How the Internet Evolves to Overcome Censorship

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Last week’s congressional hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, drew attention to the fact that Congress has it within its power to censor the Internet. Dozens of sites across the web blacked-out their logos in opposition to the bill. Social blogging service Tumblr took it farther, redacting all content on its users’ dashboards and asking them to phone their members of Congress, resulting in over 87,000 calls.

Some folks, however, are not content to leave the fate of the Internet to politics.

Several efforts are underway to rethink the domain name system (DNS) to route around the potential censorship. Last year after U.S. authorities seized dozens of domains, Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde began work on a peer-to-peer DNS not susceptible to the type of blacklisting SOPA and similar bills would mandate. Another group is trying to develop a censorship-proof top-level domain using technology based on the Bitcoin protocol. The result is the further decentralization of the Internet.

(MORE: SOPA Won’t Stop Online Piracy, Would Censor Everyone Else)

When governments want to control information on the Internet, they invariably head for the choke points, like ISP-run DNS servers in the case of SOPA. If you could replace those servers with a peer-to-peer source for the same information, there would no longer be central point a government could control or shut down.

There is nothing new about the impulse to engineer one’s way around the law. For example, once Napster was found to be infringing, it was easily shut down because it relied on centralized servers. Napster’s eventual successor was BitTorrent, which is distributed and decentralized, and as a result can’t be shut down–even if it’s found to be illegal.

If governments continue to assert control over information on the Internet, as they have increasingly been doing, then we will likely see more attempts to dismantle the intermediary points of control. Government reactions to WikiLeaks highlight this.

Late last month, the whistle-blowing site announced it was halting operations over financial difficulties. It blames payment processors, such as Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, which have been persuaded (some say through political pressure) to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks. And two weeks ago, a federal court ruled that the FBI could access information about the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks volunteers without a warrant.

These blows to WikiLeaks were possible because it relied on centralized intermediaries. If one could accept donations or receive short messages directly from the sender without them first going through hubs like PayPal or Twitter, then there would be no intermediary to control. Fortunately, such projects are in the works.

Bitcoin is a decentralized and distributed digital currency, which means a donation or payment would travel directly from sender to recipient without the need for a third-party payment processor. Wikileaks began accepting Bitcoin donations in June. Decentralized social networks, such as such as Diaspora and, are also being developed to supplant Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, you still have to connect to the Internet through an ISP, and that could be the ultimate choke point. But you can guess where this is going: There are projects under way looking to decentralize the physical layer of the Internet. Project Kleinrock and the Darknet Project are just two efforts to build an independent “second-layer” of the Internet using wireless mesh networking.

It’s not a certainty that these projects will all succeed. Most probably won’t. Yet these far-out efforts serve as proof-of-concept for a censorship-resistant Internet. Just as between Napster and BitTorrent there was Gnutella and Freenet, it will take time for these concepts to mature. What is certain is the trend. The more governments squeeze the Internet in an attempt to control information, the more it will turn to sand around their fingers.

MORE: The Consequences of Apple’s Walled Garden

Disclosure: Time Inc. parent company Time Warner supports SOPA legislation.