Egypt calls for a peer-to-peer internet

Egypt's five-day internet blackout has come to an end, but the discussion of the incident has only just begun.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

commentary Egypt's five-day internet blackout has come to an end, but the discussion of the incident has only just begun.

One takeaway from the situation is that the internet has become centralised into the hands of too few providers and too few datacentres. While it is still a decentralised network, the fact that Egypt could so quickly and successfully execute the decision to cut off virtually all internet traffic within its borders is a sign that the internet is not nearly as decentralised as it once was. Otherwise, it would be much more difficult, time-consuming and resource-intensive to knock it offline.

Much of the lore about the internet's origins as a distributed network designed to withstand a nuclear attack or any other kind of natural or man-made disaster is mythical. However, the early internet was much more of a peer-to-peer experience — as much because of limited resources as anything else. Still, as the network grew and took on a larger global character, the benefits of its decentralised origins became apparent, as it became nearly impossible to shut down, even if a bunch of nodes went offline.

This was never more important than in 1991 when Soviet hard-liners attempted a coup d'état in Russia and were able to control much of the country and shut off all communications. But, they couldn't find a way to completely shut off the internet. Through the internet, people from around the world were able to get messages of support to the Russian protesters who stood up against the hard-liners in huge numbers and ultimately caused the coup to fail. It remains the internet's most heroic moment.

Now, I'm not about to get all sappy and say we need to return to the 1991 internet. That would be impossible. Today's internet is infinitely larger, much more robust and far better funded. That's why it's run by all of these massive, high-powered datacentres that are more efficient and more centralised. Our internet is also much more of a commercial entity because all of this gear is exorbitantly expensive, and there's a lot of money to be made off of selling internet access. There's no way to put the genie back in the bottle.

But, why can't we create an alternate internet/networking protocol that would enable us to run a global, ad hoc, peer-to-peer network using the wireless networking chips in our individual computers and/or our Wi-Fi routers? We wouldn't need to use it all the time — it would certainly be slower and less reliable than the big internet (and it would demand certain hosts to essentially share their connections to the larger internet) — but in a state of emergency or government crackdown or a coup, it would make it virtually impossible for a government to shut off its citizens from each other and the rest of the world. And, small teams could use it in a pinch when they were gathered together for meetings outside of the office. One member of the team connected to a high-speed connection could share it with the rest of the group (this would irk some of the ISPs and wireless providers, but they'll have plenty of money to make off of internet access in the years ahead).

I realise this is a bit of a crazy idea and there are some technical limitations and caveats, but if peer-to-peer can work for Skype and BitTorrent, then we should be able to make it work for a global machine-to-machine network — especially since so many of today's personal computers have so much unused processing power. This would essentially become the Ham Radio of computer networks. All we need is the right set of resourceful, dedicated engineers to take this idea and make it happen. Then, any internet blackouts like the one in Egypt this week would become a lot less potent.

Via TechRepublic

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