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Going Dark: Looking for the End of the Internet, Part 1

11-07-19

The title of this article is a play on words, because "the end of the Internet" can mean two things. I mean both. I'm looking for the undiscovered places at the edges of the Internet, and I'm looking and waiting with anticipation for what may replace the Internet--a next Internet, or next Internets. Perhaps, if it occurs, the next Internet will be what many now call "the darknet". Perhaps it will be something completely different.

Back in the early 1990's, "Internet 1.0", as some have called it, was populated with websites created and maintained by hobbyist's, people who loved computers and wanted to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with others. This was before the web had dynamic content, so web pages were composed mostly of text with crude, static, ASCII-character, monochrome, or 8-color graphics, the kind you may have seen on computer games from the 1970's. Even back in those early days, when the Internet suffered from a lack of content, some including myself, were hopeful that it would grow into something great, and we could hardly wait. The web then had almost no commercial content. The few companies that had websites mostly had single-page placeholders. The Internet wasn't a place where people bought and sold things. You could surf the Internet anonymously, because no one was watching what you were doing or where you were going. Governments weren't concerned yet about the Internet; they didn't even have websites. Websites existed mostly around information and file sharing. Although email existed, most of the general population were not on the Internet, so few had email accounts. No one ever asked for your email address. Instead, we used telephones and snail mail. We talked on our telephones. We didn't text on them.

I know I'm not the first to point this out, but the Internet has become a very different place since it's birth back in the early 1990's, or maybe I should say since its childhood in the early 1990's, since ARPANET has been around since the 1960's. In some ways the Internet has improved, in others regressed. Although it has some great content now, it's over-commercialized to such a degree that you have to actively seek out any left-over hint of the old Internet. Internet users are tracked everywhere they go, both by companies trying to sell them things and by governments paranoid about what they may see, say, or do. The Internet today is well on it's way to becoming an Orwellian nightmare, a fenced-in corral for Internet cattle. This is a very different future than the one I hoped for back in the early nineties. This future-now-present makes me nervous.

As a result of my growing nervousness and disillusionment with the Internet, I've been looking around for something better. I've been sampling alternative networks, including what some call "the darknet". I put "the darknet" in quotes, because having seen some of it, I realize that label doesn't describe it very well. It's not even one thing. There are many so-called dark networks, with more appearing all the time. Unfortunately, I don't have a better label. I would like to call it the "next Internet", but something completely different and unforeseen could come along to fulfill that role. Perhaps "the altnet" is a better name. I don't know. I've tried a handful of "dark networks" so far--including ZeroNet, the Invisible Internet Project (I2P), the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), the distributed social network Diaspora, and others--some of which I have written about on cheapskatesguide.org. I've also tried some alternative email providers, including protonmail and tutanota. And, I've permanently switched from Google to duckduckgo for search, because I now understand that Google's search results are geared toward further corralling the Internet cattle.

Although my search for the end of the Internet has led me to become increasingly knowledgeable about the dark web and darknet, I am by no means an expert. As I said, many darknets exist. And, I still haven't learned more than a small fraction of what can be known about the huge, diverse, network space that is out there. I do, however, know enough to recognize that the view of the darknet we get from governments and the news media is myopic. In my opinion, what they're telling us about the darknet now is very similar to the somewhat self-serving warnings they've been giving us for twenty years about avoiding "shady" websites (i.e. anything other than Facebook, Amazon, Google, and other websites run by giant corporations). For example, this article on the FBI's website refers to "going dark" as a problem that "...is eroding law enforcement's ability to quickly obtain valuable information that may be used to [identify] and save victims, reveal evidence to convict perpetrators, or exonerate the innocent." The FBI's article goes on to say, "With the widespread horizontal distribution of social media, terrorists can spot, assess, recruit, and radicalize vulnerable individuals of all ages in the United States either to travel or to conduct a homeland attack." While some of that may be true in rare instances--and I stress the word "rare"--a bigger picture exits here. The bigger picture is the one I'm concerned with.

A hint of the bigger picture can be found in the following comment that I found on a forum on the I2P network:

"I used to worry a lot about what would happen to Tor back when I was really active here. Services would go down and not come back, people running legit sites would get threats from [law enforcement] to share user info, Vigilante assholes would go and take down sites cause they didn't like the lack of censorship, and to top it all off rumors spread like wildfire throughout the popular media. Rumors that not only hurt the reputation of the [dark web] but of the people using it. You know the ones. The red rooms, the hitmen, human slavery, etc. All bullshit but it had a way of working it's way into the sensationalist media news cycle. But the more I've thought about it and the more I've had a chance to interact with the communities that use Tor the more I've realized that it isn't going away. Not for along time anyways. Services come and go but the fact of the matter is that there will always be something new to replace the old. I've seen it a million times now. A service goes down and is mourned by the community. Shortly after someone makes a replacement service and that new service takes the place of the old one. I know that tomorrow when I wake up Tor will still be here. That the community will still stand behind it build on it and improve it. And if it isn't then someone will have built a replacement. We'll still be here. Despite government opposition or regulation or the public's fear we'll still be here."

This is a picture of a wild-west kind of "community" that, despite seemingly existential threats, isn't going away. The reason this community exists at all is that many are beginning to wake up and realize that their ability to speak freely and anonymously on the Internet is being infringed. They don't like that, so they're creating a more secure, more anonymous Internet where they can be more free. In almost all cases, this is not about breaking any laws--except those against free speech. It's about taking back free speech rights curtailed by governments and corporations. The question in my mind is, "What is this community becoming?"

Despite the many warnings about the negative side of the "dark web", networks like IPFS, ZeroNet, I2P, Retroshare, Scuttlebutt, the TOR network, and others are much more well-lit than you have been led to believe. The dark web is nothing more than a loose conglomeration of websites hosted on various encrypted networks that require special software to access. This software is freely available on the regular Internet and can be downloaded and used by anyone who is interested. For the most part, the dark web is frequented and maintained by your neighbors, your work colleagues, people you go to school and to church with, and people you see at Walmart. The majority of darknet users welcome newcomers. Unfortunately, some are also hostile to newcomers, simply because they want to keep their networks from becoming nothing more than copies of the regular Internet. From what I can tell from months of perusing the dark networks that I've visited so far, denizens of the dark web seem to be somewhat younger than average, somewhat more intelligent, more forward looking, more free-thinking, more socially conscious, much more freedom-loving, and maybe a bit more paranoid. Perhaps, that's why governments around the world seem to be so determined to block and control them. To say more than that about the individuals who frequent the dark web would be, I think, to risk making an artificial distinction between them and the rest of society that is unjustified.

Unlike Internet 1.0, where most sites were run and visited by hobbyists who loved computers for their own sakes, today's so-called dark websites are mostly created and populated by people who have specific goals in mind. Those who love computers are still there. They just aren't the majority. Many darknet devotees are activists who don't like what the modern Internet has evolved into and want a place where they can speak their minds unhindered by corporate censors kowtowing to advertisers and various freedom-averse governments around the world. Others simply want to be able to download copyrighted music, movies, TV shows, and books for free. And some, fortunately a very small minority, want to buy drugs and spread child pornography. But, for the most part, the darknet is just like the regular Internet--in the sense that it has a light side, and it has a dark side.

The new trend in the darknet world is the appearance of distributed, or peer-to-peer, networks. These are networks that transfer data between and sometimes store data directly on the computers of users, called peers, rather than relying on centralized servers. This type of network is very difficult for governments to block or control. And that's the main reason distributed networks are appearing, especially in countries like Russia and China.

As extensions of the darknet, the new distributed networks are similar in many ways to the early Internet. Nearly all of their websites are run by individuals. You'll find almost no commercial content. You will find blogs, chat rooms, forums, email services, gaming sites, file sharing sites, leaked government documents, lists of links to popular sites, and documentation on how to access and use their networks. Unlike the early Internet, however, many websites on distributed networks run javascript, so their content is often more modern-looking and interactive. Because of this, you'll also find rudimentary search engines and Youtube-like sites. However, because content is hosted by hobbyists with small budgets, were you to try to download very large files, like HD movie files, you would often find them to be unavailable. In fact, as was pointed out in the I2P user's comment above, many websites on distributed networks exist for some period of time and then disappear when their owners lose interest. So, having access to up-to-date lists of active websites can be important.




TO BE CONTINUED



Related Articles:

What I Learned about the Internet by Creating My Own Website

ZeroNet and the Future of the Internet

The Next Internet

How to Access the Interplanetary File System

An Introduction to the I2P Distributed, Peer-to-Peer Network

My Search for Alternative Social Networks

Why I Love the Idea of Community File Sharing and Mesh Networks

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