The CLEVELAND FREENET began operations in July 1986 through the efforts of Dr. Thomas M. Grundner of CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY to create a free public community computer system, the first of its kind in the world. Grundner envisioned the network as a tool for promoting effective democracy through fostering a well-informed public, often quoting Madison, "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
The early Freenet grew out of a smaller project of Grundner and his colleagues at the CWRU School of Medicine, called "St. Silicon's Hospital and Information Dispensary," which they began in 1984 as a free medical question and answer service for Clevelanders. Renamed the Cleveland Free-Net, the system expanded to provide additional professional advisory services, Special Internet Group (SIG) discussion forums, and email within the Cleveland Freenet community. OHIO BELL and AT&T offered donations of money and equipment, although CWRU provided the bulk of financial support. Immediately popular, the system soon became overloaded with rapidly increasing use (reaching 1,000 registered users by summer of 1988). Grundner initiated a project to develop a more functional version of the Freenet software through an independently funded organization, the Society for Public Access Computing (SoPAC), of which he served as the first executive director.
In July 1989, CWRU transferred responsibility for the Cleveland Freenet to the University's newly created Office of Information Services, under the direction of Dr. Raymond K. Neff, its first Vice President, with the continued assistance of Dr. Grundner serving as an employee of the Office. The reorganized efforts to improve the capacity of the Freenet were completed on August 16, 1989, and the accomplishments included most notably the addition of Internet access. Within months of these improvements, the Freenet gained 10,000 registered users. By June of 1995, the number of registered users was over 160,000. The Cleveland Freenet felt a missionary impulse and helped support the creation of similar community networks elsewhere in Ohio and the United States, serving as a model for a global trend. However, with heavy demand, even the upgraded Cleveland Freenet system became increasingly subject to malfunction, and frequent busy signals frustrated users. Commercial access to the Internet was also becoming more affordable at this time, providing competition to the Freenet.
Faced with significant potential financial costs for additional improvements necessary for adequate performance and Y2K compatibility, CWRU closed the original Cleveland Freenet on September 30, 1999. However, the Cleveland Freenet was quickly reborn through efforts begun, soon after the close of the CWRU system, by the Organization For Community Networks (OFCN), an Ohio non-profit corporation based in EUCLID with a mission of providing a central repository for community network information. John M. Kurilec was serving as the Executive Director of the new Cleveland Freenet in 2001.
Alice Schubach, "Cleveland Freenet," 19 December 2000, <http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/6271/freenet.html> (1 April 2002)