In search of an open Internet

“Who you gonna call?

Internet openness is all the rage these days. From call signs on buildings to Declarations of Internet Freedom, an important sector of informed users is catching on to the relevance of keeping the Web open. This openness movement has been prompted in part by the perceived and real threats coming from governments, businesses and regulators against the Internet.

SOPA, PIPA, DEAct, ACTA, DMCA, CISPA, TPP, the ITU. The attack of the killer acronyms.

The problem is that, despite its architectural strengths, the Internet is in danger of control at the access points through the regulation of the service providers through surveillance, filtering, take-down notices, censorship, domain name seizures, logging, packet inspection, and case all else fails, pulling the “Internet Off” switch. This has prompted some to search for the Holy Grail of the Open Web, a truly decentralised and distributed global network.

The idea is not new. Distributed and decentralised networks are one of the core features of peer-to-peer networks, where the ideal is to have a system that can be sustained regardless of the removal of important core elements. Decentralisation is also one of the the principles behind P2P networking  projects such as Freenet and GNUNet. These frameworks offer anonymous and distributed data storage and transfer of data throughout the network, so in principle it would be impossible for regulators to remove content from the system. Darknets and friend-to-friend networking are other solution to perceived regulatory threats that have been in existence for a while. Anonymisation software like Tor also offers solution to censorship by offering a distributed server architecture.

While many of the above solutions are important steps towards an open Internet, they are only partial patches to the system. Of the above, Tor is probably the most widely used, but the level of anonymity still has some holes, as the network cannot guarantee airtight protection. Distributed computing like Freenet is secure, but might be seen as cumbersome, and the level of adoption is low. In the end, all distributed solutions still rely on the existing architecture, which can be attacked and targeted by regulators.

So, is an open Internet truly possible? The answer is negative as long as we continue to rely on the existing network based on the DNS system and Internet protocols and architecture.

What is the Internet really? (basic internet stuff ahead, skip if needed). When you boil it down, it is a series of common protocols using an interconnected communication network. I am currently writing this in Costa Rica using a wifi router connected to a cable modem that receives signals from a coaxial cable connected to DNS and gateway servers from my ISP, which in turn are connected to other servers through fiber optic submarine cables. These servers are owned by telecommunication companies and governments, which in turn are connected through fiber optic cables to other ISPs. What I write makes its way to a server in San Jose, then to one in Dallas, then to one in Chicago, then to several servers in Toronto, and then it is stored in another server, where it is served to you so that you can read it. In order for this magical operation to take place, your browser needs to know in which server in Toronto the database containing these words can be found. Enter the domain name system, which ties the IP address of the server where Yours Truly can be reached, to the name technollama.co.uk.

How does this happen? Some years ago I contacted a domain name registrar, which has been given power by the national registrar to sell .uk domain names. This registrar was given power to do so from  RIPE, the regional registrar, which was given power to do so from ICANN, which in turn got power to do so from the US government (but we don’t mention that in polite company), and which is ruled by a multi-stakeholder structure. At the most basic level, the easiest form of Internet control is to have a domain name removed from the DNS system. Hello domain name seizure.

So, the first building block of an open Internet is not peer-to-peer distribution, but to find a way to bypass the current DNS system. This is technically feasible, but hard to implement. The way the DNS system relies on a series of authoritative servers that broadcast name assignments to the entire world, these are known as the root name servers. These provide a list of the name servers for the appropriate domain level, so computers know where to find other servers. These root name servers are controlled by ICANN, but it is perfectly possible for anyone to create their own alternative root server, there are several systems that do just that, such as the OpenNIC project, which offers domain names that are not available through the ICANN system. The disadvantage of such projects is that you have to configure your own equipment to connect to the alternative DNS servers, a process which defeats most people.

The second challenge is that, like it or not, we rely on Internet service providers to connect to the wider Web. These give us access to the physical infrastructure that makes up the Internet. It would be almost impossible to replicate the physical structure with open and public alternatives. An alternative to the current systems is the creation of local wireless mesh networks that would start small, but then would eventually grow using wireless technology into a large array that could rival the physical Internet. This of course would require a level of commitment from volunteers that simply does not exist at the moment. (ETA: seems like such a project already exists, see Project Meshnet).

Should we throw the towel then? Not yet. There seems to be a core group of technically-minded people who see the Internet as it is, and do not like what they witness. Every time there is a new threat to that nebulous concept of Internet freedom, I come across with proposals to secede and break free from regulatory control. This might be possible at first in communities of like-minded people, perhaps on the back of Anonymous, Internet Freedom, and Occupy movements.

The key is to make the Internet 2.0 completely distributed and decentralised.

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