The Internet is a wonderful invention, and we are now entering a time where the Internet is becoming nearly ubiquitous in our lives and quickly supplanting traditional forms of media. However, today the Internet is often censored and tracked by Internet Services Providers (ISPs) and companies like Google and Facebook, as well as governments around the world. (I’ve outlined some of the easiest ways to stop eavesdroppers and increase your security in this article on Reactual).
Basically, we’ve become accustomed to the Internet being a free and unregulated space, but this is really not the case. But the Internet we have today was not designed to ensure private, democratic access for everyone. As the Free Network Foundation puts it, we need “a communications infrastructure that is owned and operated cooperatively, by the whole of humanity, rather than by corporations and states”.
The good news is that it is entirely possible to build decentralized networks that are controlled by individuals rather than by corporation or governments. These decentralized networks can operate within the existing Internet, or they can also operate independently of the Internet, using their own infrastructure. These types of networks typically have two key difference to the Internet at large. First, they are decentralized. This is important because they do not rely on centralized servers in order to operate. This means they are resistant to breakdown and censorship because there are no centralized hubs that can fail. Second, decentralized networks can be designed with privacy and anonymity in mind, making surveillance and censorship very difficult.
Let’s take a look some types of decentralized networks:
A Mesh Network (or Meshnet) is a type of network architecture where each computer is connected to neighboring computers, usually via WiFi. Mesh Networks have a self-healing capability — they continue to work even if participating computers drop out. As a result, the network is typically quite reliable and cannot be easily shut down, as there is often more than one path between a source and a destination in the network.
Although Mesh Networks can take many forms, the most promising examples are Wireless Mesh Networks, which are built using long-range WiFi routers. With this design, there is no need for an Internet Services Provider (ISP). In fact, Mesh networks are also being used to provide basic connectivity to people around the world who do not have access to conventional ISPs.
Wireless Mesh Network are also used by college campuses, corporate complexes, the government and military. You can read about some existing Mesh Networks here. The largest public Wireless Mesh Network in the U.S. is the Seattle Meshnet. An example of this is Open Mesh (see this introduction to setting one up).
Smartphones can used to create a Mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs), which are very similar to a Mesh Networks. However, MANETs are temporary networks, they do not replace the need for an ISP. A startup company called Karma is about to launch such a network.
Project Meshnet is organization whose object is to:
[C]reate a versatile, decentralized network built on secure protocols for routing traffic over private mesh or public internetworks independent of a central supporting infrastructure.
Peer-To-Peer (P2P) Networks
In a Peer-to-Peer network, the “peers” are computers which are connected to each other via the Internet. Files can be shared directly between systems on the network without the need of a central server. In other words, each computer on a P2P network becomes a file server as well as a client.
This is an example of a social peer-to-peer process where each individual shares resources to build a group resource. Other examples of such processes include the free software movement, Wikipedia and leaderless organizations.
The first peer-to-peer application was the file sharing system Napster, originally released in 1999. Today, P2P networks are most commonly used to share files, distribute free software, and to stream media.
Friend-To-Friend (F2F) Networks
A Friend-To-Friend Network (F2F network) is a type of Peer-To-Peer Network where users only make direct connections with people they know. Since the network is only made up of trusted associates, it has greater privacy and security than an open network. Examples of software which can be used to build F2F networks include: Retroshare, GNUnet, Freenet and OneSwarm. Of these applications, RetroShare is the only one of these configured for friend-to-friend operation by default.
A Darknet is defined as an decentralized, private network which runs outside of the Internet. Today, most darknets in existence are Meshnets created by enthusiasts. The examples of existing darknets include the I2P network and Freenet.
- The Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF)
- The Free Software Foundation (FSF)
- The Free Network Foundation
- Free Press (Save The Internet)
- The Software Freedom Law Center
- Meshing It
- Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
- The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman
- Consent Of The Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom by Rebecca MacKinnon
- The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Timothy Wu
- The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler
- Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff
- Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig
- All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities and Everything Else that Belongs to All of Us by Jay Walljasper
- The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel