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Zeronet: A censorless, decentralized and potentially anonymous internet

Zeronet is not only a vision of a decentralized and censorless internet but also a project with an active working implementation.

Interest in Zeronet exploded in early 2016. A Bitcoin Magazine article said it “may be the first real, usable prototype of a decentralized web.”


Zeronet: P2P Websites, served by you

The idea is actually basic: website content hosted by users throughout the zeronet network.

Zeronet relies on bittorrent to serve all the website content. When a user visits a website, they download an encrypted list (like a sitemap) of all the actual files needed to render a local copy of the website (e.g. the CSS, javascript, content, etc.). After verifying this list, they begin downloading all the files. They then start seeding the website to the network, so other users can download the site too, greatly increasing download speeds.

This makes Zeronet censorship-resistant. Websites can’t be shut down because they are hosted by multiple users, and anyone can start serving as host. Users are also constantly interacting with a local copy of the website, so even if users aren’t connected to the internet, they can still see the most recent version of the website.

All website updates are encrypted and authenticated with the same methods used in bitcoin. Site locations and files names are hashed, and only those with encryption keys can verify site contents and updates. When a user requests a site, they will verify they are downloading a legitimate copy of the website. When the owner wants to update the site, all users verify the new version has been signed by the site owner and download it. For multi-user sites, all updates are time-stamped, so as everyone constantly updates, comments and conversations are threaded according to when the comments were actually made.

Zeronet itself does not conceal identities: users IP addresses can be seen. However, Zeronet does work with Tor, so users can enjoy as much anonymity as this provides. As the network grows, it will also become more difficult to identify site owners among all the site hosts.

Zeronet will also support multi-user sites, such as forums – in which multiple users can upload new content. Site owners can enable others to update site content in specific ways, such as posting, commenting, and replying.

The network uses Namecoin’s decentralized DNS system to register domain names.

First use case: Pirate Bay 2.0

The delight of many torrent enthusiasts (and chagrin of many others), the most successful use case for the decentralized web so far is a database of copyrighted content: distributed Pirate Bay torrent site.

Play Zeronet-01

The decentralized web?

Briefly, the current version of the internet relies on several super servers of content. When a user is browsing, s/he are constantly communicating with these servers to get content. Whoever controls these servers has a lot of power: content can be blocked, slowed, or tracked. Whoever controls access to these servers also has a lot of power: people can ‘listen in’ on this user-server communication.

Models for the decentralized web are all variations on a theme: the central servers of the internet, distributed across a thousand user computers.

Zeronet Explained

The SAFE Network (run by Maidsafe)

The SAFE network has similar aspirations to Zeronet but it decentralizes differently and is currently well suited for different use cases.

In the SAFE network, participants rent out space from local devices in exchange for Safecoins. Safecoins are given to users in a proof-of-stake model in which the number of coins one earns is proportional to the total amount of space on the network s/he is providing. Safecoins are used to access and use applications for the SAFE network on a marketplace managed by Maidsafe.

A user does not need to donate space to use the Maidsafe network, so a user can browse without constantly downloading website copies or updates. The Maidsafe network determines how many copies of a site should exist on the network, currently four.

Maidsafe started as a decentralized file storage system, so it is well equipped to serve media-rich sites. However, it is not well equipped to handle dynamic content, which requires frequent updates.

Maidsafe also does not currently have working sites. Zeronet shocked the web by launching with a couple live sites, and Play brought heightened attention. Maidsafe appears nowhere near this level of functionality, although the design of incentives for contributing to and using the SAFE network appear more sophisticated and if the Safecoin marketplace takes off, more sustainable.

Initial thoughts on Zeronet

Here’s one irony of Zeronet: decentralization should work very well for a website with a lot of visitors and consequently, a lot of hosts. It seems somewhat less reliable for websites with less traffic, because the network is less likely to have available files. However, larger, more trafficked websites typically have access to enough resources that hosting costs aren’t an issue and they have too much to lose if they want to skirt censorship laws that they deign to follow. It’s the smaller, leaner websites that would benefit the most but also need a critical mass of active users or seeders.

Unfortunately, the first use case of Zeronet does little to allay popular concerns that blockchains are tunnels to the dark web and illegal online activity. This is doubly unfortunate because Zeronet is not really a cryptocurrency project other than a reliance on Namecoin’s blockchain for a DNS system.

The integration with Namecoin’s decentralized DNS also hints at what a future infrastructure for the internet might look like based on blockchain technologies. There are many players in the internet ecosystem, and a decentralized DNS system + bittorrent does not a future internet make. Nonetheless, these combinations are likely to become more common as entrepreneur developers begin solving problems using blockchain-based technologies.

Further Reading

Here are some links for further reading.