Freenet has long been a kind of peer-to-peer promised land, with its developers promising technical features far beyond the simple file-swapping of networks like Napster or Kazaa. Its ambitions have kept it squarely in the development stage for years, with few nontechnical devotees, while simpler rival networks have attracted millions of users.
With Monday's new release, the developers hope to start attracting a wider audience.
"This is the first (release) where we can confidently encourage people to go download the software and comfortably expect it to work for them," said Ian Clarke, the programmer who started the Freenet project nearly four years ago as a Scottish university student. "Before it's always been a bit of a case of having our fingers crossed."
Whatever its immediate impact on users, Freenet is one of the key projects remaining from the heyday of independent peer-to-peer development where volunteer groups continue to push the boundaries of technology.
Peer-to-peer development, which had a brief time in the technological spotlight following Napster's incredible successes, has died down somewhat over the past year. Corporate implementations such as Groove Networks are making slow inroads into business environments. A generation of peer-to-peer content distribution services--including Clarke's own Uprizer--are gathering their own customers slowly, trying to take advantage of ordinary Net-connected PCs to cache and distribute digital content to others.
The popular file-trading services, led by the still-dominant Kazaa, are meanwhile coming under increasing attack from record labels and movie studios desperate to put a halt to unauthorized trades of copyrighted works.
Freenet has always occupied a curious role in this evolving pantheon of players. Hailed in headlines around the world during its early stages as the next step in file trading after the wholly decentralized Gnutella, its star faded as the development process proved to take far longer than that of its simpler cousins.
"Historically, it's been seen as having a lot of interesting technological ideas, but has lacked usability," said Kelly Truelove, an independent, Texas-based peer-to-peer technology consultant.
The project is maintained by about five key people scattered around the world, including Clarke and a recently hired full-time developer. Another 20 to 30 people are working on projects related to Freenet.
A parallel World Wide Web
The software more resembles a parallel World Wide Web than it does the simple search-and-download networks of more familiar file-swapping services like Kazaa. People can post Web pages, store files and, using recently developed technology, even produce live Webcasts across the network, all completely anonymously.
The developers have spent considerable time building in a level of encryption and anonymity that ordinary peer-to-peer services can't provide, noting that their aim is more to allow global, uncensorable free speech than to facilitate the distribution of such things as music or movies. Using a network like Kazaa or Napster, anyone offering content or downloading content exposed their address on the Internet, which made them easily traceable through their ISP (Internet service provider).
Freenet works by having each person involved dedicate a portion of their hard drive to hold content uploaded to the network. This is encrypted, so no person will know what is in their cache at any given time or be knowingly responsible for hosting any particular piece of content. Content migrates automatically between these "nodes" as people make requests to download it. Thus, if several users in Scotland want to view a Web page or download a file, it will make its way across the network and be stored in a location close to those users.
Like any peer-to-peer network, it is thus dependent on the number of users and the generosity of the people who donate space from their hard drive. One recent estimate found about 2,500 "nodes," or active host computers, on the Freenet system, although developers caution that there is no reliable way to count participants.
Clarke says he expects copyright holders' groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America to "stigmatize" the network if it grows in popularity. However, the network has also won some kudos for its use in China to help evade government censorship.
It's this use that ultimately points out the network's strengths, and it will become even stronger as the Webcasting component grows more stable, Clarke said. Even in the United States, it's won attention from people worried about censorship in the wake of the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act and other actions, he said.
"I anticipated that (the anti-terror policies) would work against Freenet," Clarke said. "But people look at the Patriot Act and the Department of Justice and realize that Freenet is a useful safeguard against that kind of government power."