Just over three months ago, the collective outrage of millions of internet users over SOPA and PIPA was brought to bear on Congress thanks to the internet “Blackout” of January 18, 2012. The protest managed to kill the bills’ shot as passing for the time being, but they failed to stem the growing trend of legislation aimed at increasing government control of the internet. If this pattern continues, more and more digital activists think we’re going to need a plan to protect the “open web” from state surveillance and censorship.
Last year, a 17-year-old High School student from Vermont named Chris Bresee began work on a formal Darknet Plan, a project with the goal of creating a global internet-like ‘meshnet’ of individual users built around an open peer-to-peer architecture. Under this network, users would connect to and access content through one another as opposed to a central internet service provider, allowing them to encrypt data and anonymously re-rout it to avoid surveillance. The admittedly slightly convoluted diagram below shows an example of how one such system, Tor (short for The Onion Router), uses similar anonymizing techniques to protect user privacy:
By relying on P2P connections, meshnets may one day evade the need for an ISP to connect users to the internet, but for the time being, their application is still rather limited. This map was created to connect users for a planned future user-run wireless meshnet, and while it still clearly has a ways to go, as consumer wireless technology becomes cheaper and more effective, decentralized networks like this will become more viable. These networks have grown in popularity among residents under authoritarian regimes for their ability to thwart government monitoring; Iran, for example, is second only to the United States in number of Tor users. Though American censorship hasn’t yet come close to the scope or severity of the Islamic Republic’s, the Darknet’s architects don’t want to wait for it to become necessary.
Hacker Jeff Moss explained that “the more government tries to regulate, the more people will try to build an Internet that is uncensorable and unfilterable and unblockable.” Though these networks are unquestionably slower, less reliable and more dangerous than their surface-level counterparts, they’re likely to keep growing as the combined interests of giant telecom companies and intellectual property owners coalesce into industry-wide agreements which stand to censor vast and popular portions of the internet. Free information activists hope that even if these measures go through, the popular content they try to suppress will simply change and move through new media like meshnets, just as it always has.
Earlier today, the Obama Administration levied new sanctions against Iran and Syria meant to curtail their ability to monitor activists online. The President said “these technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them,” which is pretty hard to disagree with, but it raises questions about whether this move might be a bit hypocritical. Obviously, American attempts to enforce copyright more aggressively or gather data for law enforcement aren’t on par with, say, Iran’s creation of the (not-at-all-hubristically named) “Supreme Council of Cyberspace” to push political and social censorship online. But at the same time, American authorities have been guilty of some of the same offenses as these regimes, such as subpoenaing data gathered through social media to use as evidence against nonviolent political activists.
Then again, maybe even this new medium isn’t safe. In 2010, it was revealed that Wikileaks – the archetypical anti-web-censorship paragon – had gotten its start when a hacker who ran an “exit node” on Tor intercepted and monitored intelligence communications being routed through his node. The documents he obtained would prove to be one of Wikileaks’ first big breaks and help establish it as a major player in the global battle over free information. It’s ironic that the same activists who helped garner support for a surveillance-free web would so readily use information gained through the same methods they’re fighting, but it also demonstrates an important lesson about how information works online: whether you’re reading personal emails, news stories or sensitive intelligence, it’s always sent via someone else. It’s inevitable that those who handle our personal information in the digital world will have the ability to invade our privacy- what matters is whether we trust them not to.