In 1999, Ian Clarke, a computer science and artificial intelligence student at University of Edinburgh, submitted his final year project, a report titled “A Distributed, Decentralized Information Storage and Retrieval System”. While this paper wasn’t published, it provided the framework for another paper that Clarke collaborated with other researchers on, which was published in 2001: “Freenet: A Distributed Anonymous Information Storage and Retrieval System”.
After receiving a B for his original paper, Clarke released his work online where it was disseminated and discussed by a group of peers and volunteers, and the software born from this eventually became known as Freenet.
Simply put, Freenet is a free and decentralized peer-to-peer platform specifically designed to be anonymous and free from censorship. The Freenet software also lets you anonymously share files, create and publish free sites, and chat on forums that are only discoverable via Freenet.
The main goal of the Freenet project is to provide anonymity and censorship resistance.
How does Freenet work?
Freenet works by storing encrypted data in nodes across multiple machines. In other words, users collaboratively share free hard drive space for information storage and retrieval. As with any peer-to-peer platform, users employ the use of a program to initiate requests for information and file sharing. This would be analogous to a combination between a browser and a file-sharing client.
Files are split up into smaller chunks and stored across many nodes. Due to its encryption, it is next to impossible to determine where a request for a node is coming from, and also where it is going.
How can I access Freenet?
Accessing Freenet is as simple as downloading the installer from the Freenet site. It is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux and comes with step-by-step instructions on how to access Freenet once setup is complete.
Once installed, Freenet will launch via your default browser and you’ll be prompted to select a security level for first use:
Recommended in locations where Freenet is legal. While this setting is safer than other peer-to-peer options like Bittorrent, there may be some vulnerabilities you’re leaving yourself open to.
This option is generally recommended should you choose to create your own Freenet darknet for improved security. This option also works better if you have a small group of friends that you want to regularly share content and connect with.
Read more: How to access the dark web
Users can choose all options that work best for them. This option will take slightly longer than the other two as it’s entirely about customization.
Is Freenet safe and secure?
Yes. Like Tor, Freenet is decentralized by design and this makes it less susceptible to attacks. Unlike Tor however, Freenet is entirely self-contained. In other words, it is not a proxy, and you cannot visit sites or use services on the surface web like Facebook, Instagram, or Gmail. Because it’s entirely decentralized, there are no central servers and therefore no single point of failure.
Freenet provides two different levels of security:
Opennet mode lets users connect automatically to nodes that are Opennet enabled. In other words, you can connect to Opennet nodes even if you don’t know anyone on Freenet. These are somewhat easy to block, provide limited anonymity, and are partially centralized.
That said, Opennet nodes can potentially be accessed by law enforcement for any reason. Therefore, it is strongly advisable to use a VPN when using Freenet in Opennet mode.
In Darknet mode, connections are established manually and only between users that know and trust each other. These are harder to block, provide decent anonymity, and are fully decentralized.
Is Freenet worth using?
On paper, absolutely. In practice? Adoption may be far and few between, and while it is a safe technology for communication and information sharing, it may be of more use to small groups using Freenet’s darknet connections.
That said, if you’re looking for something that’s more accessible and just as anonymous and secure—or possibly more so—distributed and federated social networks offer great free-speech alternatives to Big Tech social networks.
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