It’s now evident that our free Web can’t survive the mounting wave of joint attacks by governments and large corporations as long as it remains vulnerable to central point failures that can be exploited by its enemies. Enter BitTorrent.
The Web is decentralized in the sense that there is no official central authority and no official central point failure. Instead, each website lives on its own independent server, and all servers and clients use a shared protocol to work seamlessly with each other. The architecture of the Web inherits the decentralized design philosophy of ARPANET, the precursor of today’s Internet developed by ARPA (now DARPA) in the sixties, which emphasized robustness and survivability, including the capability to withstand losses of large portions of the underlying networks.
But the individual nodes of the Web are vulnerable to central point failures: for example if the server that hosts this website stopped working, you wouldn’t be able to read this article. A central server can stop working for technical reasons or (more likely) for political reasons: if the powers that be don’t like a website, they can send the police to take down its web server.
Yesterday the most popular torrent directory in the world, the Pirate Bay, was raided by Swedish police and taken down. This isn’t the first time that the Pirate Bay is taken down by the police, and my guess is that the site will be back soon, but the raid shows that a free Web with central point failures can’t survive the mounting wave of joint attacks by governments and large corporations.
The Pirate Bay hosts torrents. When you download a torrent and open it with a torrent client, something magic happens: you start downloading file referenced by the torrent not from a central server, but from all the users who have downloaded the file. Each user sends you bits and snippets of the file, and before you know it, you have downloaded the whole file. The BitTorrent technology for distributed file storage and Peer to Peer (P2P) transfers was one of the biggest developments in Web technology since the Web itself, and opened the way to a distributed, fully decentralized Internet. Now, BitTorrent wants to complete the work.
In a post on the official BitTorrent blog, CEO Eric Klinker announced an invite-only private alpha test for a P2P-based web browser called Project Maelstrom.
“It started with a simple question. What if more of the web worked the way BitTorrent does? Project Maelstrom begins to answer that question with our first public release of a web browser that can power a new way for web content to be published, accessed and consumed. Truly an Internet powered by people, one that lowers barriers and denies gatekeepers their grip on our future.”
The browser will serve websites and other content through users, just like BitTorrent does. That can not only speedup websites but also boost people’s privacy, and bypass website blockades and other forms of censorship. The company shared the following details with GigaOM:
“It works on top of the BitTorrent protocol. Websites are published as torrents and Maelstrom treats them as first class citizens instead of just downloadable content. So if a website is contained within a torrent we treat it just like a normal webpage coming in over HTTP.”
A few months ago the Pirate Bay announced a stealth project to develop a similar open, decentralized, fully distributed Web based on P2P technologies such as BitTorrent and Bitcoin. No news of the Pirate Bay project have been reported since then, but the BitTorrent project seems very similar. If the decentralized Web takes off, the Pirate Bay and other websites that oppose the power of governments and large corporations will be much less vulnerable to hostile actions, and users will me much less vulnerable as well. Then, the Web will really belong to us.
Of course, I signed up immediately as a Project Maelstrom alpha tester, and I look forward to reporting here.
Are you interested in Project Maelstrom? Do you want to fight to keep the Web open and free? Comment below!
Images from BitTorrent, the Pirate Bay end Shutterstock.