A Critique of the Freenet Philosophy

From the Freenet FAQ, Section 1: “Freenet is free software designed to ensure true freedom of communication over the Internet. It allows anybody to publish and read information with complete anonymity. Nobody controls Freenet, not even its creators, meaning that the system is not vulnerable to manipulation or shutdown. Freenet is also very efficient in how it deals with information, adaptively replicating content in response to demand. For more information, please read What Is Freenet.”

This afternoon I wrote an email to Ian Clarke, the main developer of Freenet and the author of the philosophy behind it. This message included the argument below; in which I highlight what I believe to be fatal problems with the justifications presented for such a project. I suggest you at least read the Freenet Philosophy page before continuing.

Preface: To move for the total and absolute removal of censorship or to directly provide a means to cause censorship to be unenforceable, as with the Freenet philosophy, is an ethically indefensible stance, or so I will argue.

“Belief in democracy, however, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical, and therefore harmful.”
Bertrand Russell – Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind (1950)

  • P1: Total and absolute free flow of information will result in some amount of harm to people. This result will be indirectly causal in some cases, such as the case of child pornography – It would be difficult to argue that the existence of an undetectable method of distribution for such material would not increase the demand for it, and this demand increase supply; a supply which inherently harms people. In other, more direct cases, for instance those of free flow of information for terrorists, drug cartels, prostitution rings, etc., such a channel would make these activities feasible to entertain without fear of legal consequence and infinitely more difficult if not impossible to detect and effectively suppress; again resulting harm to people.

For the sake of argument I will take the Millsian approach to liberty, an approach which seems to be the most liberal, generally accepted and closest to the Freenet philosophy from which it is possible to work. Although it is worth noting at this point that there are also strong arguments for even stricter controls on liberty. The basic framework of the Millsian model is the harm principle:

  • P2: “[The Millsian harm principle:] is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
    John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1869)

  • C: At least some control of liberty, including that of free speech and distribution of content, by a government, is necessary.

Of course, if you accept P1, which I do not think it would be reasonable to reject since the Freenet website itself makes connotations to these consequences being necessary evils, you certainly do not agree with P2 and C. This would seem given as you hold that in providing an authority with the power to uphold the harm principle, one must take the unacceptable risk that such an authority may abuse that power. These objections can be summarised with the following argument:

  • F1: For an authority to uphold the harm principle it is necessary for that authority to be attributed the power to successfully monitor and control behaviour.
  • F2: The attribution of these powers would, by necessary consequence, make it at least possible for such powers to be abused to prevent legitimate freedom of speech or distribution of content.
  • FC1: Since this is an unacceptable risk, the harm principle should not be upheld.

The problem with such an argument seems to stem from the fact that any authority given the task of upholding the harm principle must, consequentially, have at least the ability, if not necessarily the intention, to suppress legitimate speech or distribution of content; two of the most vital requirements for effective democracy. But in rejecting the harm principle for the reasons stated in F2 and FC1, and given that you hold that some level of human harm to be an acceptable factor as a means to the end of absolute assurance of legitimate liberty, it would be very difficult to reason as to why you do not subscribe to the following:

  • E1: The only way rape and murder could be suppressed is by providing an authority with the ability to monitor and control behaviour.
  • E2: Since supplying such an ability will invariably provide that authority with the opportunity to abuse it, by controlling arbitrary behaviour (including free speech and distribution of content), it cannot be allowed.
  • EC1: Therefore, rape and murder should not be suppressed.

This seems to leave you with two very distinct alternatives:

  • A: Support the harm principle (to some extent if not absolutely) and in turn the attribution of powers to an authority, powers that it is at least possible will be abused to prevent legitimate freedom of speech or distribution of content.
  • B: Reject the harm principle and in turn reject all forms of effective controls of liberty.

If you choose A the problem for the Freenet philosophy is self-evident. If you choose B, as a means of affirming the principle that an absolute guarantee of free speech is all important and overrides the rights of some people, it is not possible for a society to enforce any conventional models of human rights. To do so would require an authority to be granted the necessary power to achieve this end; a power that such a principle of absolute guarantee deems unacceptable.


1 Response to “A Critique of the Freenet Philosophy”

  1. 1 Justin December 24, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Pedophiles who intend to harm children will gravitate towards whatever avenue enables them to victimize. Stamp out freenet, and they will simply use other avenues, such as victimizing children in their local area or moving to a place where they can get away with it easily. It makes no difference. The famously failed “war on drugs” is a classic example on why draconian punishment and overly aggressive enforcement neither reduces the supply of or curbs the demand of drugs. Drug users will find a way to use, pedophiles will find a way to victimize, terrorists will find a way to communicate, etc. Stamp out one avenue, and they will find another. Stamp out all avenues, even, and more avenues will be created.

    Your quote “For an authority to uphold the harm principle it is necessary for that authority to be attributed the power to successfully monitor and control behaviour.” is false, as it ignores the solution of self defense and the hiring of private security firms, both which are far more effective and efficient than government protection. Also, There is nothing monitoring and controlling the behavior of the government, since it has a monopoly on the use of force. We rely on the government to use force against itself, which is absurd. There is no avenue of justice for those who are harmed by the actions of the government if it decides not to follow its own laws which can be seen in the U.S (and elsewhere in the world) following 9/11 with the radical reinterpretation of existing laws.

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