell who posts a document and no way to tell who downloads it.
The implications are profound. Dissidents in totalitarian states could use Freenet to post samizdat that once had to be cautiously hand-circulated. Whistle-blowers could safely bring smoking-gun documents to light. But Freenet could also be put to less high-minded use. Critics say it will be a boon to drug dealers, terrorists and child pornographers. And it poses a new threat to intellectual-property rights. With Napster, at least there's a company to sue and a way to trace individuals who have downloaded CDs. If Freenet catches on, it may be impossible to find anyone to punish.
Clarke, a lanky, earnest 23-year-old, became fascinated with computers after seeing the 1983 hacker-fantasy flick War-Games as a child in Navan, Ireland. A computer-science major at the University of Edinburgh, Clarke developed Freenet as a student project over the summer of 1998. His key innovation was the element of anonymity. PCs hooked up to Freenet (the software can be downloaded from freenet.sourceforge.net become "nodes," meaning they are host to data files deposited on them for varying amounts of time. There's no central server, as with Napster. And there's no need for users to sign on or identify themselves.
Clarke is a true anarchist about information. He believes no one should control it. Not governments, not corporations. "An attempt to control information should be just as disturbing as an attempt to control the air we breathe," he says. He dismisses critics' concerns. Musicians will always find ways to make money, Clarke insists, by sales of T shirts and other ancillary items, perhaps, or even voluntary payments from their fans. As for terrorism and child pornography, he doesn't believe humanity should be denied free speech because "a few people might use it for something unsavory." Ultimately, Clarke says, Freenet makes debates of this kind moot. "If you had to convince everyone freedom of information is a good thing, it would never happen," he says. "The point is, I made it happen."