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September-October 2016

The world needs a new internet

On the power of peer-to-peer services

Clive Thompson@pomeranian99

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!


We need a new internet.

The current one is, of course, incredibly useful. It has given activists, artists, and everyday folk the world-spanning communicative powers that once belonged solely to industrial giants. But it’s become far too corporatized and centralized. Much of our online activity takes place on the servers of a small cluster of companies. This creates all manner of civic problems. It’s a lot easier for governments to spy when most of our talk is warehoused in a few massive corporate servers. Worse, it means these firms and governments set the rules of engagement. They can shut down communications they find inconvenient, throttle the speed of our connections, or —too often, these days—ignore the rampant abuse on their networks.

That’s where we come in. We need to build another internet—a parallel one controlled by its users. Specifically, what techies call “peer-to-peer” services—where my device talks directly to your device, without needing any big corporate middleman to deliver the files, the chatter, the videos.

Imagine a world in which you have, say, a photo-sharing tool or social network. It runs directly on your own phone or laptop. When your friends want to see your posts, your phone or laptop sends the files along—and your friends’ devices also help out, by passing the info along, bucket-brigade-style. It’s all encrypted, so you can control who’s seeing what, and it’s much harder to snoop. There’s no company tracking you or forcing you to look at ads—because, well, there’s no company running things at all. It’s just you, running the software yourself.

Public-minded hackers are already making this theory a reality. You could put down this article right now and go try out Zeronet, easy-to-use software that lets you run a peerto-peer website. Plenty of other similar tools are coming into view, like IPFS (for trading websites and files), Webtorrent (for sharing things like video files), Bitorrent Bleep (for chatting). If you want to be totally anonymous with a website there’s Freenet.

Most of these peer-to-peer tools are slower and clumsier than glossy for-profit ones. But as more people use them— as more people join the bucket brigades—they’ll speed up. (Donations to those making these free tools would help.) Sure, we’ll keep on using the big corporate services like YouTube or Twitter. They’ll remain great for lots of things. But we’ll have options—ones we control ourselves. The more citizens and activists do their part, the sooner we’ll build the web of us.

Clive Thompson was This Magazine editor from 1995-1997. He is currently a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and Wired, and author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

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