While the rest of the world waits for the impact of net neutrality deregulation, a few companies are planning for the future.
They are using blockchains in different ways, and their tools offer solutions to the worst-case scenario for internet users — namely, censorship. The companies might not keep a totally free internet, where no content is throttled or blocked, but they serve as stopgaps now that such changes are possible.
In December, the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to allow internet service providers (ISP) to increase speeds for websites they favor and slow down others. The vote underscored the Trump administration’s efforts to cut regulations across a broad swath of industries. The FCC also ratcheted down its oversight over the broadband industry.
Internet service providers insist that they won’t limit access for users. Net neutrality advocates, including consumer groups and tech companies who lobbied heavily prior to the FCC’s decision, worry that repealing protections that classified ISPs as utilities threatens the nature of the internet.
Different Ways of Decentralizing the Net
ZeroNet allows users to serve each other the content for a website, in a peer-to-peer structure supported by elliptic curve encryption like that used in bitcoin (BTC) wallets. Website creators sign their site files with their BIP32 private keys. The site address is the creator’s public key. This gives website visitors the ability to verify the content they receive from peers through BitTorrent.
Domain names through ZeroNet use the Namecoin decentralized domain name system, so users can register .bit domain names on the Namecoin blockchain.
Tamas Kocsis of ZeroNet says that the system prevents ISPs from discriminating against users’ traffic based on the content they access. “This nature would make it resistant to any central control or censorship as the content is stored and served from the visitor’s computer,” he says. “In an ideal future, the internet would be less dependent on ISPs, and it’s going to be a community-operated and -built network.”
Kocsis adds that he doesn’t think decentralized internet networks will ever replace hosted networks, but networks like ZeroNet will “provide an independent alternative for communicating, sharing information and ideas with each other.”
Another company, Substratum, will offer decentralized internet with a slightly different approach. Volunteers can run nodes for the network that mirror content, and every time a node serves that content, the node owner receives a payment from the original content host in the Substratum cryptocurrency, substrate (SUB).
The initial coin offering for substrate, based on Ethereum, raised $13.8 million. Additionally, Substratum makes use of online wallet CryptoPay to support cryptocurrency payments on its network’s websites.
What the Future Holds for the Web
Ryan Singel, Media and Strategy Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, says that peer-to-peer networks don’t perfectly prevent potential interference from ISPs. “Both ZeroNet and Substratum appear to add to the kind of technology that helps users route around gatekeepers, but like those other technologies they remain vulnerable to bad network practices by ISPs,” he says. “For instance, Comcast successfully interfered with BitTorrent traffic in 2008 and only stopped after a comprehensive investigation by the FCC.”
Kocsis has a similar concern about the future of how ISPs handle peer-to-peer traffic. “Some of the internet service providers are already de-prioritizing/limiting the P2P network packets,” he says. “It’s still pretty early to say anything for sure, but I think the net neutrality changes are more likely to target and put an extra expense on big companies.”
Singer adds that decentralized networks are no substitute for codified net neutrality: “Anti-circumvention tools are powerful, but they cannot solve the net neutrality problem on their own. These kinds of tools complement but cannot replace strong public policy that prevents ISPs from interfering with user choice of what content, services and applications they can use.”