The wild days of the internet are coming to a close. What was once a haven of eccentrics, anarchists, kooks and visionaries has become a commercial wasteland where the ideology of advertising holds sway. The internet is now funded by, and dependent on, the destruction of its former glory.
Take, for example, Google, a company that promised unfettered access to the world's knowledge. From its origins as a geeky enterprise whose founders openly criticized search engines that accepted advertising dollars, Google has now become the internet's largest advertising agency and 99% of their revenue is derived from the ads they once deplored. In this regard, Google is not unique.
Every time we log on to the net, we are tracked, hacked and lied to by ads. Twitter "monetizes" our "trends," while Facebook commercializes our "friends." And when we seek out the visionary technologists who brought us the world wide web to ask them to help us find another path, all we get is a resigned shrug. We may hate the ads, they say, but there is no other way.
Hearing this, we could, perhaps, throw our hands up in disgust. Turning our back on the net, we could retreat to the analog days of paper and pen, exclaiming that nothing can be done. But what if there were a way for us to try again, to take the internet back fifteen years and to rewrite the core technologies, the core ideologies? What if, in other words, there were a way to build it all anew, without the commercial beast?
For years, this has been the dream of a small cadre of crypto-anarchists who've been slowly toiling to build a parallel network they call Freenet. Following the cycle first identified by Gandhi, at first these idealists were ignored, then they were laughed at and now it seems as if they are at the brink of winning. Freenet has, over the years, progressed from a notoriously, and ridiculously, slow and buggy contraption into a surprisingly fast and well-oiled machine. It is easy to install, simple to use and absolutely anonymous, and censorship-resistant.
There are two essential laws of Freenet but they take the form of affirmation, rather than negation. The first law is that you may read or see anything you want and no one will be able to discover what you accessed (anonymity). And the second law is that you may say or upload anything you desire and no one will be able to stop you, or remove the content once it has been set free (censorship-resistance).
Logging onto Freenet for the first time is like entering a parallel universe. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of websites that are only available in this world. Their content runs the gamut from the banal to the paranoid to the politically illegal and to the immoral. Immediately, the ideological chains that bind us to our society are thrown off and we face an existential dilemma: now that "big brother" cannot see what I am doing, will I find within myself the courage not to look at that which I abhor? Living momentarily in a world where nothing is illegal, where all content is available, we are forced to rediscover self-control. And in that moment, it becomes clear just how far we've come to rely on the thought police to control what we see, to censor our world while claiming it to be free.
There is, however, one thing that you cannot find on Freenet. And that is advertising. Without ads or commercials, Freenet is a haven for culture jammers and blackspot thinkers. Once again, we may finally have a place from which to speak freely about our revolutionary aspirations, our insurrectionary goals and how it will be done.
Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org