When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web in 1989, he envisioned a free and open internet whereby people could share information and learn about anything they liked, without exception, from an independent, non-proprietary resource that was open to anyone in the world.
And while the internet has proved to be an amazing gift to mankind, it is sadly rife with problems, and now Berners-Lee is fighting for the right for people to use the internet without having their browsing activities spied on by internet providers or governments, without having to worry about censorship, and without being subjected to the whims of search engines and social networks that hold monopolies on the internet.
But what if we could reimagine the internet and start again from the beginning?
This is what Hungarian developer Tamas Kocsis, 32, has been trying to achieve with ZeroNet, a new internet-like network that is completely decentralised and hosted entirely on users' computers, so that the power of privacy and freedom of information is returned to consumers of the service.
"The internet is getting more and more centralised, which allows easier surveillance and censorship. So we have to come up with ideas that do the opposite of this," Kocsis tells IBTimes UK.
"The main goal is to remove as many middle men as possible. It's independent from big companies. One result of this could be less censorship. I think ZeroNet could be interesting for any people who want to exercise their right to freedom of speech."
What is ZeroNet?
Kocsis, a web developer based in Budapest, began developing ZeroNet in December 2014 due to his interest in p2p technologies and a desire to make a positive contribution to the online community. He came up with ZeroNet, a platform that makes use of peer-to-peer BitTorrent technology as well as bitcoin technology to ensure that users feel safe and secure. The idea is that ZeroNet acts as a network whereby users can access, download and surf websites that are hosted on other people's computers. There is no centralised server and no censorship.
To help you understand this, think about illegal downloading. Let's say that a bunch of different users want to download a specific pirated movie to watch. The movie file they want to download is distributed in segments called pieces to users, who are known as "peers". Once a user receives every single piece of the file, they can continue to share their copy with other users as "seeders".
Until the file is downloaded on your PC, you can't open it, as segments of the file are missing, but once you have the file, it's yours, and stays on your computer until you choose to delete it. Similarly, on ZeroNet, users are essentially downloading a website directly from someone else's computer.
This means that you don't need to pay a web host to store your site for you, and if you use Tor (from The Onion Router project) as well, then your connection to the user's computer is completely anonymous too. And whatever you look at on the website stays your business – there are no ad networks tracking your likes to serve you targeted ads; no conglomerates have a monopoly; and you don't have to worry about governments spying on your data.
The only difference is that with regular BitTorrent technology, you cannot update the file once you put it up for people to download it, so Kocsis has designed ZeroNet so that all the websites you access on the network are updated in real-time.
Who is using ZeroNet?
According to Kocsis, about 1,000 people are now using ZeroNet. Since some of these people are also using the Tor anonymity network, it is not possible to know exactly where all of them are, but the data shows that there is a key interest in using ZeroNet in China, Europe, North America, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
Essentially, you can do almost anything you would do on the open web. People are using ZeroNet to host blogs, forums (ZeroTalk), a web encyclopedia and a Pastebin-style site for exchanging code, and Kocsis has also designed services such as encrypted web mail (ZeroMail), instant chat messengers (ZeroChat), social networks (ZeroMe) and voting websites, which users are adapting into their own websites.
You can make a website by registered a domain name in a decentralised domain name system called Namecoin that has been added to ZeroNet. Namecoin is based on blockchain technology and is decentralised with no central authority, working in a similar way to bitcoin. This means that you can create, transfer or renew domain names without any central body overseeing the process.
Increasingly governments have concerns about the Dark Web, which is a section of the internet that is not indexed by search engines. Although some people use the Dark Web to exercise their freedom of speech, there are also others who use it for criminal enterprises, from hosting underground marketplaces trading in drugs, firearms, stolen credit cards and hacking services, to forums dealing in child pornography.
"It could be possible to create 'Dark' websites on ZeroNet, but I think it's not ideal for that, because every visitor also hosts the site he or she visited, and I think most of the people will not want to host that kind of content," he explains. "So far I have only seen a website where someone offered hacking services."
However, IBTimes UK observed users posting links to naked photos of celebrities (a continuation of the Fappening, which was banned from Reddit and 4chan in 2014), so clearly there is some illegal content floating about.
What's next for ZeroNet?
Kocsis' project has generated so much interest from the computing industry and advocates of net neutrality and privacy that he has now received enough sponsorship to enable him to quit his job and instead devote his efforts to ZeroNet full-time.
He is being funded by German IT company Blue Systems, as well as by individual donations from users, and in June, he gave his first talk on ZeroNet at the Decentralized Web Summit conference in San Francisco alongside other speakers, which included Berners-Lee and Tim Cerf (see video above).
Kocsis is now working on getting ZeroNet to support files of a larger size than 1MB, which is the current limit, and also making anonymous video streaming possible so that users can develop video-sharing sites as alternatives to YouTube on ZeroNet.
"It's still a small community (many people compare it to the early days of Internet), but it's growing," he says. "The Reddit-style forum where people submit sites currently has around 1000 submissions. There is some sites that have activity on ZeroTalk, and ZeroMe usually has about five to 10 comments per hour."