I've been a daily user of ZeroNet now for 6 months. During that time, I've found it a delightful way of "meeting" (if only virtually) interesting people and discussing interesting ideas as well as many technical topics. I've communicated with other ZeroNet users from all over the world, and I've been able hear what they think and feel about the situations that are developing in their countries. ZeroNet is where I first learned of the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong that began earlier this year. I watched as 8Chan users arrived on ZeroNet after 8Chan was shutdown. And, I watched as some of them decided that ZeroNet wasn't what they were looking for and left. I've even created my own website on ZeroNet, and I've watched as several others have done the same.
ZeroNet is far from a bed of roses. Some users want to discuss things that I find distasteful or that simply do not interested me. That is the nature of free speech. So, I simply ignore what I'm not interested in and focus on what holds my attention, as would anyone who is trying to practice tolerance, not just claiming to be. However, for those who prefer to be shielded from certain content, some solutions have been developed, which I will discuss later in this article.
The software that runs the ZeroNet network is not perfect either. But, it's flaws are actively discussed on ZeroNet, and development is ongoing. I'm looking forward to progress as fixes are implemented and solutions found to many of the issues associated with building a "new Internet" with only volunteers. Yes, this is a messy process. But, look at the results so far...
For anyone who still doesn't know, ZeroNet is an easy-to-use, open-source, actively-developed, decentralized, censorship-resistant network running on software created mostly by Thomas Kocsis in 2015. ZeroNet makes it possible for people to communicate freely with each other without going through a central server--like those owned and controlled by Facebook, Google, and Amazon. ZeroNet also makes it possible for anyone to create their own website (either from scratch, or by "cloning" a pre-existing site) and run it without obtaining permission from any quasi-governmental agency, and without paying any fees whatsoever. No organization limits what ZeroNet users can say to each other or what they can put on their websites (called "zites" on ZeroNet), because ZeroNet is a network powered by its users' computers (also known as "peers"). ZeroNet now has hundreds of user-created zites and thousands of daily users all over the world. In fact, in the six months I've been using ZeroNet, it has grown from having around 600-1200 peers on line at any given time to around 3000-15000.
ZeroNet uses Bitcoin cryptography for site addresses and content signing/verification. User identification is based on Bitcoin's BIP32 format. I don't know much about this, other than the fact that it allows anyone to create their own zite at a bitcoin address that cannot be controlled by any centralized authority. When a ZeroNet user creates a zite and fills it with content, that content will exist for as long as ZeroNet peers have "seeded" (i.e. downloaded and retained) that content on their computers. So, if you have something to say on ZeroNet that other users consider to be important, it could remain on ZeroNet for a very long time--regardless of what some large company, ICANN, or even some judge or law-enforcement agency decides.
If you are unfamiliar with ZeroNet and would like to know more, I recommend you begin by reading the article that I wrote back when I was a ZeroNet newbie, ZeroNet and the Future of the Internet. It explains how to install and use ZeroNet and more of the basics of what you can expect to find there.
ZeroNet's censorship resistance is, in part, a product of the nature of its multiple operational modes. In the mode that ZeroNet is used in most often, a user connects his computer to the Internet, boots up the ZeroNet software, and types 127.0.0.1:43110 onto an Internet browser's URL line. He is now connected to the ZeroNet network of users running on top of the regular Internet, sometimes called "the clearnet". In this mode, ZeroNet mostly relies on bit-torrent trackers to tell ZeroNet peers how to find each other over. However, with modification of the ZeroNet setup, any ZeroNet peer can act as a tracker.
Another way of running ZeroNet is in the offline mode, where the user does not connect to any network. He simply boots up the ZeroNet software on his computer, opens an Internet browser, and types 127.0.0.1:43110 onto the URL line. The TOR browser won't work for this, because it won't run without an Internet connection. However, Firefox works just fine. As far as I know, any browser other than the TOR browser should work. The user now has access to any content that was previously downloaded to his computer from ZeroNet. So he can visit ZeroNet zites, read blog posts, even listen to music and watch moves, just as he does when he is connected to ZeroNet over the Internet. He can even create new posts on forums and make new comments that will be uploaded to ZeroNet the next time he connects. New ZeroNet content is downloaded automatically to the user's computer while he is connected to other peers over ZeroNet As soon as he goes to a new zite, the entire zite contents is downloaded to his computer, subject to a user-adjustable limit (usually 10 MB by default). Any zite he has previously visited and not deleted from his computer is updated automatically the next time he connects to ZeroNet. If he is concerned about the space ZeroNet is taking up on his hard drive, or the amount of data that his computer is sharing with other peers, the user can delete any previously-downloaded zite that he wishes from his computer. ZeroNet's offline mode would allow a user, if he wanted, to use a solar-powered laptop on a desert island or on top of a mountain to peruse previously-downloaded ZeroNet content. In fact, I have used this ZeroNet operational mode to read old posts on ZeroTalk (one of the ZeroNet zites) going all the way back to 2015, without being connected to the Internet.
In addition to running on top of the Internet, ZeroNet can also run on a single, isolated router, or in theory on any mesh network--be it a home wifi mesh network, a community wifi network, a network running over HAM radio, or one that includes satellites in Earth orbit. ZeroNet has run successfully over I2P and over CJDNS, and documentation accessible through the ZeroNet network can show you how to do this yourself.
Let's say you live in China where the government has managed to block many of the bit-torrent trackers that tell ZeroNet peers how to find each other. In order to update your ZeroNet content, you can go over to a friend's house, connect your computer and his computer to his router, and ZeroNet will automatically update your content with his, just as it does when you are connected to other ZeroNet peers over the Internet. This means that a single person could, in theory, fly to China with new ZeroNet content and pass it to his friends, who pass it to their friends, and so on, until all the computers of every ZeroNet user in China have been updated. Take that Great Firewall!
You can also copy the ZeroNet folder on your hard drive onto a USB stick and mail it to your friend in China. In that folder, he has everything he needs to update his copy of ZeroNet with all the contents from yours. You should probably only give him parts of the "data" folder inside your ZeroNet folder, because your ZeroNet identity also resides in your ZeroNet folder. All you have to do to use ZeroNet on another computer with your same ZeroNet identity is to copy your ZeroNet folder onto the other computer.
More details about ZeroNet can be found on this github page.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will describe some of the main benefits of becoming a ZeroNet user.
First let me briefly present a summary of my experience on Reddit. Reddit shadow banded me eight or nine months ago. I asked the reason for this several times, and for two months, I received no response. At the end of two months, I asked one last time and was told in an offhanded way that I "appeared" to be unbanned. The moderator that responded to me said he thought I had been confused with another banned group. The thing is that in each of the three days immediately preceding my ban, I had received over ten thousand karma points--over twenty thousand on the day immediately preceding the ban alone. Any of you who have used Reddit know this is not easy to do. And, the content that I posted was completely legitimate and in keeping with the rules. I suspect I was shadow banned specifically because I had been too successful. This caused be to begin thinking about the prospect of continuing to put in a considerable amount of effort to build up karma with an organization that arbitrarily booted me out on a whim with no appeal process. That's when I started looking for an alternative platform. Shortly afterwards, I discovered ZeroNet. My experience with Reddit has only increased my appreciation of any platform that values free speech.
Where anonymity does not exist, true free speech does not exists, and anonymity on the clearnet is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. When I first surfed the Internet back in the early 1990's, it was composed mostly of the websites of hobbyists. Commercial organizations were just beginning to consider how they might make some money from it. A few had place-holder websites with no content, and government websites didn't exist back then. No website owner would have dreamed of demanding that a visitor hand over his phone number before letting him see his content. This kind of invasion of privacy was just not conceived of then. Today, opening an email account without being required to hand over a phone number is rare, and Facebook demands a picture of your face. Forget about exchanging fiat money for bitcoin without identifying yourself (the one exception being bitquick.co). And, you are tracked everywhere you go on the Internet with the help of almost all browsers, not to mention having your searches logged by essentially every search engine, and being spied on by the NSA.
Many have proposed that this invasion of privacy and curtailment of free speech on the Internet stems from two sources: commercialization and centralization. I agree with the former and disagree to an extent with the latter. I would substitute "monopolization" for "centralization". I don't think it matters much on whose computer content is found. I think it's more about limiting competition. If only one source of content exists, the organization that has it has a much greater ability to leverage it to make money or to withhold it. How content is hosted doesn't matter if control over it is exclusively maintained. Despite this, I would also have to admit that pressure can be brought to bare against website owners who ignore government regulations, so things can be complicated.
The same argument applies to Internet services. If we all had Internet service providers that were actually forced to compete against each other, they would be much more interested in the issues that concern their customers. If we all had a choice between an ISP that respected our anonymity and one that didn't, all other things being equal, most intelligent people would choose the one that did. That would force the other ISP to either start respecting its customers' privacy or be satisfied with having a smaller pool of only stupid customers.
This has been a longer-winded introduction to the benefits of using ZeroNet than I had intended. So, let me get to the point. Even if governments have declared it to be illegal, ZeroNet allows users to say whatever they want and to remain anonymous while saying it. I am aware of no other centralized-server-based platform that does this. The other benefit of ZeroNet is that anyone can create a zite on ZeroNet without asking for permission or paying any fees.
Of course, ZeroNet also allows users to discuss topics of interest, post pictures, and interact with their friends, just as Facebook and Internet forums do. ZeroNet just allows them to do these things without having to follow any rules or identify themselves if they choose not to.
Other benefits of ZeroNet are that it is user-friendly, largely bug-free, and it runs fairly quickly. Zites take only a few seconds to load, a bit longer in "TOR Always" mode. This is important, because a lot of open-source, volunteer-provided software is filled with bugs and hard to use. A small learning curve exists if you want to create your own zite, but the basic functionality of ZeroNet from a user's perspective is fairly intuitive. After installing it, I managed to use it and find my way around without any instructions. If you want to do more than the basics, there are details you will have to learn, but they are not overwhelming, and ZeroTalk, various blogs on ZeroNet, and other documentation found on ZeroNet are sources of help.
Just as with any system that is still under development, ZeroNet has its problems. Here are some of them.
Some users of ZeroNet complain bitterly about the lack of end-to-end encryption. They insist that everyone should be using both the TOR browser and a VPN. However, ZeroNet does use TLS 1.2 encryption, and I have reason to believe this has been recently upgraded to TLS 1.3 for users' computers that support it. TLS encryption is what HTTPS websites like banks, online stores, and email providers use to encrypt their users' traffic. It is rumored that governments have cracked TLS encryption, so perhaps those who are worried have a reasonable cause for worry. However, TLS encryption is much better than no encryption at all.
The Onion-router network that the TOR bowser uses to hide users' IP addresses from websites they visit on the Internet has some known vulnerabilities. The NSA is known to run TOR exit nodes, and it is well known that the the operators of TOR nodes can snoop on traffic. Also, methods have apparently been developed to detect users' IP addresses over time by recording traffic patterns on the Internet and correlating the records.
My guess is that the bottom line is that no fool-proof way exists for remaining anonymous in the face of a determined snoop like the NSA. About all anyone can hope for is for ZeroNet, or any network where anonymity is important, to make a reasonable effort to provide a reasonable level of anonymity. If some of the concerned ZeroNet users are to be believed, it appears that ZeroNet has not done this. However, I am not very knowledgeable in the area of network privacy, so anything that I say here should be considered suspect. Those of you who are interested in this issue can find several discussions about this on ZeroNet. You can also research running ZeroNet software with Wireshark, I2P, and CJDNS.
Although ZeroNet is decentralized in that it runs on users' computers, it has some centralized characteristics. The first is that, for the most part, it relies on bit-torrent trackers to facilitate communication between ZeroNet peers over the Internet. Once again, I am not knowledgeable on exactly how this works. Although there are ways of tying ZeroNet peers together that don't involve trackers, the over-reliance on trackers has already proven problematic for the Chinese people as their government has blocked and shut down tackers within its reach. Given that the Internet/bit-torrent tracker system is the most convenient way of using ZeroNet, it may take time for enough people to recognize a need to coordinate the wide-spread adoption of other ZeroNet modes of operation. I am told by Chinese ZeroNet users that they are employing alternate methods, but I am fuzzy on exactly what those methods are. However, I have already alluded to some alternate modes of operation of ZeroNet: modifying the setup of a peer to act as a tracker, running ZeroNet over I2P or CJDNS, running ZeroNet on a mesh network, and if all else fails, setting up a "sneekernet", e.g. hand-carrying data on USB sticks.
Another way in which ZeroNet is overly centralized at the moment is that it revolves around a handful of main zites that are owned and run by Thomas Kocsis. When you first start up ZeroNet, you are taken to the "ZeroHello" page, which is owned and maintained by Thomas. On that page, the only links to zites that you will see the first time you run ZeroNet are ZeroTalk, ZeroMe, ZeroUp, ZeroID, and ZeroBlog. All of these are owned and maintained by Thomas. On ZeroNet, a zite owner has complete freedom to delete any content that he does not like, and he is the only one who can delete his zite's content on all ZeroNet peers. This means that if Thomas were to die or be coerced into damaging ZeroNet, he could make it difficult for ZeroNet users to continue using ZeroNet.
ZeroID is the default ID registration system that ZeroNet uses to register users. This takes the place of a password on ZeroNet and allows users to add posts and make comments in forums and on blogs and to create their own zites. Many ZeroNet users find it problematic that one person controls ZeroID, so some users have created their own identity registration systems. As I write this, there are about eight identity registration systems that I know of. I should point out that ZeroNet identities are in no way linked to users' real-world identities or to their IP addresses, so users are free to create as many unique identities as they like.
I see no way of solving the inherent problem of the owner of a zite having complete control over it. I trust that no one would argue that if I were to create a popular ZeroNet zite that I should allow a group of anonymous strangers to modify my zite in any way they like and control content on it. That is clearly unworkable. The implication of ZeroNet zites being owned by a single person are that, just as on the clearnet, once one zite becomes dominant in a particular area, the owner of that zite would have the power to force users to reveal their identities or be banned from the zite. He would also have the power to begin to dictate the way that ZeroNet itself works, just as Google has begun to do with the clearnet. In this case, whether ZeroNet runs on users' computers or on a central server would be irrelevant. The owner of the zite could become just as user-unfriendly, onerous, anticompetitive, and intrusive as Google, Facebook, and Amazon have become on the clearnet.
I wrote about the search problem on ZeroNet in my first ZeroNet article. As far as I can tell, not much has changed since I wrote it. Several search engines can be found on ZeroNet, but they only search titles for keywords, not content. This means that it is still difficult to locate content on ZeroNet other than through these search engines and the rather coarse avenue of ZeroSites and some others. ZeroSites is nothing more than an organized listing of links to ZeroNet zites with brief descriptions of their contents.
As I said, as ZeroNet grows, this system will quickly become unmanageable. In my opinion, ZeroNet has already reached this point. As a result, I tend to stay on the zites that I know and not explore ZeroNet nearly as much as I do the clearnet.
As is to be expected on a network that has free speech as its highest priority, offensive material can be found on ZeroNet. A few individuals sell drugs, post child pornography, and put forth what some call "hate speech". I would like to emphasize from the beginning that this is not what ZeroNet is about. However, all of those who wish to use ZeroNet must accept that any place where true free speech exists, some objectionable material will be present, and ZeroNet is no exception. The arrival of 8Chan users in August has only increased the amount of material that many people would prefer to avoid. As a result, many discussions have taken place on ZeroNet's ZeroTalk about possible methods of eliminating or screening out material. As far as I can tell, no solutions have been found that also protect free speech, and only a handful of ideas have been acted upon by individuals on their own zites. Thomas Kocsis, having the goal from the beginning of promoting free speech on ZeroNet, has to my knowledge not acted on any of the ideas presented over the last six months.
Although no systematic means exist for protecting ZeroNet as a whole from unsavory content, individual users do have some recourse. First, each user has the power to "mute" any user and all content posted by that user on ZeroHello, ZeroTalk, and any of their "cloned" zites. This means that previous and future content generated by the muted user (in the form of forum postings and comments) will not be seen by the muter. Every other user will continue to see content generated by the muted user.
Many ZeroNet users are highly concerned about child pornography and the possibility of unknowingly hosting it on their computers, due to the way ZeroNet functions. One solution to this problem--and this is the approach that I have taken over the last six months--is to not go to zites on which individual users are allowed to post pictures or videos. If you never visit a zite, your computer will not host its content. Period. That means avoiding zites like 0Chan and ZeroMe.
I should also mention that there are various zites containing lists of malicious zites. A zite called "ZeroNet Moderated Directory" was just created this month to provide links to zites that have been screened for content. Right now, the list is small, and the owner of the zite has not made much of an effort to explain the criteria that he uses to screen zites. All he has said is, "All submissions will be checked to ensure they are operating and contain content, We WILL NOT list Sites with no content, Test sites, Hate sites, CP sites or any Cruelty to animal sites." The ZeroNet Moderated Directory can be found on ZeroNet here: http://127.0.0.1:43110/18QPAtqyoxriNcNAi4mkCHyoLENwTEbFyw/Directory.html .
While documentation can be found on ZeroNet, individual topics of interest can be hard to locate within it. I think the amount of general documentation on ZeroNet is sufficient, but there is a lack of detailed documentation on specific topics that some users and developers might like to have. However, developers can always read through the code. My recollection is that ZeroNet is now about 18,000 lines of code. So, it's not too large for any one person to read, given some time.
The main problem is that the documentation is spread between "official" locations, github, ZeroNet blogs, and postings on ZeroTalk and other places. No method currently exists for searching most of it by keywords--at least none that I am aware of. This means that users who want to do more than just the basics on ZeroNet will have to spend time looking for documentation, looking through what they find, and asking questions on ZeroTalk. One bright spot that I have found is that ZeroHello does have a keyword search. I've found this to be very helpful recently.
ZeroNet and the TOR browser are easy to set up and run on your computer. You can find a detailed ZeroNet installation guide in my previous article on ZeroNet.
Although people who are not concerned about anonymity can use ZeroNet with any browser they like, most users recognize the wisdom of using ZeroNet with the TOR browser in "TOR Always" mode. Third parties like the NSA have been known to set up fake TOR exit nodes to monitor traffic on the TOR network. To prevent this, TOR has set up a Hidden Services protocol that prevents TOR traffic from going outside the TOR network until it reaches a true TOR exit node. This provides greater anonymity, because in this mode the ZeroNet software on your computer uses only Onion-routers to connect to other peers. This makes it more difficult for a peer or a third party to link your real IP address to your ZeroNet identity. Documentation explaining how to run the Python 3 version of ZeroNet (the latest version) in TOR Always mode can be found on ZeroNet, but it takes some hunting, so I'll give it here for anyone who uses Linux:
python3.6 /home/mint/ZeroNet-py3/zeronet.py --tor_proxy 127.0.0.1:9150 --tor_controller 127.0.0.1:9151
The TOR browser is a Firefox browser derivative, so if you know how to use Firefox, you pretty much know how to use the TOR browser.
Many newcomers to ZeroNet worry that their computers will not be able to see enough bit-torrent trackers to maintain a stable connection to the rest of the content on ZeroNet. I use the list of trackers found on the Syncronite zite on ZeroNet at this address: http://127.0.0.1:43110/15CEFKBRHFfAP9rmL6hhLmHoXrrgmw4B5o/ . This list is updated regularly, and it is much larger than the default list that comes with the ZeroNet software, so it will allow you to have a greater pool of peers with which to potentially connect. This will give you a more robust connection to the rest of the content on ZeroNet. To use this list, simply go to ZeroHello, Click on the three vertical dots near the upper left-hand corner, select "configuration", and in the "Trackers" box paste the link to a list of trackers that is found on Syncronite's main page.
Many ZeroNet users worry about the amount of their Internet bandwidth and hard drive space that ZeroNet uses. The more zites you seed (visit and leave on your hard drive), the more of your bandwidth and hard drive space ZeroNet will use. So, if these things concern you, delete some of the zites you don't visit as often. This is easy to do by left-clicking to the right of the name of the zite listed on your ZeroHello page and selecting "Delete". Just visit your STATS page (link near the upper left-hand corner of ZeroHello) to see how much of your hard drive space and Internet bandwidth ZeroNet is using.
To give those of you who have never used ZeroNet an idea of how much bandwidth and hard drive space ZeroNet uses, here are my statistics. I am currently seeding 38 zites. Those include ZeroMail, ZeroID, and ZeroTalk. All of that is taking 133 MB of space on my hard drive. Over the last week I have averaged around 5 MB/day of data downloaded and probably about the same amount uploaded. Much of the data downloaded has occurred from my exploration of unfamiliar zites. Most of the uploaded data is due to my seeding ZeroMail. These numbers should cause no one with a broadband home Internet connection significant concern.
Many are predicting that the "next Internet" will be a decentralized Internet. Having spent the last six months thinking about this prospect, I have to say that I disagree. I think the old centralized Internet will continue to exist, but along with it, several decentralized networks will grow up. They will either run on top of the centralized Internet, the way ZeroNet does. Or, someone will solve the "last mile" problem, which will make possible multiple, physically-separated, competing Internets. Perhaps that someone will be Elon Musk with his network of thousands of Internet satellites in Earth orbit. Perhaps the last mile problem will be solved in a way no one has thought of yet.
It is also possible that some of these competing Internets could be splinters of ZeroNet. As we have seen with cryptocurrencies, once one exists, its code can be copied and used to make more. The same can be done with ZeroNet. So, we may well see many ZeroNet's in the future.
As yet, there are no plans of which I am aware to link ZeroNet with other decentralized networks, like Blockstack, Freenet, IPFS, I2P, and CJDNS. Most likely, this will eventually happen, as is already happening with decentralized social media networks in the "Fediverse". I have no prediction of how long it will take for this effort to begin with ZeroNet.
Although many ZeroNet users have talked about the need, no effort seems to be occurring to link ZeroNet to a cryptocurrency to facilitate e-commerce. From the reactions I've seen to this idea by other ZeroNet users, I'm sure one reason for this is that they do not want ZeroNet to go the way of the clearnet. Truthfully, commercialization and the over-regulation that follows is a major source of the clearnet's lack of free speech and lack of privacy. I can't say whether one or more cryptocurrencies will eventually be linked to ZeroNet, but I would guess the probability is medium to high.
While ZeroNet's future is uncertain, reason for optimism exists. As the history of the clearnet has shown, a single zite may evolve to dominate each major realm of ZeroNet--social media, e-commerce, email, search, etc. The outcome could be that ZeroNet is destined to become a mirror image of the commercialized clearnet that we see today. However, a trend I see that could prevent this is that, unlike most users on the clearnet, most ZeroNet users do care about things like privacy and free speech. Most ZeroNet users seem to have already left Google and Facebook. And, since so many have rejected Google and FaceBook, perhaps they they will also reject future, similar entities that may try to dominate ZeroNet. This may mean that the clearnet and ZeroNet will co-exist, while operating very differently--just as commercial aviation passengers in the US submit to the TSA, while private aviation passengers do not. Those who don't mind being treated like the Internet's cattle would be corralled on the clearnet, and those who do mind would reside almost exclusively on ZeroNet.
My guess is that, whatever happens, ZeroNet will continue to exist for at least several more years. Whether it really catches on with the general public is determined by many factors that are hard to get a handle on. For example, some competitor could come along that is much better than ZeroNet. Or, governments could find ways of blocking ZeroNet. I have no doubt they're hard at work on that problem as I write these words. The most likely scenario is that ZeroNet will grow to hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of daily users that value privacy and anonymity and that ZeroNet will be rejected by the rest of the planet's population that doesn't care about these things. That's if no government manages to block ZeroNet.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, it will be interesting to watch it unfold. Whatever happens, I plan to continue using ZeroNet for the foreseeable future.
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Guide to Computers and the Internet. All rights reserved.