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December 1, 2003

Internet Tectonics

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.


It appears that the UN wants to take control of the Internet. (And they are already acting predictably anti-freedom about it.) Clearly, this would presage a major shift in the way that the Internet works, and I'm inclined to think that it won't be a change for the better.

But it's also irrelevant, in a way.

You see, when I got on the Internet in 1988, there wasn't a world wide web. We kept notes of the useful FTP sites where we could get software and information, and later there was the short-lived gopher, but communication similar to what the web provides was then accomodated through email lists and network news. (Network news is now pretty useless - more chatterbox than information or entertainment conduit - but mailing lists are still with us.) This was not long after the introduction of DNS - which replaced unwieldy lists of host-address mappings in text files - and was also before the consolidation of Internet backbones and the widespread use of firewalls.

I said all of that as preface to this statement: the Internet is not magic, and because of that, it is not static.

Let's say that the powers that be decide to censor the Internet, or to tax it heavily. For that matter, let's say that spam levels keep increasing at the present rate. In that case, the Internet as we know it would become less and less useful. What would happen? Would we just accept it?

I have no doubt that many would, because to them the Internet is magic. But in reality, the Internet is a set of INTERconnected NETworks. In other words, I have a network in my home, and it connects to Verizon's network. (I can't justify having a separate connection to second network, so my network connects to only one other.) Verizon's network connects to many, many networks, because Verizon's network is a backbone on the Internet. (That is to say, it exists primarily to connect other networks, as opposed to my home network, which exists to connect my computers to each other).

I don't have to connect to Verizon. I could connect to several backbone providers, singly or in combination, if that was the best deal for me. I could, in fact, buy a dedicated network connection to, say, my friend Nathan's network, another to my parents' house, another to my wife's parents' house, another to amazon.com, and so on. Clearly, this is less efficient than connecting to a backbone, which connects to other backbones, which in turn are connected to the leaf networks of interest to me. It also requires a higher level of skill at each of those end points than connecting via backbones and local providers (which local providers offer assistance to their users as part of the fee).

But if it was sufficiently onerous to me to use the public Internet, I could create a private internet, connecting those networks that are of use to me, provided that those networks agree to have me connect to them. (It would have to be pretty onerous to get me to shell out for that many dedicated data lines.)

Assuming that I was able to raise the capital, and was not otherwise employed, I could in fact start a backbone network, and set my own rules. I could use the existing protocols and equipment and software, or I could set up my own. (For example, the IPv4 addressing scheme is too limited, email has no built-in method for verifying the sender, there is no standard on-the-wire encryption, there is only a primitive concept of trust (you trust the router on the other end of the line; that's it), and so forth - any or all of which could be fixed, at some cost.) Presumably, in order to get people to attach to my backbone, I'd have to offer something that they can't get from the public Internet, and it would have to be something that they need enough to put up with having two connections (one to me and one to the public Internet), or only connecting to me, or connecting to me and relying on some translator somewhere to bridge their traffic to the public Internet as needed (with associated performance hit and loss of function).

So let's say I were able to come up with a series of changes to the basic foundations of the Internet that were a compelling alternative to the public Internet, and one part of that package would be that every end-to-end connection were encrypted to hide the content. In that case, it would not be possible to censor individual content (even the protocol in use could be hidden, with proper design). Governments or other organizations would have a choice: block all traffic to/from the new internet, or allow it. (There would be another large advantage as well: cracking computers remotely would become much, much harder, and in turn open source routing would become reasonable again.)

I suspect that, should the Internet get too disconnected, censored, overloaded or otherwise not useful, some smart person somewhere will come up with the details to make this kind of situation work.

The Internet doesn't really route around censorship as damage now, nor could it survive the nuclear war it was designed to survive, but sufficient censorship or disruption could give rise to a new internet that would survive those circumstances.


Community 802.11 using soup can antennas could handle some aspects of this, the old Fidonet protocals could readily be updated with PGP to handle other aspects. I pray we'll never need this fact, but 802.11, being spread spectrum, will take a lot of effort to hunt down with radio direction finders as long as everyone keeps their signal up.

Posted by: triticale on December 16, 2003 04:28 PM
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Posted by jeff at December 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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