The problem with Napster is that it is too vulnerable to external interference, as we have recently seen. By relying on a single central server to keep track of all its files, and by identifying its users, such a system is vulnerable to compromise by vested interests. Gnutella, a peer-to-peer network without a central server, doesn't scale well and is also vulnerable to attack.
Freenet, like Gnutella, is an open-source protocol that allows your PC to share files with others. One difference is that where Gnutella bogs down after the number of users reaches a few thousand, Freenet is designed to scale efficiently by automatically creating more copies of frequently requested documents, as well as using other tricks to ensure that supply keeps up with demand. Another difference is that strong encryption is used to conceal the actual location of files and to obscure the identities of Freenet users. This is particularly important, especially in countries where political free speech is illegal.
Very much pre-release software, Freenet comes with a warning that it doesn't always work - and this warning is correct. While installation was easy, and the client program automatically connected to Freenet, finding files that actually existed was much harder. Files are identified by keys, roughly equivalent to URLs on the Web, but there is not yet anything like a search engine, so relatively clumsy lists and indexes are used instead. It takes a long time to download some files, because requests and transfers are kept as anonymous as possible.
More popular files are more widely cached, so access is faster. For example, Steve's Key Index (a list of files available) loaded almost instantly, while several more obscure sites timed out and failed to deliver at all. This could be due to another of Freenet's features - files that are never requested are deleted as server space is needed for new entries. One site that analysed the number of valid keys found that only 50 out of 2000 were valid. However, Freenet is still very young, and as more users come online, the increasing storage space should alleviate this problem.
In many ways, Freenet resembles the slow and difficult-to-navigate Web of the early 1990s. Like that other visionary idea, it has the potential to grow, improve and once again revolutionise the way we communicate.
Price: Free; Supplier: Volunteers; URL: http://freenet.sourceforge.net