On The Darknet

Jan Danielsson, a 28-year-old student at Uppsala University in Sweden, flirted with the dark side for months, and he finally crossed over for the purest of motives. A friend of his had legally purchased a popular song, but the friend's MP3 player wasn't compatible with the so-called digital-rights-management technology that the music company had embedded in the song file to protect it from pirates. Danielsson had a simple solution. He downloaded a program that removed the protection. Did he worry about getting caught? Not for a second.

The courts have been able to stifle Napster, Grokster and other peer-to-peer networks because law-enforcement officials could trace Internet addresses to real people using the networks in order to pirate songs and other copyrighted material. The network Danielsson used, however, was designed precisely to circumvent such snooping. Called Freenet, it's the brainchild of 28-year-old Irish software designer and free-speech advocate Ian Clarke. Back in July 1999, two years before Napster was dragged into court for promoting copyright infringement, Clarke set out to design a network that would serve as a secure and stable communications tool for citizens in countries with repressive governments. Now, for better and for worse, Freenet is one of several key technologies that are building the "darknet"--a vast swath of the Internet that lies beyond the reach of law enforcement.

As more and more entertainment goes digital--and as the ease of downloading and moving it around increases--such programs have entertainment executives worried. Unlike Napster, Freenet entails no corporate entity that would be vulnerable to a court order. It consists of software running on individual PCs that connects them in an ad hoc way over the Internet. The PCs can pass files from one to another while masking the users' Internet addresses, which makes it next to impossible for law-enforcement officials--or anybody else, for that matter--to trace them back to the PC owners. "It would be futile for someone to try to shut it down," says Clarke. "If someone put a gun to my head I couldn't do it."

What happens on Freenet is hard to know, because the technology hides much of the activity. When a user sends a file, the software encrypts it and breaks it up into parts, which make their way separately to their destination, where they're reassembled and decrypted. The network's messaging system looks like any other online message board--except that messages cannot be traced. An anything-goes ethos attracts everyone from computer programmers to anarchists to pedophiles. Users trade all types of files: music, videogames, pornography and, increasingly, digitized movies.

Although the trading of digital movies is in its infancy, it already accounts for almost 5 percent of Internet traffic and is growing quickly--volume doubled from November 2004 to July 2005, according to BigChampagne, an online media-research company. Movie-industry executives aren't saying exactly how much the darknet has cut into revenues. To fight it, the studios are supplying the cops with leads to pursue offenders.

Does this spell the end of copyright? Probably not. At the moment, Freenet requires some technical savvy on the part of users because it has no point-and-click interface--but Clarke is working on one. Eventually, experts say, the technology may force the movie industry to loosen up on its control of copyright and become more consumer-friendly. If not, more and more otherwise law-abiding people will rub elbows with child-porn distributors and fraudsters on the darknet. "I'm going to keep living in my little world and assume it's not there," says Danielsson. But it will be, and is likely to become more familiar.