Access Denied: Restoring the Internet’s Openness

Governments and corporate interests are competing to own the future of the internet, and with it, control information and personal data. As users, developers, and investors, how can we take back control? At Orchid, we’re working to restore the internet to its natural state: an open, accessible space for the world to collaborate and communicate.

From the time of tribes of hunter gatherers, until relatively recently, there was one commonality regarding a person’s privacy: The world was small and the village pretty much knew everything about everyone.

But beyond that community, privacy was almost absolute to the point of anonymity. Broadcasting one’s ideas or activities beyond that small unit took energy, effort, and often money.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century, with the expansion of corporate industry, social institutions, federal governments, and population, that the concept of privacy — and its very definition and the terms and conditions for it — was established legally.

Now, with the 21st century still in its infancy, the internet has dramatically changed how we think about privacy. When the internet was invented it made the world small again; it made the entire world into one global village.

The Evolution of the Internet

The first iteration of the internet, Web 1.0, offered limitless possibilities. It gave the first adopters connectivity and access to information in a way that had never existed before. And of course, consequently, utilization of the technology rapidly expanded. In 1995, 16 million people were on the internet. A year later, in 1996, that number had more than doubled.

In the same year, internet activist John Perry Barlow claimed in the Cyberspace Declaration of Independence, “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Next came Web 2.0, an explosion in the exchange of ideas and information via content, contribution, and publishing. The ability of everyone to be able to create their own space on the internet in this phase led to important social interactions as internet use normalized into everyday life.

But now we’re on the precipice of the next wave, Web 3.0. And we have the ability — and responsibility — to ensure that this next version of the internet benefits as many people as possible, everywhere on Earth.

In 2016, the UN declared that internet access was a basic human right. Like access to electricity, its existence intrinsically assists the functionality of our daily lives. We’ve become digital natives now, living in a world where the connectivity and utility of the internet are no longer peripheral benefits, but expected resources like food or shelter, natural extensions of who we are and how we live.

Today, more than 4.3 billion people are online. As of April 2019, 56.1% of the world’s population had internet access, including 81% of people living in the developed world.

The Data Big Bang

As access to the internet has skyrocketed, so too has the amount of user data, in what can be best described as an information big bang. We generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. That’s a number with 30 zeros after it.

Every swipe, click, transaction, communication, and packet leaves a trail of data and information behind. And this mind-boggling volume of digital information is doubling every two years.

On a communications level, here’s what was happening on the internet every minute last year:

The world is connected and communicating with mind-boggling frequency.

And in that way, you could say that the internet has succeeded in its original intention of connecting people to information and each other. That is, if you don’t look too hard. Instead, at the same time that the internet has become a ubiquitous part of humanity, entities are moving to control, restrict, and own it.

The supernova of information and global data is a gold mine and a repository of power, with dual, competing forces working to own it — corporate profit and national security. Instead of a decentralized, free exchange of ideas, today our world wide web is a series of walled gardens where people are tracked, censored, and controlled. We have an internet that’s centralized and splintering. We have an internet that has gone from plentiful to scarce.

In a 2018 TED talk, Yuval Harari argued that the greatest danger facing liberal democracy is the concentration of data in the hands of a few, which has the possibility to make dictatorships more efficient than democracies. To Harari, whoever controls the data controls the future. Whereas land, and later machines, were previously the most important global assets to nation states, in the 21st century data is becoming the ultimate currency of power and control.

So, Who Controls the Internet?

The attempts to control the flow of information and data generated by the internet take different forms, driven by actors with differing intentions. Because of this, our internet today is at risk of splintering into three (or more) versions:

  • China (state controlled)
  • Europe (GDPR controlled)
  • US (corporately controlled)

According to the 2018 Freedom House report, global internet freedom — meaning unobstructed and unmonitored access to an open internet — has been declining for eight straight years. Since 2017, 18 countries have increased internet surveillance. China, meanwhile, has been mentoring and teaching 36 countries in online information management, holding trainings and seminars to export its authoritarian ethos backed by the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology.

Russia, for its part, is turning inward, rejecting the basic notion of internet freedom and moving towards a state-controlled intranet. The Russian government argues that the move is a necessary counter to acts of aggression from western democracies, claiming hacking and the spread of misinformation. But critics see the move as simply one more attempt by Putin and his allies to control the flow of information to the Russian people, further isolating them from news or anything remotely critical of the current regime.

According to the Freedom House report, “The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence.” This is the growth of digital authoritarianism.

For authoritarian governments, controlling information is paramount to controlling public opinion. And in both China and Russia, as well as in other regimes around the world, we see a concerted attempt to curb the free flow of information in order to retain and tighten control. Where digital authoritarianism is on the rise, we see attempts at banning irony and satire, travel and mobility, purchasing power, and a long list of content considered unacceptable. But this sort of blatant silencing of dissent isn’t the only model threatening openness and communication on the internet.

Competing with digital authoritarianism, we have surveillance capitalism and the data supply chain.

In almost every online action you take, you consent — willingly or unwillingly — to provide your data, allowing you to become a product that is bought, sold, and manipulated. In our digital age, everything is recorded somewhere, and most information worth keeping private involves a third party.

The tech that has made our lives easier, faster, and better has also created easier, faster, and better surveillance. As a result, the infrastructure of the internet has become concentrated in the hands of the few.

As the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed, our personal data can be turned into a propaganda machine against us. The New Yorker aptly points out that Facebook became what it is today, “[By] devising the most successful system ever for compiling and purveying consumer data. Big Tech wants to exploit our personal data, and the government wants to keep tabs on us.”

According to Pew Research, when it comes to online privacy, users are confused and distrusting.

  • 91% Americans feel they’ve lost control of personal info collection and usage
  • 80% are concerned with advertisers
  • 74% say it’s very important to be in control of who can get info about them

Yet the stark paradox is that most people stick around on the platforms they distrust out of paralysis, either because they’re unsure how to control their online data, or rely on services that exploit it.

In late 2018, the international pact of nations known as the Five Eyes quietly issued a demand for all tech companies to design encryption backdoors in their products. The Five Eyes — made up of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — is on a mission of ‘collect it all’ surveillance. According to TechCrunch, the group formed an alliance to collect and share intelligence amongst each other, “using each nation’s diplomatic power and strategic locations as chokepoints to gather the rest of the world’s communications.”

Where are some who feel that they have nothing to hide, and therefore, that data collection poses no threat. But we have to ask ourselves, are we certain that every regime will act with benevolence regarding our personal information? Will every third party do the right thing? When you lose control of your personal data, you lose control over who uses it, and how they use it.

A broad, sweeping cultural shift is at play worldwide — a growing acceptance and acquiescence of broad censorship, driven through regulation, shutdowns, and misinformation. The distrust and fear are such that even though the surveillance may not be complete, people behave as if it is.

We’re losing the ability to access information, to communicate, and to control our own privacy online. It’s the loss of the ability to choose, which is essentially the loss of individual liberty.

We don’t want to be disconnected, restricted, powerless.

Connection, expression, and agency are all human nature. The strength of the internet for preserving free expression is tied to a decentralized structure and the ability to support diverse platforms, ideas, and information. The need for a decentralized solution for the threats facing the internet is more clear now than ever.

Are VPNs the Solution?

Around the world, citizens are looking for ways to gain control of their online experiences, data, and identity or simply access the whole internet. To date, the most effective and popular way to do this is through the use of VPNs.

A VPN can allow its user to access information restricted by their government, connecting to the internet privately, securely, and safely by routing the user’s connection through a server or series of servers. But current VPNs aren’t without considerable limitations, which inhibit their efficaciousness.

First, most VPNs rely on a centralized infrastructure with a single hop system, which leaves them vulnerable to firewalls and discovery. This type of design also requires complete trust on the part of the user that the company behind the VPN is acting in the consumer’s best interest. Can you trust that your VPN isn’t sharing your information with an authoritarian regime or corporate interests, wittingly or unwittingly? Many VPNs actually harvest and sell user data as their business model, further compromising your privacy and eroding trust.

Others circumvent these shortcomings with decentralized servers that rely on volunteers to stabilize the system. While a step in the right direction for privacy and security, will a small group of volunteers ever be able to provide the computational capacity and bandwidth to provide the open, secure, private online experience that should be a right for every citizen in the world?

Orchid’s Decentralized Approach

At Orchid, our mission is to create a decentralized solution that realizes the original intentions of the internet while respecting user privacy. In order to do that, we’re building on the efforts of others and creating a new platform to return the internet to its natural state — a resource for the citizens of the world to communicate, collaborate, and access information.

Orchid is an open-source overlay network that runs on the existing internet. The network uses multi-hop routing, consisting of relay and bridge nodes that stake Orchid (ERC20) tokens in order to receive connection requests from users who pay for bandwidth via probabilistic micropayments. The list of nodes is stored in an Ethereum smart contract that is decentralized and accessible to anyone around the world. Unlike traditional VPNs, the Orchid App uses multiple hops so no single node can see both the origin and destination information, keeping user data private.

Users can connect and configure their VPN service through the Orchid App, purchasing bandwidth from other members of the network on the fly, switching providers depending upon speed, price, location, and availability in the marketplace. With an incentivized community marketplace, Orchid’s network can effectively relay traffic to create a secure, private online experience capable of handling large amounts of traffic.

No matter where you live, privacy is in decline and worth protecting. Decentralization and blockchain have opened a new avenue to redefine trust and keep the internet open, a little bit wild, and most importantly, accessible. The internet is a collective effort and we hope you’ll join us in helping to preserve it’s accessibility.

Orchid Labs

When we see the Internet as part of our nature, and design…