The People Wide Web

The debate around Net Neutrality has taken an interesting spin of late. Just as foes to Net Neutrality have gotten closer to their goal of setting up tollways and traffic controls on the information superhighway, some drivers are beginning to build their own transportation system altogether.

Net Neutrality is a concept that has been the norm on the Internet since its inception: the idea that every website gets equal treatment by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But of course, media companies and the ISPs could conceivably benefit greatly if surcharges for access to higher bandwidth were allowed on the Net. For example, let’s say that Cable Company A offers priority bandwidth to Media Company X, allowing it to serve super high-def streaming video to users at lightning speed. However, Startup Company Z will then be obligated to compete against Media Company X for that bandwidth in order to provide the same quality service. Same goes for Blogger Y.

Fat chance of that. Indeed, given the pace at which media consolidation continues to go unchecked by regulators, were Net Neutrality abandoned, the Internet would quickly resemble something akin to how Network Television dominated communication in the years before high-speed Internet arrived.

And this is what concerns many people since a free, open web has so clearly promoted innovation. So far, the battle is not lost and Net Neutrality is still the norm. Nevertheless, some are creating back up plans.

This past week, BitTorrent, the people behind the popular torrent app uTorrent, announced they are exploring the creation of a new Internet which takes back control of the web and distributes access to websites across peer-to-peer networks.

Called Project Maelstrom, this torrent-based Internet would be powered by a new browser which would effectively rework the Internet into a much freer network with pretty much no gatekeepers.

Details are sparse at the moment, but essentially access to websites would be served as torrents, and thus not served from a single server. Instead, the sites would exist across the peer-to-peer network, in small, redundant bits living on people’s computers. Essentially, its the same technique used for torrent-based file sharing. When you try to access a site, your computer queries the torrent network and dozens of computers begin sending you the packets you need to rebuild the web page in question on your browser. And even as the web page is partially assembled, your computer then begins sharing what it already has with other people trying to access the site.

The result could likely be a much faster Internet, with much greater assurances of privacy. But technical questions remain and this does sound like it could take some time. But wow, what a revolution it would be.

Of course, this could get tricky to pull off. As you may have heard this week, the infamous torrent website Pirate Bay was taken down by authorities in Sweden this week. Pirate Bay serves up links to torrents allowing people to download everything from freeware applications to Hollywood movies that haven’t even been released yet and so has been targeted by law enforcement for years now. Even on today’s Internet, Pirate Bay could conceivably come back online at any time. But if the BitTorrent’s peer-to-peer Internet were realized, Pirate Bay would be back up instantaneously. Indeed, it would probably never come down in the first place. Same goes for Dark Net sites that sell everything from drugs to human beings, which have also been recently taken offline.

Bottom line is: Project Maelstrom is another example of how a free and open Internet is unlikely to ever go away. Question is, how much freedom is a good thing?

My own personal take is that taking back control of the Internet from media companies and ISPs would, on balance, be a great thing. Bad people do bad things in the physical world and that’s why we have never defeated crime 100%. As long as there is an Internet, there will be those that abuse it.

But even more importantly, innovation, freedom of speech and freedom to access information are core to advancing society. So I welcome Project Maelstrom.

So here’s a toast to the People-wide Web!

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