The Internet enables communication for millions of people worldwide in a way that levels the playing field. By giving access and a voice to everyone online a certain measure of equality is simultaneously granted.
But such free communication is hardly ubiquitous, and is already subject to restriction in many areas.
Maybe what we need is a fully decentralized network as in Eclipse Phase’s mesh.
Internet Censorship is Not New, But Rising
Even here in the US, where we tend to take unfettered Internet access for granted, service providers have erected roadblocks. In the wake of the Wikileaks kerfuffle Senator Lieberman is issuing a spree of takedown “non-orders” that seem virtually indistinguishable from authoritarian censorship, considering that it seems no laws have been broken (yet).
World governments, including China and others, have called for Internet regulation; while it’s unclear whether (or how quickly) such a move would result in censoring speech online it does not seem likely that such regulation would be put in place to protect free speech.
Eclipse Phase’s Mesh
The post-apocalyptic role playing game Eclipse Phase has transhumanity communicating via a wireless decentralized network known as the mesh. While this concept didn’t originate with Eclipse Phase, I was reading the core book at breakfast this morning when I started drawing parallels to current events.
In this setting miniaturized computer and wireless technology is ubiquitous and virtually any device can form a mesh node. Signal redundancy is assumed, when a node goes offline traffic is routed through other nodes as needed. The peer-to-peer nature of the mesh also indicates content redundancy, with large transmissions broken up and served from multiple nodes sourcing the requested content.
Public search engines, as well as powerful agents you can carry in your pocket (or your head), and enormous available bandwidth, enable near-instantaneous retrieval of almost any information.
While censorship isn’t completely dead in the world of Eclipse Phase (there is mention of censorware for use in communities with strict religious or moral convictions), in some habitats it might exist only as something the user applies – in essence, personal filters to ignore things they don’t want rather than something authority-imposed.
Applying Mesh Architecture Today
I’m just a web developer by day and am far from being knowledgeable about Internet architecture. In other words, take all of this with a large grain of salt. Nevertheless I’ll attempt to break down what it might mean to rebuild the web as we know it in shape of the mesh.
While wireless networks are on the rise, to truly decentralize them it would be useful to have peer-to-peer wireless connectivity available everywhere there are electronics. Right now wireless communication happens primarily between cell phones and cell towers, between computers and wireless hubs. Those hubs are part of what makes wireless communication centralized.
If every wireless device shared at least one common protocol and was able to communicate with any other wireless device in range, the hubs could fade from the picture.
Right now the public-facing interface of most networked devices (wireless or otherwise) is heavily locked-down. Virtually every part of a network is carefully hidden behind a firewall. It’s as if there are iron bars over windows and heavy padlocks on all doors, and traffic is only allowed to pass through when accompanied by the right keys or signals.
Traffic, such as email, web requests, etc., gets directed through centralized systems like those maintained by ISPs, servers and fiber that make up the Internet backbone. Yet if all our wireless/networked devices allocated a fraction of their bandwidth and processing power to relaying traffic from nearby devices we wouldn’t be bound to these centralized systems.
This would be a tiny bit like opening your mail slot to accept anything that fits, and mail that’s not addressed to you gets passed on to one of your neighbors, who repeats the process. Except your wireless devices would handle all of this relaying for you automatically, and probably have smarter ways of going about how to route traffic.
Information Transmission in a Decentralized Network
In a centralized model when you visit a web site your Internet browser (agent) requests content from the server where that site resides. Typically that server is the main or only source of that content. Your request travels to your ISP, then through a number of other systems in the Internet backbone that relay your request on its way to the web site’s server. The server responds with the content you want, which works its way back through the Internet backbone and your ISP until it shows up on your screen.
It’s worth noting that most attempts at implementing censorship tend to impose restrictions at your ISP or these other centralized systems, and have a much harder time censoring content on decentralized networks.
BitTorrent is a popular peer-to-peer transmission protocol. Information in a torrent (content) is divided into chunks, and as soon as anyone downloads a chunk they can also serve that chunk to peers who request it. This means that not everyone has to go back to one main server to retrieve content, which is especially important for large downloads that are very popular and can overwhelm a server or slow downloads to a crawl without peer-to-peer sharing to handle file distribution more efficiently.
Another important aspect of BitTorrent’s distributed nature is that once enough people have downloaded enough chunks the content can be retrieved from peers even if the main server were taken down, say because authorities leaned on the host. At least, that would be the case except that torrents rely on “trackers” to point users to peers that have downloaded the various chunks, and those centralized trackers are also vulnerable to being blocked or taken down in much the same way as a web site.
BitTorrent in general is also somewhat vulnerable to interference, particularly by ISPs, because its unique protocol allows it to be distinguished from other types of web traffic. A few years ago Comcast was doing exactly that, discriminating against BitTorrent downloads on its network and slowing them down or interrupting them altogether.
Decentralized, Anonymous Content Distribution: Freenet
The Freenet project takes another approach to peer-to-peer content distribution. “Freesites” are like regular websites, except instead of a site being stored on a single server that everyone connects to when they want to browse the site’s content, the content is encrypted and stored on random nodes throughout the network. When a user requests content it is copied to their node, after which other users might copy it from them (similar to peer-to-peer distribution via BitTorrent and the like).
Freenet also prizes anonymity, and due to encryption and the way requests are relayed it’s difficult to determine who is requesting content and who has created (or “inserted”) specific content. Effectively, Freenet goes a way toward establishing a resilient network for protecting free speech.
Is the Future Here Yet?
Not exactly. While peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent, and the encryption and anonymity provided by Freenet, are steps on the path out from under centralized authority over the flow of our information, it’s not clear when the average person will be using a network resilient to censorship.
On the software side Freenet started in 2000 and it’s available for use now, though it has a few practical hurdles yet to clear before it is easy enough to use for any kind of widespread adoption.
On the hardware side peer-to-peer mobile networks are happening, at least in developing countries; mobile providers are rather resistant to the idea of phones making calls without need for a centralized network (since it might look kind of like what the web’s been doing to newspaper publishers).
Technical challenges aside, the biggest hurdles are political and philosophical. The populace at large may still need to be convinced of the necessity of such technologies, and of course authorities tend toward tighter, not looser, control over freedom of speech (or other freedoms).