WikiLeaks and its struggles to maintain a presence on the Web have jump-started a discussion about alternatives to the Internet. (Note: wikileaks.org is not available at this writing, with traffic redirected to http://mirror.wikileaks.info.)
The tight affiliation between the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN ) and world governments and businesses is at the center of the dispute. ICANN maintains the master tables that translate URLs into domain name servers, or DNSs. Anti-copyright activists and other “pirates,” like convicted Pirate Bay developer and anti-copyright activist Peter Sunde, want to create alternatives to ICANN.
Historically, pirates usurp public infrastructure, be it shipping channels or highways, to conduct their business. Credit card pirates see the Net as just another highway, and credit card data as the target of their activities. From what I gather, they are not considering a physical alternative to the Net, but rather an alternative routing structure that would establish new root servers. Technologically, that is feasible.
Alternative name servers will most likely initiate an arms race with service providers. Those service providers will find ways to detect and either shut down or curtail traffic from the Alternative Nets -- and that is likely to slow down the movement of “authorized” content, similar to the way the search for terrorists slows down traffic into airport terminals.
As I write this, I realize it sounds as though I think the pirates may succeed. Alternative Net proponents face more organizational issues than technological ones. But a distributed information highway is difficult to administer, and pirates aren’t known to be the most cooperative of personality types.
ICANN was created as a central structure to manage Internet domains. The pirates may well discover that reintroducing distribution of domain creation and registration will introduce procedural issues they don’t want to deal with. One way to combat the distribution issue is to limit the number of servers as they bootstrap their addressing scheme, giving them time to work out an alternative server management model to complement the vision of alternative traffic flows.
Sunde suggests developing a distributed, peer-to-peer (P2P) network of servers, which isn’t surprising, given Pirate Bay’s BitTorrent origins. Pirate Bay has been shut, and Sunde and his co-developers convicted, but that isn’t stopping their challenges to the “official” Net. Beyond sparking this debate with tweets and blog entries, Sunde is also offering to accept donations to WikiLeaks through his micro-donation site, Flattr, now that PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard have disassociated their services from WikiLeaks.
Another alternative is to rethink the current Internet by getting political actors, such as the US Department of Commerce, to help review and reinvent the governance model and policy charter of ICANN. ICANN and its sponsors may see policy changes as more manageable than the emergence of a competitive alternative. A political solution, however, may seem unworkable because of entrenched views on intellectual property ownership, historically slow government response to technology changes and their social implications, and ineffective negotiations on many other topics. The pirates may not have the patience for due process.
Wikileaks presents a unique current case for an Alternative Net, but similar confrontations will soon join it. Hyper-transparency in government might make WikiLeaks less damaging, but anti-copyright activists will still want to set movies and music and musings free, and they will find a way. Like the war on drugs, the only long-term solution to IP theft is the elimination of demand, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.
If Chris Anderson’s Free economic model achieves escape velocity, piracy might be demoted to marketing, and then it just wouldn’t be fun anymore. In the meantime, the pirates will find a way, and, interestingly, whatever approach they take will likely drive innovations back into the legitimate Internet -- from more efficient encryption to legitimate uses for alternative DNSs -- even if that isn’t on their agenda.
— Daniel W. Rasmus, author of Management by Design (Wiley, 2010), is a strategist who helps clients put their futures in context.