By Carl “Bear” Bussjaeger
I got an email from MamaLiberty regarding something called FreeSpeechMe. It looks interesting enough to mention, but I don’t know enough about it yet to recommend. Stripped to basics, FreeSpeechMe (FSM) is a Firefox add-on to make browsing “Dot-Bit” sites transparent and supposedly effortless. So what is “Dot-Bit“?
Dot-Bit is… an alternate domain registration system. Not just another registration company like GoDaddy or Network Solutions, but a parallel system, a separate DNS system. Normally, when you’re browsing sites, your computer looks at the names you type in (like “bussjaeger.org”), contacts a Domain Name Server to get the actual numeric address associated with that name, and -presto!- takes you there. Dot-Bit uses a different DNS system to look up address registered specifically to it and not in the conventional DNS.
On the face of it, that’s cool, but… no big deal. You can do as much with your localhost file, although you’d have to keep updating it manually to add new sites. But Dot-Bit doesn’t stop there.
The conventional DNS system has a bunch of [insert gross simplification] nameserver machines scattered across the world which serve as the reference for what domains are where. Those machines are vulnerable to faults such as a major telecom cough – WorldCom – cough locking the standby server offline, then turning off the primary (really happened; I was at work in another telecom company’s NOC that morning… fun… fun), or the FBI ordering them to redirect traffic for your “copyright infringing/terrorism supporting” site to one they prefer.
Dot-Bit is a distributed system. There is no one machine to be turned off or corrupted by government agents.If you’ve looked into new digital currencies like Bitcoin, you know something about distributed systems. [insert gross simplification] People voluntarily let their computer be used as peers to relay info. You keep a record of transactions for your coins, and when you make a new transaction, that info gets bounced around until it reaches you, complete with a virtual papertrail by which you can verify the legitimacy of the transaction.
Dot-Bit uses a similar distributed peer system to relay its domain data. More specifically, it uses the NameCoin system, a competitor to Bitcoin. In general, [insert gross simplification] NameCoin operates similarly to Bitcoin. This is important because…
Yoy may recall that the FBI busted Ross Ulbricht and got hold of his local Bitcoin wallet (which means they got the money; the only way to seize Bitcoins; freezing accounts doesn’t work). You may also recall that protestors used those very coins to send messages to the FBI, by sending tiny fractional Bitcoin transfers to Ulbricht’s wallet (the address of which is naturally in the distributed peer-to-peer Bitcoin universe) with messages attached. So the currency system can send more data than the money itself. Dot-Bit exploits NameCoin to disseminate DNS data.
Which finally brings us back to FreeSpeechMe. To browse .bit (the TLD for Dot-Bit, duh) sites, either you have to manually check the NameCoin-based Dot-Bit DNS for the latest domain updates, or your computer has to know when and how to do it for you. FSM automates the process in Firefox. [insert gross simplification] When Firefox encounters a .bit TLD, FSM goes out to the Dot-Bit DNS system, grabs the current numeric address, and -presto!- takes you there. Transparently.
Obviously Dot-Bit and FSM are stressing the anti-censorship capabilities of their system. Taking everything at face value, they’re right. It’s hard for the feds (or Chinese, or RIAA/MPAA) to find and shutdown a domain registration that isn’t pinned down in any one place. That’s a good thing. Also, as you may have realized from the WorldCom/DNS shutdown story, it can protect the system against accidental/negligent damage as well. That’s also a good thing.
But why stop there? There are various “dark ‘net” systems that work as alternatives to the “real” Internet [insert gross simplification] by creating a parallel physical network. People reprogram their little consumer grade home routers to act more like big time Internet edge routers. These routers interconnect, creating a “dark” Internet over WiFi. No telco DSL, cable company, Verizon FiOS, or whatever needed. It’s very short range, between one router and the next, but in theory volunteers can daisy chain enough routers to cross continents.1 And each router is also a user access point. If enough people were willing to do this, the commercial Internet could be obsolete (I’m ignoring certain bandwidth issues, of course).
The downside to such a dark net is DNS. Conventionally, someone would have to run those [vulnerable!] DNS servers. And the feds (or Chinese, or RIAA/MPAA) would simply move in and do their destructive usual.
Until now. Dark net, meet Dot-Bit. Dot-Bit, dark net. Play nice.2
1. If you wonder if this could be done with smartphones: Yes, it’s been done on a small test scale. We are very close to the point where old-fashioned telephone companies and Internet service providers are utterly obsolete.
2. I would expect that the dark net would need an intial connection to the existing Internet, since that’s where NameCoin/Dot-Bit currently are. But they would gradually migrate over to the free side.