The dark side of the web

Built by a global team of developers, more than two million people have downloaded Freenet, and the network has up to 10,000 concurrent users at peak times. Clarke has evidence that Freenet has been distributed in heavily censored regions such as China, and that it’s used as a vehicle for free speech and safe communication.

But does this justify its use as a vehicle for child porn or inflammatory material? “The post is used more widely by paedophiles than Freenet is, yet nobody would talk seriously about shutting down the Royal Mail,” Clarke retorts. “While there will be content, such as child pornography, that we wish didn’t exist, we feel that the benefits, such as the freedom to communicate, that are provided by Freenet greatly outweigh the risks.”

Steven J Murdoch, a security specialist at the University of Cambridge and a member of the TOR project, would doubtless agree. By bouncing communications through a distributed network of relays, TOR both hides the source of your internet traffic – your IP address – and the destination: the site you’re visiting.

Like Freenet, TOR is used by dissidents living under oppressive regimes to counteract IP-based censorship and to preserve their anonymity. It’s also used by law-enforcement agencies, journalists and those – such as corporate whistleblowers or abused wives talking to a support group – who need to cover their tracks.

TOR is used by dissidents living under oppressive regimes to counteract IP-based censorship and to preserve their anonymity

The application is easy to download, and can be switched on with nothing more than a browser plugin.

Like Ian Clarke, Murdoch doesn’t shirk from the accusation that TOR can be used for illicit purposes. As with any technology, “bad people will use it, and TOR and other anonymous communication networks are really no exception in this regard”.

For Murdoch, the overall benefit to society is greater, however, “not only because the bad users are a small proportion, but also because the people who are willing to break the law already have the ability to get reasonable anonymous communications”.

It’s a view echoed by Symantec’s Liam O Murchu. “One property that all cybercriminals desire is anonymity online. Then, even if their activity is monitored, their identity still remains hidden.” However, he adds that, “this doesn’t mean that closed networks should be banned, of course, because there are perfectly legitimate reasons for legal groups to use them”.

There’s another issue with services such as Freenet, I2P and TOR that might make some users uncomfortable: as the whole technology relies on routing traffic through the various nodes on the network, your system and your internet connection will inevitably be used to transmit content – albeit in an unreadable and encrypted form – that you might find objectionable.

Worse still, Freenet will use the cache on your hard disk to store and serve it. “There is potential that, on your computer, there would be a hold of material like that sitting on your hard disk,” Ian Clarke explains, “but it would be in a form that you couldn’t access, even if you wanted to.

Certainly, for some people, they view that as a reason not to use Freenet, but a higher percentage realise that they’re providing a service to people, and that while, yes, some material like that will be on it, they can’t be held responsible.”

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