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Free Radical: Ian Clarke has Big Plans for the Internet

by Richard Koman

Freenet - one of the Big Three of P2P (the others, of course, are Napster and Gnutella) - has mostly been written about, even by founder Ian Clarke, as a censorship-proof network, where no one knows where a specific piece of information exists. Even the owners of Freenet nodes don't know what content exists on their computers. But Freenet is much more than an anonymity system: Clarke has built into it the seeds of a radically new Internet.

What he'll do with those seeds at Uprizer, his Santa Monica, Calif.-based company, is anyone's guess. All Clarke will say is that they're working on "network infrastructure," a phrase that qualifies as the P2P equivalent of "How do you like this weather?" The one slogan on Uprizer's Web site, however, gives a hint about Clarke's attitude about the current buzz around P2P: "P2P is a technology, not a bandwagon."

What makes Freenet technology radical is the way information is propagated across the system. On the Web, a person puts up a document on a server and clients ask for it. The more popular the content is, the more difficult it is to make it available. If your document is a new book by Stephen King, your server starts to buckle under the load, your bandwidth slows to a crawl, and not only the popular document, but all documents on your server become less and less available. To alleviate the problem, you have to add more servers, more redundancy.

In Freenet, as Clarke explains in this interview, a request for information not only delivers the information to the requesting node, but also replicates the document on the nodes closest to the requestor. This has two effects: information moves closer to people who want it and the more popular information is, the more copies of it exist. Unlike the Web, the more popular content is, the more - not less - available it is.

To give you a flavor of this fairly lengthy interview, here are a few choice tidbits:

On the distribution of content:

"On Freenet, popular information becomes more widely distributed, which means that you're not going to get what some people call "the slashdot effect," whereby an extremely popular piece of information becomes unavailable. The availability of information on Freenet increases in proportion to its popularity."

On Freenet's conceptual forebears:

"The intention of the original Arpanet was ... to create a decentralized system, the idea being that if there was a nuclear war, the only two things to survive would be cockroaches and the Internet. ... I think that really Freenet in some ways is the realization of the original creators of the Internet."

On the Domain Name System:

"One of the initial applications for Freenet that occurred to me was to replace the Domain Name System, because Freenet can attach a piece of information to an identifier. So the identifier might be the name of the computer and the piece of information might be the computer's IP address. So one of the opportunities will be for Freenet to replace this mechanism."

On Intel's attempt to jump-start a standards process:

"Trying to come up with standards for something like peer-to-peer is a little bit like trying to decide what color you should be painting your house before you've even started to build it."

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