A Censorship-Free Alternative to the Global Internet?

As interest in finding alternatives to the global internet and reliance on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has increased, many parties, ranging from online activists to municipal governments and Silicon Valley start-ups, have experimented with decentralized mesh networks, or meshnets—a system of networking where each node collects information and then relays it to another node until it reaches its intended recipient.

To date, these meshnets have mostly existed as smaller-scale, localized projects. While creating an uncensored alternative to the global Internet seems like an impossible task, Project Meshnet is working to make it a reality. Born out of the r/darknetplan on Reddit, Project Meshnet aims to build a network of secure connections to create a truly free Internet.

How does a mesh network work? Instead of a centralized authority overseeing the transmission of packages from one destination to another, in a mesh network, each package is passed from one node to another until it reaches the intended recipient. If one node is down, an alternative route is found. All packages are secure, and an attack on the network is “impractical, bordering on impossible,” according to Project Meshnet’s introductory video. Project Meshnet, in particular, works via CJDNS, a routing engine that forwards packets to nodes (other devices on the network, such as cell phone or laptops) for further processing. It is designed so that every node is equal with no hierarchy or edge routing, essentially behaving like a peer-to-peer network.

Creating an alternative to the Internet is a behemoth task. As such, Project Meshnet is completely open-source, so anyone can contribute as much as they would like in any area of expertise. Project Meshnet will be divided into multiple segments:

  • The Networking component includes community-based wireless networks and client/server development. Community-based wireless networks handle all of the methods of inter-node communication and ensure that regardless of medium of transmission, the core components are interoperable and can be used to route traffic over a large distance (at least 1 km). Client/server development involves either independent hardware to support the Meshnet or software for all major computer operating systems.
  • Under the Documentation component, Project Meshnet emphasizes both user level and technical level documentation. All documentation will be “Facebook-user friendly” and easily accessible. At the same time, more detailed and properly maintained documentation will also be available at an “engineer level” as technical reference.
  • Lastly, publicity will be a key component to the viability of Project Meshnet. Given that most Internet users are probably unaware that projects such as Project Meshnet exist, publicity through both word of mouth and search engine optimization (SEO) is vital. The project wiki also emphasizes that this Meshnet alternative is not associated with the antisec movement, a hacking movement opposed to the computer security industry’s full disclosure policies, or with #OpDarkNet, a project spearheaded by Anonymous to create an “Invisible Internet.”

Other mesh networking projects have been attempted in the past. Last summer we blogged about the State Department’s “shadow Internet” and mobile network. The premise of the project was that, using mesh network technology, a free and open alternative to the Internet could be brought into areas controlled by repressive regimes.

Partially in response to the State Department’s plans, Iran upgraded its filtering system and tightened online censorship. It is currently in the process of transitioning to a domestic intranet, and aims to be completely unplugged from the global Internet sometime over the next 18 months.

The existence of a global meshnet would make such censorship much harder, if not impossible. As Project Meshnet states: “This project is above all else, designed to facilitate the free flow of information. The type of information allowed is not up to the project contributors or maintainers to restrict.”

More infomation on Project Meshnet can be found at projectmeshnet.org, on their wiki page, or via their introductory video.