Power to The People
WEEKENDER | Tue, 08/31/2010 12:10 PM |
Some rebels are looking for ways to set Internet users free.
By Joseff Indradjaja
Once upon a time, the Internet was the final frontier, the digital version of the Wild West, a land where netizens were free to explore whatever content or ideas they pleased. From this land of plenty emerged the late 1990s dot-com boom, e-commerce, social networking, the smartphone and the many other technologies that shape our professional and personal lives.
And despite mainstreaming and efforts to bring the Internet under control, there are still plenty of renegades aiming to keep the Web on the wild side.
The founders of the Diaspora project describe it as “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network”. In other words, they’re out to build an open-source decentralized social network where you keep control of your data.
It dispenses with the old model where a monolithic entity stores all your personal data, out of your reach. In Diaspora, each user’s computer becomes a “seed”, storing that user’s personal data. Each seed also has the ability to aggregate content such as tweets, flickr photos and RSS feeds.
When you add a “friend” to your network, your seed connects with the other user’s seed, sharing your photos and status updates, as well as aggregated content. The connection between seeds mirrors your actual social graph.
In a traditional social network, the company running the service tracks everything you do – your status updates, favorite news topics and circles of friends. Have you ever checked out photos of your ex? Oh yes, Facebook tracks that as well. Your personal data are kept indefinitely on servers and, for most purposes, completely out of the reach of you, the original owner.
Diaspora is refreshingly different in that you retain ownership and control of your private data. Whether you feel like sharing things, keeping them private or even deleting them for good, it’s your call.
Bitcoin is an attempt to create a new digital currency. Described as the “peer-to-peer cryptocurrency”, it is unique in that it has no central bank to issue new money or keep track of transactions.
Traditional monetary systems require enormous overheads to establish trust: You trust the central bank to keep the value of the currency; you trust financial systems to keep your money and safeguard transactions. All this overhead makes payments of small amounts near impossible. You can buy a pack of instant noodles from the local warung, but paying the same amount over the Internet is a no-go.
Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s founder, wants to make trust easy and cheap to establish: “With e-currency based on cryptographic proof, without the need to trust a third party middleman, money can be secure and transactions effortless.”
Unlike many currencies, whether in the real or virtual world, Bitcoin is backed by a “gold standard” of CPU cycles. When you run the Bitcoin software, your computer becomes a node in the network and contributes processing power and time to the Bitcoin network. After a certain contribution, the work your computer does is rewarded with a “coin”. CPU cycles being a finite resource, the currency is thus protected against inflation.
The Bitcoin network also has built-in protection against fraud. When you transfer coins, other nodes in the network operate to authenticate the transaction. The CPU cycles they contribute during this process again count toward a monetary reward. Very elegant.
Now, the fun part: spending your money. The Bitcoin website has a “trade” section, listing merchants that accept Bitcoins as payment. You can currently pay for such Internet services as telephony, web hosting and online gaming. Your Bitcoins can also be exchanged for Linden dollars (Second Life currency) or real-world currencies, or any other purpose that comes to mind. It’s “your” money, after all. In the absence of middlemen, any transfer you make is essentially cost free.
Bitcoin has another advantage: Since Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer network, it does not require a central server. Thus, it is forever free from national boundaries and jurisdictions, and governmental interference.
Ultimately, though, the very grassroots nature of Bitcoin might hinder its adoption: people will be reluctant to accept Bitcoins if they can’t use them to buy a plasma TV, or a motorbike, or any other products of “the establishment”. However, regardless of the eventual commercial success of Bitcoin, it points the way to a future of frictionless e-commerce. A brilliant idea.
Still in its infancy, Osiris is a project to create a serverless portal system. To the user, it looks just like any other Internet forum system: Users are allowed to post topics and invite replies from other users using normal web browsers.
The big difference is that it’s not hosted on one single server. Instead, a portal is hosted on the many computers of its users. The larger the number of users, the more resilient the portal becomes. Any attempt to shut down the portal becomes unfeasible, since many copies of it exist throughout the Internet.
To post a message, a user writes the message to any one node of the network, and it will propagate throughout, reaching the other users. This also ensures anonymity, as Osiris does not keep records of any message writer. In a normal portal system, access to the database is enough to determine the originating IP address of a message. In Osiris, an attacker needs access to a very large number of nodes to determine the path of propagation. If any of these nodes shut down, it becomes impossible to trace the message back to the author.
Now, who would be interested in such an anonymous, untraceable messaging system? It is far too easy to think of criminals seeking refuge from the law, but they are vastly outnumbered by intellectuals, dissidents, journalists and other critical voices muffled by oppressive regimes.
To such people, a peer-to-peer messaging systems such as Osiris may be an essential, even life-saving tool to stay one step ahead of the censors.
The Osiris project website makes a point of quoting from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reminding us of our rights to freedom of expression regardless of frontiers. However, I find it strangely appropriate to paraphrase a line from a popular movie: “They may take our servers, but they’ll never take our freedom!”