News of the day — and using Freenet as decentralized, pseudonymous communication backend for applications

This is a proposal I wrote for the NLnet Open call for funding 2016-12. It got into the short list but was not selected, so I’m sharing it here. Maybe it spikes your interest or serves as inspiration for something exciting you want to realize with Freenet. I still plan to do this, but in hobby-time it will likely take a few years to realize instead of the 6 months I had planned. Initial work is available in pyFreenet/

The project

The goal of this project is to provide a working, anonymous communication system which can be used as library to add privacy-respecting communication features to any application.

The focus of the communication system is providing the news-of-the-day. News-of-the-day is a concept to reduce information overload: Every user can select the two most important news items of the day which are then shared with his or her subscribers on the next day. One of these is self-written, one is forwarded from other news items the user saw.

By avoiding any centralized infrastructure, the project will be free of external pressure (i.e. needing to fund the infrastructure through advertisements, or attempts to censor information) which cause other projects to focus on engagement instead of actual news.

To provide these features, it builds on Freenet, a decentralized platform for pseudonymous publishing and communication which was started in 2000 and is currently used by about 8000 people. Freenet provides publishing under a pseudonym without needing to run a server as well as completely decentralized spam-prevention. The spam-prevention will also allow users to limit fake-news by treating pseudonyms who repeatedly promote fake-news as spammers.

The target community

The community is twofold: On the one hand desktop-users who want to reduce their information overload without missing important news items. With important in the meaning defined by the following quote:

“Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news,” — 1918, Anonymous (quoted in The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers)

On the other hand application developers who want to add communication features into their programs without having to worry about violating the privacy of their users when a server is breached and without having to build and maintain a centralized back-end infrastructure.

Usage of the money

10 000€ will be used to improve the scalability of the spam-prevention method in Freenet¹ and another 10 000€ to improve the response times². These are the two tasks I cannot do easily myself. In addition, 4000€ will be used to allow me to reduce my working hours for 3 months without impacting the family budget too strongly. Another 1000€ will be used for presenting the project at programming conventions.

¹: Improving the scalability should require about 6 weeks of work in the ideal case, with 10 weeks the more realistic estimate. This will be done by hiring the main developer of the spam-prevention method for implementing the detailed plan described in this task:

²: The spam-prevention method in Freenet reacts slowly due to over-locking. I will hire an external developer to profile the code and solve the problems which impact the use-cases relevant for my project.

What is new?

On the feature-side, the new approach is encouraging the users to choose only a limited number of most important items, while providing real anonymity along with decentralized spam-protection so users can promote what they deem newsworthy without having to worry about their public image.

On the technical side, the main new approach is to tie together established and tested methods provided by Freenet (this has never been done before, partly due to missing documentation how to harness them) and to use these methods for implementing communication features in external applications.

The technical approach is described in the Freenet Communication Primitives I published end of last year:

This project will also form the core of the third part of the Freenet Communication Primitives.

How will promote the project to your target community?

To reach users as early adopters, I will promote early stages directly in Freenet. When the system reaches stability, I will contact websites which write about privacy-tools. I am already in contact with one of the writers for deepdotweb which has a good reach into the group of privacy aware people who are willing and able to invest into trying a new tool.

To reach developers, I will present the project at programming conventions which are one of the major source of actionable information about usable libraries. I will back this with simple tutorials about using the project to add communication tools to other programs.

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