Cole Stryker's Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web , a new book tackling the war on online anonymity is on shelves this week. In this excerpt, Stryker looks at how certain groups and individuals are creating new platforms that promote open communication online.
Rip It Up and Start Again
After its big leak of U.S. diplomatic cables into the public domain, WikiLeaks has had some trouble finding a Web hosting company. This is nothing new. Service providers tend to err on the side of safety when it comes to provocative geopolitical doings. It's a common frustration among self-described freedom fighters. So far we've examined how anonymous activists are picking away at different properties of the Web. Some try to make sure advertisers can't track us. Others aim to put restrictions on government surveillance. Some build cryptography tools that mask traffic.
The most extreme activists are tired of trying to reform what they consider to be an irrevocably broken system. As the Internet becomes a more lucrative ground for corporate interests, the likelihood of censorship of inflammatory content increases. Which is why some techies are trying to scrap the Internet we have and build a new one. One of them, a Swedish man named Peter Sunde, recently tweeted, "Hello all ISPs [Internet Service Providers] of the world. We're going to add a new competing root-server since we're tired of ICANN [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers]. Please contact me to help."
Over the last few years, the entertainment industry has been turned upside down, first by Napster, LimeWire, and their ilk. Now, they are being usurped by a peer-to-peer file-sharing scheme that, without a central hub, can't be taken off-line by fiat. It's called BitTorrent. One of the most prominent BitTorrent sites is The Pirate Bay. Its founders, a young and appropriately snotty group of geeks, have somehow managed to keep the site up and running over the last nine years. One of those men is Peter Sunde, who fired off the above salvo on Twitter on November 28, 2010. Sunde is an anti-copyright activist based in Sweden, a country where legal loopholes have so far allowed him to escape imprisonment due to his involvement with The Pirate Bay. In a blog post that followed, Sunde wrote, "We haven't organized yet, but are trying to... we want the Internet to be uncensored. Having a centralized system that controls our information flow is not acceptable."
And so Sunde and his cohorts want to create a new Internet, one that utilizes the power of decentralized file sharing they perfected with The Pirate Bay. They have no use for ICANN, which oversees the entire Internet's Domain Name System (DNS). When a government decides that a Web site within its borders needs to come down, ICANN makes it happen. The DNS is comprised of thirteen root servers located throughout the world that essentially enable ICANN to shut down access to a site at the touch of a button. Critics have decried ICANN's monopoly for years for being inefficient and under the control of strong special interests. Cypherpunk John Gilmore has been an especially vocal voice of opposition, and PGP creator Philip Zimmerman also expressed disappointment with the organization when I spoke with him:
Something has gone wrong with ICANN. Creation of larger and larger numbers of top-level domains seems to be extortion. I already own PhilipZimmerman.com. Am I compelled to buy PhilipZimmerman.biz and PhilipZimmerman.whatever? I'm not sure the old way was stable in the long term, where everything was controlled by an American institution. Now we've turned over control of these top-level domains to individual countries' governments. And that is going to hurt a lot of people because these governments will do things that are not in the interest of their people. The world is worse off now since that transition.
Sunde hopes to create an alternative to ICANN, one that uses the same peer-to-peer technology that brought the entertainment industry to its knees. Each user will host a portion of a DNS on his own home computer, so that ICANN no longer wields absolute power in the domain space.
Sunde isn't the only one aiming to route around ICANN's control through technology rather than policy change. Another group has created Dot-BIT, which uses proxies and cryptography to move domains around anonymously. It's not quite part of the darknet (it's been called a "dimnet"), but it's not out in the open either like the rest of the Web you and I are familiar with. It has already registered several thousand .bit domains, which can only be accessed by those using a special proxy service.
Dot-BIT is driven by Namecoins, a domain-related "currency" that can be earned or "mined" by contributing your computer's processing power to the network. Users can also purchase Namecoins with cash or bitcoins. Namecoins are used to anonymously purchase a domain within the Dot-BIT network. This incentivizes participants to help keep the network afloat.
However, the Dot-BIT network, not being a pure darknet, is still vulnerable to censorship by ISPs, who could easily block traffic to .bit domains if compelled to do so. Dot-BIT also lacks the pure anonymity of, say, Tor's .onion network, so it's not the model for a totally free, open Internet that someone like Sunde is looking for.
Liam Young and a group called Tomorrow's Thoughts Today, inspired by uprisings in the Middle East, developed a robotics project involving a fleet of flying drones, each transmitting wireless signals between two hundred and three hundred meters. The group of hovering hotspots is able to swarm into formation and disperse in order to escape detection. They recharge themselves autonomously, flying to a recharge station when low on power.
The effort to create an alternate Internet is still dependant on an extant infrastructure, usually owned by big corporations or governments. So in the event of a complete global network crackdown, unlikely as it may be, these valiant efforts would be for naught. That's why a group of perhaps romantic techies are thinking about alternative infrastructure in the form of satellite networking. Berlin's Chaos Communication Congress and the Hackerspace Global Grid have outlined a project to develop communication satellites that would be put into orbit above the atmosphere. They claim to be aiming for an "uncensorable Internet in space."
No sovereign entity has claimed to own space... yet. Of course, speaking in admittedly paranoid hypotheticals, if tyranny became so widespread and comprehensive that it became necessary to turn to satellites, it's likely that such an evil government would figure out a way to shoot them down or otherwise disable them. Regardless, it's an ambitious project, fraught with technical complications. For one thing, low-earth satellites orbit the earth every ninety minutes or so, which means that they can only communicate with a ground station while the satellite is "in view." Stationary satellites would have to be placed farther above the atmosphere, which would create a signal delay, prohibitive for many Web applications. For many hackers involved in the project, free-speech concerns are an auxiliary goal. They just want to explore space and are tired of waiting for decades, relying on underfunded, inefficient space programs to get the job done.