A few weeks ago a Swedish political party, the Pirate Party (Piratpartiet) launched what some commentators have styled the first commercial, professional darknet service. The service, Relakks, is designed to let anyone send and receive files and share information and content over the Internet without being monitored or logged. Once signed up - for $5.00 per month - people on the encrypted darknet VPN use an untraceable, neutral IP address that is superimposed on top of their ISP-supplied address so that, in principle, individuals cannot be personally identified.
The Swedish Pirate Party is a political grouping promoting free non-commercial content copying and use, the abolition of existing pharmaceutical patent laws and increased (or reclaimed) respect for the right to privacy. It argues that file sharing of music, films and other forms of culture is where the surveillance of Internet addresses has attracted most attention, largely because the entertainment industry has been so aggressive in suing Internet users for copyright infringement.
'There are many legitimate reasons to want to be completely anonymous on the Internet. If the government can check everything each citizen does, nobody can keep the government in check,' reasons Pirate Party chairman Rickard Falkvinge. 'The right to exchange information in private is fundamental to the democratic society. Without a safe and convenient way of accessing the Internet anonymously, this right is rendered null and void. But there are much more fundamental values at stake here than copyright. The new technology has brought society to a crossroads. The only way to enforce today's unbalanced copyright laws is to monitor all private communications over the Internet. Today's copyright regime cannot coexist with an open society that guarantees the right to private communication.'
'The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution,' one of the first major analyses of darknets and their implications, was authored by experts from Microsoft and delivered to an ACM digital rights management workshop held in Washington DC in late 2002. Among the authors' conclusions was that darknets as a distribution mechanism might encounter some initial setbacks but that their proliferation was unstoppable. The authors also speculated that the darknet would be a competitor to legal commerce, and that stronger DRM might act as a disincentive to legal commerce.
The current scale of illegal commerce in content and digital applications is massive. Speaking on a DRM panel convened for the opening day of the giant International Broadcast Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam in September, Tom Munro, CEO of US IP content security specialist Verametrix, said that as much as half the satellite TV service in some markets, and a third of cable programming in others, was stolen, while on any given day about a third of the bits that move across the Internet are in the form of stolen video. Again, according to Frost & Sullivan data cited by the Mobile Entertainment Forum, fraud and illegal downloading will cost the mobile entertainment industry around $2.7 billion this year in Europe alone.
It's not difficult to appreciate the genuine concerns about privacy of people like Falkvinge. Equally though, it's difficult to dismiss the argument made by the DRM industry, and the owners and distributors of digital content, that without effective DRM the consumer will ultimately be offered less content variety, less quickly and on less favorable terms.
A footnote: the Pirate Party participated in Sweden's general election in September on a platform of protecting privacy and a more balanced copyright regime. It fared miserably but, seemingly undaunted, Falkvinge is now reportedly eyeing the EU elections in 2009. The Pirate Party has also apparently spawned an Austrian counterpart.