Red Echo

August 18, 2013

Centralized internet services are vulnerabilities. They can be co-opted for profit by short-sighted corporations, or they can be subverted through force by power-hungry governments. Distributed services are the solution: even unlimited application of lawyers and money accomplishes very little against a system which has no central control and no physical address.

What if we could take all those millions of computers racked up in giant datacenters around the world and distribute them among Internet users, creating our own global services less vulnerable to snooping and censorship? “Cloud computing” has come to mean little more than “rent your server time from our datacenter”, but there’s an older meaning in projects like Folding@Home: a big pool of computation power donated by people who want to help the project succeed. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the rest spend billions on their datacenters – but there are millions of us, and computers have become cheap.

Bittorrent is a resilient content-distribution network with no datacenter; it can’t be shut down, because it doesn’t live at any specific address and doesn’t operate under any single person’s or organization’s control; it is a network which emerges from the cooperation of millions.

Why can’t we do email the same way? Why can’t we do social networking the same way? Why can’t we give these giant corporations the finger, run our own services, ourselves, in distributed fashion, simultaneously crippling the Internet advertising industry and NSA programs like PRISM? How are they going to secretly snoop on your email if you and the people you correspond with all have your own private mail servers in your basements?

But nobody is going to run their own server, you say; only a few geeks like you will ever have the time or the inclination to do it. And that may have been true for a long time, but there’s no reason it still has to be true. We are very, very close to having plug-and-play home server appliances. Everybody has a furnace, but nobody expects to poke around inside it and understand how it works – you just leave it running and enjoy its services, and if it breaks you call the repairman.

It’s a software problem, basically. What we need is a turn-key home server product which comes configured with a distributed backup system – something like Bittorrent Sync with a bit of Usenet, some mesh routing via distributed hash table, all glued together with strong encryption… Even a distributed Facebook system wouldn’t be that hard; you could build it on top of RSS and email. The hard part, as always, is the network effect.

The technology just isn’t that far away. It is a software problem, not a hardware problem. There are no mega-profits in such a project, but it could be a good steady commodity sales business: figure out the right assembly of software and protocols, bolt it all together, lock it down tight, and bake it into a plastic box. Put a USB port and a “share keys” button right on the front of it so visitors to your house can stick in a thumb drive with their public keys…

I can just about see a bridge to this world through the emerging home-NAS business. Sell people turn-key storage devices which just happen to be loaded with a bunch of software that builds a distributed backup / email / query service mesh… people would buy it for what it would do for them personally, but the more people who buy in, the more useful it gets for everyone.

It’s a dream, anyway. It would be a better world for everyone who isn’t in the business of controlling other people.