Interview: Arne Babenhauserheide of pyFreenet & Infocalypse


I had the good fortune of “meeting” Arne Babenhauserheide (can you say his name three times fast?) on Google Plus recently…at least as closely as you can meet someone online.  (Yes, he’s the smiling guy above.)

He’s contributed code to The Freenet Project, a peer-to-peer anonymity platform originally designed by Ian Clarke.  I was curious about his background in coding and developing, what his connection to Freenet was, and his views on internet privacy, so we chatted over Google Plus, and went into detail about a few of these ideas.

By the way, I’ve linked to a few English posts on Arne’s blog, Zwillingssterns Weltenwald, if you’re interested in checking those out!


How did you first discover Freenet?

Arne Babenhauserheide: I’m not sure.  My oldest communication archive is from 2007, when Freenet 0.7 was released with the friend-to-friend structure called “darknet”.  Plans for this had started in 2005, where Google trends shows the first spike of searches for “darknet”: Google Trends: “darknet”

I already used 0.5 – I remember being unhappy that many sites disappeared with the switch to 0.7 – but I can’t really put a date to that anymore.

I was active in the Gnutella community before discovering Freenet, so it’s likely that I learned about Freenet from other Gnutella users or developers.

I wrote my first article about Freenet in 2009, the first English article in 2010: Simple positive trust scheme threshholds

How do you think Freenet compares to other anonymity networks like Tor, I2P, and GNUnet in terms of privacy, usability, and functionality?

AB: Different from Tor and i2p – Freenet provides hosting without needing a server.  This means that you don’t need to be able to secure a webserver against arbitrary anonymous [sic] to be able to publish.

GNUnet is closest in purpose to Freenet.  The main difference is that Freenet developed its features together with users and following user demand.  At least two of its features were written following requests from users: the update mechanism for websites in Freenet and the Web of Trust to defend against spam.  The latter was developed because an earlier forum system which was easy to spam actually got spammed: People realized that anonymity without spam resistance means freedom to use spam bots to suppress all discussions they don’t like.

Different from GNUnet – Freenet provides anonymous equivalents to most things you find in the normal internet (We call the non-anonymous internet the “clearnet”).

You said you contributed some code to the Freenet Project.  What area of Freenet were you developing? (e.g. forums, links, etc.)

AB: I’m currently maintaining pyFreenet, which makes it easy to use Freenet from Python and which provides several tools, like an optimized commandline tool for managing websites in Freenet.

Also I’m maintaining Infocalypse, a plugin for versiontracking [sic] tool Mercurial which allows programming over Freenet, including pull-requests and getting the code from someone else by simply calling

hg clone freenet://USER/PROJECT

This functionality was created in Google Summer of Code 2011 by Steve (I was mentor for that project).  Steve is now the maintainer of Freenet.

Also I did some statistical calculations to optimize aspects of Freenet, and I talk to people. ☺ Last December I went to the privacy workshop from the EU Parliament as representative of the Freenet Project: STOA: Protecting online privacy by enhancing IT security and strengthening EU IT capabilities

Finally, I’m doing all kind[sic] of stuff I consider important.  My most recent work is finalizing the simulation for mitigating the Pitch Black Attack: Mitigate the Pitch Black attack (the simulation works).

There’s lots of stuff in Freenet which is partly done and just needs someone to put in a medium amount of work to make it actually usable.  Lots of low hanging fruit where putting in some effort can have a huge effect.

Is it recommended, in general, to have some familiarity with coding if you’re browsing darknets like Freenet?

AB: I don’t think so.  If you can browse the web, you can use most things in Freenet – thought you need some tolerance for web interfaces which look as if they were written in the last century.

Do any of the sites on the network disturb you? (Such as some of the ones on Linkageddon [the uncensored link list on Freenet])?

AB: There are some sites on Linkageddon where the descriptions hint at stuff which would disturb me.  I do not look at these because that’s the only way to get rid of stuff on Freenet: when no one accesses it, it gets replaced by new content.

If I could get rid of sites without killing censorship resistance – a central requirement for free speech and freedom of the press which is one of the core requirements of real democracy – there would be some sites I’d remove.  But I can’t give myself the ability to censor without giving it to everyone else.  And once everyone can censor (essentially decide for others what they are allowed to see), no one can speak anymore.  Would you invest in writing something useful when it when it could disappear at any moment just because someone you don’t even know does not like it? [Good point, AB!]

What gives me peace of mind is that this does not help large scale criminals or such: People who can launder money can already publish anonymously.  Some of these already own media cartels.  They don’t gain anything extra from Freenet.  Giving free publishing to everyone via Freenet levels the playing field.  And once money is involved, they make themselves traceable via normal police work, so this does not help organized crime.

Also I recently went afoul of someone by telling him that killing politicians does not help against injustice, because it gives those politicians an excuse to increase their powerbase.  It wasn’t long in that discussion that I was threatened that my websites would be destroyed.  Back then I deeply wished I had had this discussion in Freenet.

Anonymity helps those who are threatened with physical violence.  And if you have children you’ll really not want to have Neonazis, Islamists or Corporate Lawyers at your doorstep for ridiculing their lies.

So you decide to keep quiet and leave the digital space to aggressors.  And censorship takes hold.

Freenet helps me against this: In Freenet I can speak freely.

And for this, I have to grant all other people that same freedom.

Version: GnuPG v2






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