ZeroNet, a serverless P2P network that uses Bitcoin cryptography and BitTorrent technology, may be the first real, usable prototype of a decentralized web.
BitTorrent users can download files directly from other users, without needing a central server. The BitTorrent technology for distributed file storage and peer-to-peer transfers, one of the biggest developments in Internet technology since the Web itself, opens the way to a distributed, fully decentralized Internet.
A decentralized Internet would be much more resilient than today’s framework of central servers, in spite of the associated piracy often in the news headlines. There isn’t much the authorities can do to prevent BitTorrent users from exchanging files. But users need to know that downloadable files are available, and then search torrents on centralized torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. The centralized torrent sites are vulnerable to copyright enforcement countermeasures, ranging from domain seizure to actual server seizure.
“An interesting torrent site has just debuted which has the honor of being almost shutdown-proof,” TorrentFreak reports. “’Play’ has just appeared on ZeroNet, a serverless P2P network that uses Bitcoin cryptography and BitTorrent technology. As a result, Play might well be the first torrent site that offers magnet links while being hosted by its users.”
The door was opened in 2015, when BitTorrent announced Project Maelstrom, a P2P browser based on BitTorrent technology for a new decentralized web.
“It started with a simple question,” said BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker. “What if more of the web worked the way BitTorrent does? Project Maelstrom begins to answer that question with our first public release of a web browser that can power a new way for web content to be published, accessed and consumed. Truly an Internet powered by people, one that lowers barriers and denies gatekeepers their grip on our future.”
Project Maelstrom started public beta testing in April and released preliminary open source development tools, but it doesn’t seem to have progressed much to date.
The Pirate Bay pre-announced a similar project in early 2015, but hasn’t release any code or project updates since. There is also MaidSafe, a project self-described as a “crowd-sourced Internet” using advanced P2P technology to create a global decentralized network. The project continues to progress steadily, but hasn’t released any spectacular killer app to date.
The Play torrent site and its underlying ZeroNet technology seem to work well enough to be considered as a real, usable prototype of a decentralized web. ZeroNet sites are served by users, without central points of failure. “It’s nowhere because it’s everywhere!”
Anyone can install ZeroNet in a couple of minutes, start surfing the P2P web, and create crowd-served ZeroNet websites. In particular, the ZeroNet creator has developed a working solution for dynamical distributed websites, with real-time updates, which had eluded other developers to date. Dynamic decentralized web prototypes, including message boards and auto-refreshed real-time chat boards, are showcased on the ZeroNet front page — not the zeronet.io website, but the crowd-served front page that appears in a browser window after installation — and seem to work well.
The ZeroNet code is open source and available on Github. ZeroNet works over Tor, which provides additional anonymity options. Last but not least, ZeroNet is protected by the same cryptography used in the Bitcoin network, which opens up possibilities for Bitcoin integration.
Bitcoin Magazine spoke to the ZeroNet developer, who prefers to be known as “Tamas,” to find out more.
“I live in Hungary, working as web developer, and ZeroNet is my hobby project,” said Tamas. “I started it in December 2014 and the first version was released in January 2015, so it’s a relatively new project.” Tamas explained that ZeroNet permits creating crowd-sourced websites without central servers. “The pages are hosted by the visitors, so there are no costs and anyone is able to create new websites,” he said. To read ZeroNet sites, users have to run the ZeroNet client and then simply open ZeroNet sites in the browser.
“I’m worried that the Internet is becoming more and more centralized and controlled by big companies, we need to re-decentralize it,” said Tamas, who doesn’t worry about criminals and terrorists using the decentralized Internet to evade justice. “They don’t really need ZeroNet, since they can already create hidden websites using only Tor,” he said.
Tamas is aware of other projects to implement a decentralized web, but he emphasizes that ZeroNet has unique features: “Project Maelstrom does not allow to create dynamic or multi-user websites, and it’s not open-source,” he noted. “MaidSafe –as far as I know –is more focused on file storage.”
Now that the TorrentFreak article on the Play torrent site is catapulting ZeroNet to public attention, BitTorrent users wonder whether Play could scale up and become a mega torrent site like The Pirate Bay. Tamas explained that at this moment there are some technical limitations. “By default there is a 10-megabyte space limit per website, which should be enough to store 6-80,000 torrents,” he said. “So ZeroNet currently is better suited for smaller sites, but there will be improvement on this. ZeroNet is most suitable for personal blogs/forums, and a Twitter-like social site is planned for release in the next few months.”
Tamas, who currently is the only developer of ZeroNet, appreciates donations but has no immediate monetization plans and no long-term roadmap. He explained that ZeroNet is developed with a “content first” approach. “I create new ZeroNet sites, and develop the new core features needed for the new sites,” he said, and added that he is considering adding Bitcoin integration to the core software for a new ZeroNet marketplace website.
At this moment, ZeroNet has an integrated Bitcoin address. From the ZeroNet FAQ: “Can I use the generated site address/private key to accept Bitcoin payments? Yes, it’s a standard Bitcoin address. The private key is WIF formatted, so you can import it in most clients.”
Tamas emphasized that ZeroNet uses exactly the same cryptography as Bitcoin, which could enable future Bitcoin integration. “It’s possible to send Bitcoin to a site’s address, but currently to do that you need to use an external Bitcoin wallet,” he said. “Later we can have this built-in, so you can follow your transactions and send Bitcoins directly using the web interface.”
Giulio Prisco is a writer specialized in science, technology and business. He is persuaded that Bitcoin and its underlying technology are about to bring disruptive positive changes to finance, business, and society.