When the heavy metal band Metallica hauled Internet service provider Napster into court, because fans were getting new Metallica tunes through the site for free, a new battle line was drawn in cyberspace. As the creator of Freenet, a program designed to send free information to all corners of the globe, Irish native Ian Clarke is on the front lines of this high-tech – and he’s got no problem with “stealing” information. Tom Deignan interviewed this Irish rebel with a cyber-cause by email.
Q: Clearly, you’re at the cutting edge of cyberspace technology as it relates to copyright laws and entertainment – issues very much in the news lately. Could you talk in basic terms about what Freenet is, who you developed it with, and how?
A: Freenet is a means to distribute information on the Internet without fear of censorship, and in an efficient manner. It achieves this by providing anonymity to both producers and consumers of information.
Freenet does not have any central control, much like a flock of birds. This makes it very difficult to attack. I designed Freenet as my final-year project at university. In July 1999 I released the design onto the Internet and invited people to help me make it a reality. Since then over 20 people have volunteered their time to help me write the Freenet software.
Q: So who would use Freenet, and what could they get from it?
A: Anybody who wished to distribute information efficiently on the Internet, or who wished to distribute information anonymously. For example, people living under oppressive regimes could use Freenet to share ideas and information without fear of punishment from their government.
Q: How do you make money on such a venture?
A: The aim was not to make money, it was to provide people with a tool with which they could communicate freely.
Q: In an interview in the New York Times, you described Freenet as “a near-perfect anarchy.” Explain.
A: “Anarchy” means “without ruler.” In a computer system this is a good thing, if you can get it to work, since having no central control or hierarchy means that there is no single point of failure that can bring the whole system down. Being an anarchy makes Freenet much more robust, and much more difficult to attack.
Q: Obviously, some feel you’re closer to a cyber-crook. Rock bands like Metallica feel computer technology is being used to distribute their music for free – as a result, they are working, yet making no money. Isn’t this simply theft?
A: No. Many people believe that information can be treated as property, just as if it was gold, or a piece of real estate. I dispute this assumption. Why is stealing bad? Not because you can get something for nothing, but because for you to have it, you must deprive its owner of it. Information isn’t like that, and thus I would contend that copying it is not theft. You can have a book, I can copy that book, but you still have a copy and are able to read it. Technology and reality would seem to support my viewpoint – just look at the problems people are now having with enforcing copyright, and it will only get worse. Copyright is now impossible to enforce; this was never really the case in the past, even with technologies such as VCRs. Sure, you could copy a video for your friend, but just try to distribute on a worldwide basis!
Q: It’s funny that rock stars are at the forefront of this debate over “intellectual property,” and that many are defending the status quo, so to speak. The Times said you were “putting into practice a view expressed by many in the free software movement,” that information should be accessible to anyone, free from corporate restraint. But won’t greedy record company executives just be replaced by greedy cyber-executives?
A: I don’t think so, I think this technology will cut out the middle-man between artists and music consumers, whether they be the record company or some online version of a record company.
Q: You’re only 23 years old. Tell us about your background and how you got into your field.
A: I was born in Dublin, Ireland, on the 16th of February 1977, and grew up in County Meath, the oldest of four boys. My father owns a sports shop in Navan, County Meath, and more recently has become a property developer. (Navan, being only 25 miles from Dublin, has become very prosperous in the last few years) My mother works at home and helps Dad with the shop. I lived in a small village called Kentstown until I was 11, when we moved to an even smaller village called Bective close to the Hill of Tara. At 12, I went to Dundalk Grammar School in County Louth where I boarded weekly until I was 18. Neither of my parents were particularly academic (my father left school at 16), but they were always very supportive of my creativity. I lived in the country for most of my youth, and despite having three brothers, I generally amused myself, so when my parents bought me a computer for my eigthth birthday, I spent many hours learning how to use it, and began to write simple computer programs. When I went away to boarding school I continued to learn, although not necessarily what my teachers were trying to teach!
I continued to be fascinated by math and science, so when the opportunity came for me to enter a national science competition I jumped at the chance. The first year I entered was with a project on milk containers – not exactly my specialty! But I entered three more times, winning two first prizes, an award from the Irish Computer Society, an award from the Irish Physicists Society, and two prizes from the Irish government for technical innovation. These competitions gave me an excuse to really explore areas I found interesting, and my school had an incentive to let me. In 1995 I went to University in Edinburgh, Scotland, to study artificial intelligence and computer science.
Q: Your day job, so to speak, is at a British firm, Instill.com. Talk about Instill.com. What do you do there?
A: Instill.com produces software to allow people to easily and cheaply set up online auctions, without the cost and expense of designing and building the website and underlying software yourself. I am a consultant developer for them.
Q: Much is made, of course, of the Celtic Tiger, and specifically how new technology is pushing the “new” Irish economy. Do you find this to be true?
A: I think that Ireland has changed beyond recognition in the last decade. When I was growing up I think many people in Ireland really resented success and wealth, but in the last few years this has begun to change.
I think now that the Irish have realized that they can actually be successful, and compete on the world stage, they are really beginning to shine. Unfortunately, I think most of these changes happened in the last five years after I had left!
Q: What are your long-range plans? Any desire to return to Ireland, to work or live?
A: Not in the near future, although if I have children I think Ireland would be a great place to bring them up.
Q: What do you do away from the computer screen?
A: I spend a frightening amount of time speaking to journalists about Freenet! ♦