Human rights advocates around the world agree that internet censorship is a huge problem. Whether we are talking about mainland China, where a “Great Firewall” keeps over a billion people from accessing vast swathes of the internet, or the United States, where the end of net neutrality rules has disturbing implications for access to information and ideas, internet censorship looms over.
But Internet-censorship issues have never been far from thought for Justin Tabb, founder of the decentralized internet protocol Substratum. The Substratum project sets out to provide censorship-resistant internet access through a network of node operators who host content and route traffic on an encrypted, peer-to-peer network. The Substratum network incentivizes node operators to operate and keep the network robust and resilient by directing automatic micro-payments to node operators.
There are lots of theories and ideas out there about the best way to fight internet censorship. Tools such as VPNs or Tor can give individuals a way to circumvent a censored internet–but that’s assuming that they have the technical know-how and resources to use those tools effectively and that the censoring body isn’t one step ahead of the censored individual. Unfortunately, keeping ahead of censors is no small task: it is believed that the Chinese government uses sophisticated machine-learning tools to understand continuously, and censor subversive content and tools in close to real-time.
However, Substratum is different than the existing tools used to circumvent censorship that are currently on the market.
Why is Substratum different?
To begin with, Substratum doesn’t require unique technical knowledge to use; it has an intuitive design which means web surfers, content creators, and a decentralized network of nodes can use Substratums censorship-resistant internet without complicating their usual processes with additional steps before operating.
Second, Substratum has been put to the test–and it works: Substratum has delivered censorship free content and has permitted access to Skype, Telegram, and websites which are typically banned in places like China, Russia, and Iran.
“It was a rush to see Substratum successfully deliver censorship free content,” says Tabb. “Work on Substratum and the fight against censorship is far from over, but that was an incredibly proud moment.”
How does Substratum’s protocol work?
Most people access the internet with the help of an internet service provider (ISP). ISPs route traffic between Internet-connected devices (e.g., between your laptop and a server hosting the website you’d like to visit); and because all internet traffic goes through ISPs, ISPs hold an enormous amount of power. So much power that they can become avenues for governments to control web traffic, or, as many net neutrality advocates fear in the U.S., they can simply control the traffic themselves.
However, when someone accesses the internet through Substratum, their request for a specific piece of content doesn’t go straight to a monolithic gatekeeper (ISP). Instead, it’s processed by a dispersed network of Substratum node operators who route internet traffic directly from peer-to-peer.
A web surfer’s request for content and the content sent as a response happens via heavy encryption to protect anonymity while using geolocation AI tools to ensure delivery speed.
What is censored-Internet like?
You might be wondering what it’s like to live in a country or region where the internet is censored.
Chinese citizens can’t access Facebook, Google, or Youtube. Censors even restricted the use of the letter ‘n,’ noticing it was often typed by internet users criticizing President Xi Jinping’s “indeterminate number of years” as an authoritarian leader. And the Iranian government has responded to anti-government demonstrations by cracking down on Telegram, one of the demonstrators’ key organizing tools. In countries like China and Iran, internet censorship stifles political dissent, restricts information flow, and enables human rights abuses.
The Importance of an open internet
“We don’t think about internet censorship affecting us as much here in the U.S.,” Tabb says. “But we should. A lot of anti-censorship safeguards have eroded.”
Thanks to the FCC’s decision to overturn the Open Internet Order in early 2017, there are currently no rules in the U.S. prohibiting internet providers from blocking or slowing traffic to any website they choose. For example, your internet provider could strike a deal with a streaming service that slowed down your internet whenever you tried to access a rival service. That might sound more like an annoyance than a human rights violation, but the longterm implications in a society that relies so heavily on the internet for access to information and open exchange of ideas are terrifying.
Your internet provider could block or throttle your access to websites supporting political views they disagree with; and since that is the case, government bans aren’t necessary for censorship if our internet providers are already given sweeping power over the content we want to access.
There are few inventions in human history more powerful than the internet. The internet helps us learn, gain exposure to ideas and perspectives different from our own, and make connections that span the entire globe. All that power is stifled when the internet is censored. That’s why projects like Substratum are so important–not just because of their vision, but because of the real-world solutions they are deploying in the name of freedom.