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ZeroNet and the Future of the Internet

5-8-19



Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the internet is beyond the control of governments. How naive the conventional wisdom sometimes is. The thoughtlessness behind this position is beginning to be obvious to even the most naive as China becomes more successful at using it's "Great Firewall" to isolate its people from any website of which it does not approve and Russia experiments with "shutting down its internet connection". As long as governments can seize a server, the building in which it is housed, a bank account, or a body, nothing that is done with these things is entirely beyond its control. A thing is only beyond the reach of governments when governments cannot find that thing or identify the person who owns it.

One of the latest battles against governmental electronic intrusion into our lives via the internet is being fought with peer-to-peer networks. These are computer networks that are designed to look superficially like the internet while putting our files and online identities back into our own hands, where one would suppose few governments would go to the trouble of looking for them. It is anyone's guess as to what these networks may eventually look like, how popular they may become, or how governments may one day gain control over them. But, for now, peer-to-peer networks are an active and on-going experiment in freedom.

Whether unfortunately or not, the typical internet denizen is so used to inhabiting the World Wide Web, thanks to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, that he has likely never considered relocating anywhere else, nor would he know where to begin, nor is he likely, without significant hand-holding, to make the effort any time soon. It is for these reasons that I decided to experience a peer-to-peer network for myself and write an article about it. This is a summary of my efforts and my first experiences with the ZeroNet peer-to-peer network, or any peer-to-peer network. Yes, I am a peer-to-peer network newbie.

Those of you who are not immediately interested in the mechanics of setting up the ZeroNet software on your computers and connecting to the network may skip down to the section of this article entitled, "The ZeroNet Peer-to-Peer network: A Quick Tour".



Setting up the ZeroNet Software and Establishing a Connection:

When it comes to the internet, I am strictly a Linux user. So, of course, I selected the Linux version of ZeroNet to install on my computer. The ZeroNet software and installation instructions for Windows, Mac, and Linux can be found here and here. Had I bothered to read the instructions carefully, I would have saved myself an hour or two of trying to get the ZeroNet software to believe that my TOR browser is my default browser in order to automatically bring it up. It is far from obvious to me how to select a default browser in Linux Mint 17, despite the fact that I have been using Linux Mint since the Linux Mint 7 days. I said I was a peer-to-peer network newbie, not a Linux newbie. Fortunately, the ZeroNet documentation explains how to start the ZeroNet software and then bring up the TOR browser manually so that they function together.

Here is how to set up everything and connect to ZeroNet. First, if you don't have the TOR browser on your computer, download and install it. Now, begin the ZeroNet software setup process by downloading the 15 MB "ZeroBundle" package from the first website that I referenced above. In Linux, this can be accomplished by typing the following command (all on one line) at the Linux command line:

     wget https://github.com/HelloZeroNet/ZeroBundle/raw/
     master/dist/ZeroBundle-linux64.tar.gz
 

Then, continue the installation by uncompressing the file in a suitable location on your hard drive:

    tar xvpfz ZeroBundle-linux64.tar.gz

Now, make sure your computer is connected to the internet, and then start the application:

    cd ZeroBundle
    ./ZeroNet.sh

It goes without saying that this process would be different in Windows.

Now, with the ZeroNet Software running and your computer connected to the internet, bring up and configure the TOR browser as follows:

  1. Start the TOR browser.
  2. Type into the browser's URL line: about:preferences#advanced
  3. Scroll down to the Network Proxy section and click on the "Settings..." button.
  4. Enter 127.0.0.1 into the "No proxy for" text box and leave the rest of the settings as they are by default.
  5. Type http://127.0.0.1:43110 in the browser's URL Line.

The ZeroNet main page (the page that says, "Hello Zeronet_" in the upper left-hand corner) should now come up in your TOR browser. You are now connected to ZeroNet. There are further instructions in the second reference that I gave above about how to ensure that your TOR browser is actually connecting through the TOR network. Since I haven't bothered to follow them, yet, my browser isn't. But, for maximum privacy, follow the instructions.



The ZeroNet Peer-to-Peer Network: A Quick Tour

Near the upper left-hand corner of the ZeroNet main page are three tabs: SITES, FILES, and STATS. Clicking on the SITES tab brings up a page with links to the main ZeroNet sites on the left. Here are links to sites like ZeroTalk (Reddit-like posts with comments), ZeroMe (a social network), ZeroMail (encrypted email), ZeroSites (hundreds of links to other sites on ZeroNet), ZeroBlog (recent news about ZeroNet), and ZeroUp (for uploading and downloading files). Clicking on the "activate" button next to a site link downloads the data files associated with that site to your ZeroBundle directory on your computer. You then have access to that site's main page, generally subject to a 10 MB limit. When the 10 MB limit is about to be exceeded, you are prompted to raise the limit. If you don't, no more data from that site will be downloaded until you do. Once data is downloaded, it is automatically available to be served from your computer to other users of ZeroNet.

Clicking on the "activate" button next to the ZeroTalk link brings up the titles of posts on ZeroTalk on the right-hand side of the page. Apparently, the contents of the posts are not downloaded until you click on individual post titles. The ZeroTalk interface is not as flexible as Reddit's, but it works for the roughly 2000 posts that are presently on ZeroTalk. Scrolling down the list of post titles, I would guess there are somewhere between three and eight posts per day--nothing compared to the hundreds of posts per day that can be found on Reddit. As with Reddit, the number of comments on a post are displayed, and readers have the opportunity to up-vote posts and their comments.

In a previous ZeroNet session, when I clicked on the "activate" button beside ZeroMail, it looked like the meta data for thousands of emails, and perhaps the contents also, was downloaded to my computer. This was much more than the usual 10MB limit, more like 200 MB. An account must be set up before ZeroMail can be used, however.

I was taken to the main list of links to ZeroNet websites when I activated and then clicked on the ZeroSites link. I guess I shouldn't technically call them "websites", since they aren't on the world wide web. But, that is the terminology people are used to, so I'll continue using it. On the ZeroSites main page, next to the link to each website is an icon which appears to represent how many people have visited that website. I do not know if these icons represent unique visitors or total numbers of all-time visits, but I would guess the former. Or, the icons could represent the numbers of visitors currently on each website. Based on scrolling past many of these links, I would guess that there are several thousand people who have visited or are currently visiting ZeroNet's English-speaking sites. There are sites in 16 different languages, and visitors can select the language(s) of the sites they want to be displayed. I noticed during a previous visit to ZeroSites that one website contained thousands of recent ebooks in epub format, and another site contained at least hundreds of commercial movies of all vintages, many in HD format. I never reached the end of either list. There is also music. For experimental purposes, I decided to try to view a movie, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Clearly, I have more to learn about ZeroNet.

Predictably for a peer-to-peer network that is designed to enhance anonymity and be impossible to shut down, ZeroNet has it's seedy side. I noticed a handful of sites that appeared to be selling drugs, or perhaps just discussing them, and there were many pornography sites. In fact, an entire section on the ZeroSites main page is devoted to pornography. I didn't visit any of these sites, so I can't comment on them. I did, however, see a good bit of profanity--at something like the level that can be found on Reddit alternatives like voat.co. So, if these things bother you, you may want to stay away from ZeroNet.

After having deleted ZeroNet entirely to fix a bug that prevented me from connecting to the network, then re-installing ZeroNet, and activating only the basic sites that I discussed above, I clicked on the STATS button in the upper left-hand corner of the main page. On the STATS page, I saw that I had downloaded about 19 MB of data since reinstallation and other users had obtained slightly more than 2 MB of data from me. Data is served from your computer to other users, as long as you are running ZeroNet. Everything you've looked at (every blog article, every website, every picture, every file, etc.) is saved to your hard drive until you delete it. This means you can use ZeroNet entirely off line as long as you stick to viewing things that you have previously viewed. By the way, you can easily delete any previously downloaded ZeroNet data file or site to save space on your hard drive. On the STATS page, in the lower right-hand corner, is displayed the number of people, or "peers", currently connected to ZeroNet (616, as I write this on a Tuesday at noon).

This brings us to the documentation on the ZeroNet network itself. The good news is that there is a sufficient quantity of it to cover most of the basics. But not every answer to every question is available in one place. This reminds me of the early days of the internet before everyone was expected to somehow instinctively know how to use it. ZeroBlog is filled with explanatory information, and there is a ZeroNet documentation site, easily identifiable by its name "ZeroNet documentation". Several areas of ZeroNet contain talk about ZeroNet itself--technical detains of how it works, how it's running, what should be changed, what sites have been banned, and how people who use the network are reacting to it. I think having a lot of information about ZeroNet for newbies like me is a good thing, but I suspect it will decline somewhat as ZeroNet matures. Still, I was unable to find an answer to my question about the meaning of the "people" icons on the ZeroSites main page--whether they represent total visits, visits by unique people, or current visitors.

For the benefit of those of you who like creating your own websites, I should mention that ZeroNet allows, even encourages you, to do so. And, you pay no fees to a domain name registrar or for website hosting! It has always bothered me that my domain name registrar pays 14 cents a year to list my domain name with ICANN, but I pay about $14 a year to reserve it with my domain name registrar. You can find documentation on ZeroNet about how to create websites.

This should be enough information for you to get the general flavor of ZeroNet. As ZeroNet is still under development, there are problems with it, some of which I will discuss in the next section.



ZeroNet Issues:

Although ZeroNet is quite usable and user friendly, there are several issues I noticed during my brief experimentation with it. I have already mentioned that at some point the software stopped allowing me to connect to the ZeroNet netork in the TOR browser until I deleted and reinstalled it. I think this happened right after I deleted the downloaded data associated with ZeroTalk.

Next, using ZeroNet requires disk space for what some may consider to be large amounts of downloaded data. People who are used to downloading Netflix movies for hour after hour in the evenings would, no doubt, disagree. Regardless, you must expect to download and store data on your hard drive, given that ZeroNet is a peer-to-peer network that hosts part of the network's data on each user's computer. I did not see a way of limiting the amount of data served from my computer to other users, but I'm not sure that is a bad thing.

Something else that I didn't like was the fact that saved html pages seem to be all text with poor formating. This means that for downloaded webpages to be truly useful later, you would have to view them via your personal off-line ZeroNet. Thus, you can't easily share downloaded webpages with friends or store them on a USB stick to document a project, which is the way I often document my projects.

Another significant issue is that many ZeroNet websites are either poorly designed or are downloading malware to users' computers. I can't say which. The symptom of this is that I frequently found sites freezing my browser, and one site froze my computer to the point where I was forced to hold down the "off" button and reboot it. This could be why several sites on ZeroNet display lists of bad websites. Although there could be fewer freezes and crashes using Windows, I'm not sure I would be comfortable trusting Windows to protect me from either malware or unintended file corruption as a result of visiting some of these sites.

I'm sure I'll see more issues after I've used ZeroNet longer, but the only other concern I want to raise at this time is over ZeroNet's overall layout. ZeroNet is usable at it's current size, but my guess is that it will soon outgrow its layout. For example, there is a search box for searching for keywords in the titles of ZeroTalk posts, but I didn't find a good search engine for all of ZeroNet's content. Don't get me wrong, there were keyword search engines, but most only searched website and article titles for keywords. The only search engine that I found that searched the contents of websites was called "Zirch Automated Search". While Zirch did work, it took a long time to bring up webpages that I clicked on--up to a minute or two. This may just have been the time required to find and gather old files from the computers of several users scattered around the world. But, the bottom line is that I didn't like using Zirch, because of its sluggishness. Also, search results using the "search" box in ZeroTalk do not give any indication of how many search results there are; you just have to scroll down until you reach the end.

Not having a good search engine for any collection of websites numbering more than a thousand likely means being tempted to stick to just favorite websites and not engage in much exploration. Currently, the predominant method of finding websites seems to be by scrolling through long lists of them on the ZeroSites main page. This navigation method is totally unacceptable for a potential future collection of tens of thousands, let alone millions, of websites. Fortunately, work on ZeroNet software is active.



Overall Impressions of ZeroNet and Some General Questions:

In some ways, ZeroNet is like the internet of the early nineties, but in others it is far more sophisticated. The layouts of the blogs and other websites is modern, and users can chat, read the latest ebooks, and view the latest movies in HD format. But the contents of many of the blogs seem like a throwback to the nineties. There is no way to avoid profanity. Okay, maybe that is not so different from some modern websites, like voat.co. ZeroNet simply has lists of good and bad websites, rather than any "official" intervention--at least that I can see. Some websites likely contain malware. Many websites are nothing more than placeholders--like the early days of the internet, when companies were still thinking about what to do with it. And, refreshingly, there is a lot of discussion of how ZeroNet works.

Several questions about how peer-to-peer networks will ultimately fit in with the rest of the internet come to my mind. Will they continue to be largely ignored by the general population, who seem to be willing to trade away privacy and freedom in exchanged for bureaucratic corporate and governmental curation, with the removal of anything they find even slightly distasteful? Will peer-to-peer networks become isolated islands, which only those of us who value privacy and freedom occupy and never want to leave? Or will they become simply "other" websites to which we flit back an forth to as the urge finds us, the way we do with most mainstream websites today. Will governments find ways of making peer-to-peer networks useless by cracking their security. Or will governments simply declare them illegal, thereby discouraging all but the most ardent searchers for freedom from visiting them?

ZeroNet does contain lively discussions about many of these issues. For example, one perceptive person wrote this: "I just think that we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that technology can never solve problems that are ultimately political in nature, no matter how computer savvy you are... because powerful governments like the US will always find a way to outsmart you with their own hackers and engineers." I also noticed that there is a fierce dichotomy between those who want to attract more people to ZeroNet and those who want it to remain their own little desert island oasis. They feel that they have escaped from the mainland, and they don't want crowds following them, and bringing their governments and governmental regulations with them.

I can't answer many of the above questions with certainty. But, I can say that at a time when the internet itself seems to be becoming less free and more corporatised into a white-bread or MacDonald's hamburger type of sameness, peer-to-peer networks offer a welcome variety and experiences that are disappearing elsewhere.



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