SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 21 AUGUST 2005
HE wears polo neck jumpers and was born in Navan, Co Meath but the similarities between Ian Clarke and James Bond don't go any further than that.
In real life, Clarke is the anti-Bond, totally committed to the pursuit of free speech and freedom of communications. An anti-spy who has dedicated the last five years to the Freenet project, software for communicating anonymously across the internet.
When he started Freenet, Clarke spoke of two elements underpinning his motivation. "There was a kind of philosophical interest and there was also a technical interest.
"Philosophically I was very interested in the whole idea of freedom of information, and I was somewhat concerned by what I saw as increasing moves to impose censorship on the internet."
The project is funded by donations. According to its web site, it costs $2,300 (Euro1,874) a month to keep the project up and running, with one person employed full-time as a software writer.
Because of the complexity of this kind of software, the project hasn't developed beyond the testing stage and proved difficult to work with beyond small tightly-knit groups. Nonetheless, it has been put to use in China, where the internet is strictly controlled and censored.
That's what Clarke hoped would happen. "The only way to ensure that a democracy will remain effective is to ensure that the government cannot control its population's ability to share information, to communicate. So long as everything we see and hear is filtered, we are not truly free."
The inevitable finger-pointing concerning abuse of such technology surfaced briefly when Freenet first picked up media attention in 2000, but was drowned out in the noise of the dotcom implosion.
Because Freenet's software had difficulties scaling up to global usage, it wasn't deemed to be a threat in the same way that related technologies such as Napster were. Especially by the music industry.
Peer-to-peer technology has been the bete noir of the music industry for the last few years. It successfully closed down many sites using the technology and has employed James Bond-types to spy on remaining networks and bring the Blowfelts to justice.
File sharing software has many useful and innovative functions. It has enormous potential, particularly in countries where bandwidth costs are prohibitively expensive and out of reach to most. It can be used to distribute very large amounts of data without crashing or tying up computer servers and may well play an important role as the internet develops.
But it's ability to infringe on copyright has put file sharing in the same crosshairs once trained on the likes of the video recorder. If the copyright holders had been successful in the mid-1980s, there would have been no such thing as a video recorder.
So when Clarke recently announced a new emphasis for Freenet - to make it globally-scalable - he set out his stall on copyright infringement. "Our goal has never been to encourage copyright infringement, however, you cannot have freedom of communication and protect copyright laws. The two are mutually exclusive", he told the AFP newsagency.
"In a capitalist system, if things change, you adapt. If you are selling water in the desert and one day it starts to rain, what do you do? Go to the government and get them to ban rain, or do you sell something else?"
In keeping with the tradition of prophets and their own land, Clarke's trenchant adherence to weighing up the positives and negatives of any given technology got short shrift in Ireland.
"The Freenet system group say it's for sharing information and they can't help it if people abuse it. They know damn well that it will be", Conor Flynn, an information security specialist, told the Sunday Times. He pointed out that the software would be used for "malevolent and malicious purposes".
It was a follow-up remark, however, which brought Flynn deeper into civil rights territory. "The ability to remain anonymous while surfing the web is dangerous... With this technology nobody has a clue what you did or when you did it".
Try telling that to Dr Paul Grout, who was falsely accused of accessing child pornography. Grout lost his well-paid job in the British health service, his friends and almost his marriage. Someone had used his credit card to access child pornography at the same time Grout was having a meal in a Yorkshire restaurant.
During the trial, the judge dismissed some police evidence as "utter nonsense" and described the manner in which some information had been held back by the prosecution as stinking "of unfairness". A police officer involved in some of these cases, described them as a "witch hunt" and resigned from his job.
Civil rights in the digital era should not be determined or influenced solely by the negative consequences of a new technology. If that was the case there would be no cars, planes or medicines. No typewriters, computers or internet.
While not agreeing with all of Clarke's views, I greatly welcome his efforts to open up debate and widen the rights agenda. Like technologies in previous eras, the internet and software will increasingly pose a challenge to existing concepts of civil rights.
Hopefully it won't be long before an Irish digital rights organisation responds to that challenge.