Jun 30 2011

Building The True Decentralized Net


There is an evolutionary war going on around the world, one fought between the existing centralized networks and the decentralized web. It is a tug of war between a centralized system of hierarchal control systems and a vast, unstructured web in which every device is equally a router, a server, and a terminal. It’s a fight between a set of ideologies, an aging one in which gatekeepers hold the keys to information and a bright new one which wants a world in which there are no gates and all data is available to everyone. A battle between totalitarianism and liberty. It’s a war that has but one conclusion, as all evolutionary struggles do, with the supplanting of the entrenched and obsolete by the disruptive and more efficient newcomer. But it’s not a battle that will be won without scars on all sides.

There are four main forces arrayed against a future network of free and open data.

Content providers want to insure that their every product is not only the only thing you are allowed access to, but that you only access it in ways that insure that you pay for the privilege.

Data miners want your every move online to be traceable, your every desire at their fingertips, so they can sell you stuff.

The networks want every bit you access metered, measured, and your every transaction subject to scrutiny and control.

Various “elites” want to control what you think, what you say, and what you do, all to insure that you will never be a threat to their “power”

The good news is that they are doomed and much of their current activity is the desperate scrabbling of an elephant who’s already fallen off the cliff and is hanging by its trunk. Note the desperate efforts to litigate and control the government by groups like the MPAA, the RIAA, Investment bankers, and other corporate interests in an attempt to insure that only their methods of interchange and exchange are allowed, no matter how badly it hurts the public good or even their own future survival. These actions are the surest sign of how quickly they are approaching extinction. Their way worked during the industrial revolution, so they try to force it to work in the post industrial era. And they will do everything they can to try and make it work even as they pull the cliff down on top of them. There is no possible way that the aging centralized infrastructure model will be able to cope with the ever rising numbers of handheld networked devices that will arrive over the next decade. Sheer numbers will overwhelm them like a tsunami.

And as they are swept away by the flood of data they sought to keep contained, we will see a new model rise up, one of a vast decentralized mesh network of peer to peer devices, all of which act as a distributed parallel network, and which will simply absorb the web as we know it.

One of the more controversial and ambiguous areas of this new decentralized model is its privileging of  anonymity. On the one hand, anonymity is an unambiguous plus. It plays a vital role in protecting agents of change who seek liberty from the wrath of authoritarians.  In a world of maximum surveillance, anonymity is a weapon, one that protects an individual’s free will and his/her ability to exercise it. Yet like all weapons, it’s also a danger to a free and open internet and a fully transparent world in which accountability has been restored to all levels of society.  The contradictions between the liberating powers of anonymity and transparency will be an area of difficult conflict and negotiation for years to come.

There are many companies and projects working on the anonymous web:

Dynamic Internet Technologies is a company that is very active in creating anonymous censorship free internet access tools and making them available to users in many totalitarian or authoritarian nations around the world, particularly China. There Dynaweb’s system creates dynamic proxy webpages that bypass censors and provide easy access for users.  Users can access “channels” that give them an updated list of links to Dynaweb pages, foiling efforts to block domains or IPs. Alternatively, their Freegate software allows direct access to the Dynaweb backbone.

Freenet encrypts all data and routes through multiple nodes to create a private P2P network. This is far more than just a “file sharing system.”  Freenet also encrypts websites, forums, media distribution and email. It acts like a kind of “shadow internet” and has been around long enough to have a large userbase.

Phantom takes a slightly different route by creating a protocol (a basic network language) that encrypts and anonymizes data at the level of basic network traffic.

Tonika is working on a secure anonymous social network.

Tor is one of the better known Anonymizers, and uses a volunteer network to relay data into untraceable spiderwebs that prevent watchers from seeing where you go and which keep websites from knowing where you are physically. (Look for a future Acceler8or interview with Tor core member Jacob Applebaum.)

Ultrasurf also offers services similar to Dynaweb, and has been quite popular in subverting the Chinese censor wall.

Beyond anonymity, there’s a need to create robust, fault tolerant, and above all distributed network that doesn’t rely on the same infrastructure as the current net. As far too many post-apocalyptic movies have illustrated far too effectively, our current internet falls far short of the DARPA ideal — a network that would survive a nuclear war. It is also unsuitable for spreading the internet to those areas lacking industrial infrastructure. The highly centralized infrastructure of the modern internet is difficult to build without an existing power grid, roads, and many other aspects of industrial development, and yet the fastest growing segment of the internet is in those parts of the world in which no such development exists or will be possible for decades at least.

That’s where mesh networking comes in. A mesh network is one in which each individual device acts as both a server and a client, both acting as a end user’s access to the web, and as part of the web infrastructure itself. A mesh network doesn’t rely on centralized towers, or an industrial powergrid, and can grow as fast as new devices can be turned on.

The Mesh Potato and SolarNetOne are two systems seeking to jumpstart mesh networks by creating low cost, low power instant networks, while Commotion, Freedom Box, and Tonido seek to create a plug and play all in one unit that provides not just mesh network ability, but end to end anonymity.

On the software scene, the demands of decentralization has its own challenges, from file sharing, to social networking, to identity protection, to even such basics as search and virtual world building. There are far too many projects going on to cover even a few in a comprehensive fashion, so I’m simply going to highlight a few.

MondoNets principals of a mesh network describe the priorities of such a system exceptionally well, (Acceler8or interview with MondoNet coming soon)

Open BTS is a project designed to turn cellphones into mesh networks and provide telephone and net services for a fraction of the cost of the current centralized cell services.

Open Cobalt is a Virtual World project that is like a version of Secondlife that has no central servers, is open source, and which could become a model for the future VR web.

And then, for decentralized capital exchange there’s Bitcoin, the e-cash system that’s been in the news a lot recently.

The numbers of these projects grows constantly, and if you are interested in helping develop them further, the P2P Foundation is a good place to start.

The current centralized web model is not going to survive the tsunami of data that will continue to grow exponentially as we develop the next generations of smart web devices. As “Bandwidth” limits and the cost of building and maintaining the current infrastructure become prohibitive, these projects, or others like them, will rise and fill in the holes, and eventually simply absorb the existing nets. That’s not to say that the telecos, data miners, content providers and authoritarian “elites” won’t make every effort to prevent them, but they will become less and less relevant as ever increasing flows of data swamp their efforts, and finally sweeps them away.  As we move into a future in which nearly every device becomes connected to the web, and virtual worlds become inextricably merged with the real world via personal VR devices, centralized control becomes impossible. Robust, decentralized, and free peer to peer networks will become the only solution.