Something very interesting happened over the last few weeks that provides a glimpse into a different future for the Internet. The students and others who were protesting in Hong Kong were able to set up a private network that bypassed the Chinese authorities using a blockchain. I will describe what that is below.
There are currently a lot of different people who don’t like the way the Internet is operated today. First, we have the NSA surveillance and everything that implies. Numerous countries around the world are in the process of setting up servers that will keep a lot of local data on their own servers so that it doesn’t leave the country. In effect we are looking at a world where each country may have its own Internet cloud and a firewall around their data
Probably even more intrusive, we have a few large companies controlling a large percentage of what happens on the web. Science Fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling calls these large companies the ‘Stacks’ and his current list includes Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. We know that these large companies each have their own agenda for tracking each of us, mostly for marketing purposes, but each of them also has cooperated to some degree with the NSA.
Finally, we have the possibility that in the US that the FCC is going to vote against net neutrality which will free the large companies and the ISPs to do what they wish. It may seem a bit nationalistic to think that what happens here is important to the world, but since the large companies that control the web today are all American, to some extent, as goes America so goes the web.
There are many who are disturbed by these trends and I have seen numerous articles asking if the Internet as we think of it is already dying. To counteract these trends we have seen numerous new browsers, email services and encryption programs introduced in the last year for people who are looking to opt out of the surveillance world.
And now we have Hong Kong which is behind the Great Firewall of China where the government micromanages Internet access. Had the Hong Kong protesters used any of the normal available services to communicate, such as email or the various social media sites in China they would have been quickly squashed. So instead they cleverly established a blockchain.
A blockchain is a software technology that was established as the basis for trading Bitcoins. A simplified explanation of a blockchain is that it’s a distributed consensus network that allows communications to be made securely and without any centralized authority. The Bitcoin world is entirely based upon trading currency, but the same technology can be used to exchange any other kind of communication such as emails, tweets, etc. Every transaction is encrypted including a unique encrypted code given to each user of the network. This means that even if intercepted by the Chines authorities, the blockchain communications were coded both in terms of content and identity of participants.
One of the interesting things about blockchain communications is the consensus required for it to work. Each user involved in the blockchain basically validates everybody else. If for some reason there is no communication on the blockchain, then after a set amount of time the whole chain collapses.
So the protesters in Hong Kong established a temporary encrypted peer-to-peer network that was impenetrable by the authorities. This let them communicate and coordinate their activities free from oversight or censorship. And when the protest ends the blockchain will collapse and disappear.
This concept could become the basis for establishing secure group communications in the future that falls outside of the NSA or large company tracking. It’s not hard to imagine those with similar interests of some sort being able to launch their own blockchain that would just look like indecipherable bits as it passed through any Internet hubs or monitoring points. Such networks need not be nefarious and a blockchain network could be used for any group like a college fraternity, a science fiction fan club, the fans of a sports team or band, or anything else. Such networks could spring up and disappear as needed and would only be available to those with some sort of in on how to join. But even those who are insiders in the network have no way to see what others are doing and they can only decode their own transactions.
It’s an interesting concept and is the first effective way that people are bypassing the surveillance world. The vast majority of people in the world have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy having large companies or governments track and record everything they do. Expect there to be numerous attempts to create alternatives to today’s Internet. And expect it to be a cat-and-mouse game where new strategies avoid surveillance for a while until cracked, but with new ideas strategies waiting to work next. We could be seeing the start here of a new Internet where people take back privacy by opting out of products offered by the mainstream companies.