Okay, okay, so long as you're not a complete flid, it's easy to set up a Freenet connection. I got it running in about 5 minutes.
Setting up on a PC is easy - I'm sure making a permanent, non-transient node is easy too. On Linux, it's not exactly difficult, but you have to read the docs, and remove the % sign next to ipAddress in freenet.conf (which I somehow didn't manage last time around).
For the uninitiated, Freenet is a network of users, connected anonymously. Each user runs a program and provides a bit of disk space and network bandwidth. Published files are stored on these spaces; the more a file is used, the more places it it stored. The running program communicates with a few "well known" Freenet machines, which then leads to a few more, and so on. Eventually, your Freenet program knows about lots of others, and so can download the things you want quickly. In short, it's a peer to peer network (P2P), except it completely anonymous. (Indcidentally, you can participate as much as you like - you can just look, without actually providing files, storage or bandwidth to the network).
Freenet is a bit like another Internet. It's predominantly web pages, which you can view with your normal browser (your browser talks to your Freenet program, which then does all the clever stuff for you). Alternatively, if you want to use something else, there are other ways of using Freenet, (just like there are other ways of using the Internet). These other ways don't use a browser, but talk to your Freenet program, so use the network's anonymous capabilities just the same.
So anyway, Freenet. Good? Bad? Having had a bit of a look around, it's certainly a hard, gritty community. I'm told people in countries with oppressive governments use it to communicate and publish information. I haven't yet seen much of that. However, pretty quickly, I found links to all kinds of dubious content.
Anyway, I continued with things, and downloaded Frost (with the very important FEC code in it). Frost gives you a very nice view of the world (it's more like a file sharing application). After a few minutes, various messages from people were appearing in the various categories. Unfortunately, one of the first ones I opened said "please send keys for child porn", which I found a bit disturbing (esp. as there was a reply).
Possibly a little reassurance also came in the form of other replies to the disturbing request. There was a reply from someone who very strongly abused the sender. That too was replied to, with comments along the line of "leave him alone". The ultimate resolution of the standoff was along the lines of "everyone is allowed to speak here, even those we may not agree with". So, that means the pervert, the pornographer, the verbal abuser, the mediator and the casual reader all get to do what they want.
This experience was actually specifically pre-empted by Freenet's developers. The Freenet Project's web site describes (in more general terms) the same situation. They are careful to warn the reader that freedom of speech may not be all you're expecting - it's not the happy, sunny, flower filled world propaganda would have us believe.
It seems to me, that things tend to degenerate pretty quickly. I'm sure the first users of Freenet were all well-meaning people, who tried to get it to people that would use it for noble purposes. Of course, pretty soon, people that need such things for distinctly dubious purposes also get in on the act. I guess that chain of events is not unlike the Internet as a whole.
Since Freenet is still not really commercialised, it's really just a bunch of interested people writing about things. I find that quite intriguing, because no one there is really doing it for any kind of profit (in the usual sense, at least!). That's quite a nice environment to be in. As with all things, it's unlikely to last - as the Freenet software stabilises, companies are bound to get in on the act. Because Freenet is anonymous, companies are likely to end up resorting to publishing "product X is rubbish, where as product Y is fantastic" type things, whether true or not.
It seems to me that Freenet is a very important and actually already very functional facility. However, as with all freedoms, it's one that will take a lot of fighting for. For all of us Freenet users, it's our responsibility to counter every assertion we disagree with - in other words, for every dubious bit of content we find, we should publish one that is good. For every lie or misappropriation, we must publish a suitable rebuttal.
This is no small task. Also, I suspect it won't actually happen quite as much as it should. The broader Internet has already demonstrated that the majority of people are happy to sit by and do little. We see various nations governments eating away at their people's freedoms, yet they're not stopped. We see relatively small groups attacking our freedoms, yet our responses to them are clumsy and arguably ineffective.
So, what of Freenet then? My thinking is that the general populous won't fully understand the issues that Freenet provokes. As a result, the majority of people will look at Freenet, see things they don't like and then never use or contribute to Freenet again. The dangerous minority of those people will look at Freenet, be offended and then try to stop it. Hopefully, the opposite minority will understand the value of Freenet, and will strongly support it.
If you're considering Freenet, you need to think about freedom in ways you may not be used to doing. First of all, you have to consider the benefits of anonymity. Then, you need to consider the cost of that freedom - are you prepared for the things other people say and believe?
Either way, it's got to be worth trying - even if you only leave it rummaging around for an hour or two and have a quick look around. At least that way you can make your own mind up.