The Independent Network - An Alternative to the Internet

The US government control ICANN (who effectively control the internet) and have reneged on their promise to relinquish control of it. Consequently, an alternative needs to be found: an independent internet. Here's one way of doing that. I've called it the Independent Network, rather than its first off-the-cuff name of the 'Inet', as 'Inet' is bound to be owned by someone. It uses much of the existing internet infrastructure, but avoids those parts at which the US or other governments might exert control.

The Independent Network is a private data network. Access to it depends upon the acceptance of the Independent Network's Terms and Conditions. More of these later-they are there for a beneficial purpose, and are not a shifty EULA.

The simplest way to lose ICANN control is to replace the domain name servers (DNS) they control, and to do so in a distributed manner. To do this, release a free patch for all browsers that places a virtual switch on them. By default, they operate on the Internet using ICANN's DNS system. Click on the switch, and you route your calls through the Independent Network's DNS Filter, and if appropriate, the Independent Network's own DNS system.

Initially, you can kick off with one Independent Network DNS system at a university. Ultimately, you would have thousands, held and run (securely) by university computing departments and NGOs, with updates rolled out as they currently are to ISPs and local DNS systems.

The Independent Network DNS Filter operates in the first year of operation: the transition period. During this time, any reputable domain name holder owning an Internet domain can ask for free registration of those same domains on the Independent Network system. Their site is checked to see that it complies with the Independent Network's Ts&Cs, and if so, they get it. After an initial year, they must re-register for a 5-year period. This costs a nominal admin fee for private individuals, and a slightly larger fee for commercial entities. When you register a trademark as a domain on the Independent Network, you automatically get all of the global alternatives in one go. So when Tesco register, they get and all the similar domains automatically. But no one can block critique sites that include a trademark name within them, so if SusTel (the imaginary Sussex Telegraphy Corporation) had upset a customer, and that customer set up, Sussex Telegraphy could not block it under the Ts&Cs. Domain squatting would not be permitted.

Domain dispute resolution would be rapid: one week for evidence presentation, 24 hours to decide, and 24 hours for appeals. At which point the Independent Network DNS system would roll out a block on the loser. Domain transfers would be fast to organise, and low cost. All domain activity would operate through the Independent Network, or through local branches of the Independent Network: Independent Network domain sales would not be farmed out to resellers, as the system is too important, and has proved to be difficult to police on the internet. Independent Network domain holders would be expected to maintain control over the content of their users on sites with Independent Network domain registrations. Repeated failures to rapidly do so would result in the temporary or permanent loss of their Independent Network domain.

Independent Network DNS registrants must have a real name, address, and contact details (not a PO Box), and any communication from the Independent Network DNS system to the named registrar must be answered within 24 hours or the registration is terminated.

Independent Network DNS calls route the user's browser requests to websites operating on the internet. Duplicate sites do not need to be produced. The Independent Network registration procedure permits an Independent Network domain to match an internet domain, or to be automatically translated to a deep-linked internet URL.

Independent Network DNS calls to servers are flagged by a bit in the call courtesy of the browser patch. This can be read by website servers using server-side code, and consequently a call via the Independent Network can result in a different response to a browser call, than if it came via a straight check on ICANN's DNS. This means a site can be visible under, or generated for an Independent Network call, but invisible or not generated for a straight ICANN call, or vice versa. Using the basic, extant internet infrastructure, both surfer and website server can use either system easily. From one site, content can be configured differently for users of either system, as the website maintainer wishes.

The transition period permits a growth from default-to-block to be set in place. This is because, under the Ts&Cs, certain material available on the internet would not be available on the Independent Network. No visual pornography would be permitted on the Independent Network, except on the .xxx top level domain, which the Independent Network would implement. The US government has blocked ICANN from implementing this on the internet, despie permitting a range of rarely used TLDs.

Pornography would be as freely accessible on the Independent Network as it is on the internet, but only through calls to websites with domains that end in .xxx

Pornography providers could not register a normal internet site on the Independent Network system, but could purchase their own .xxx Independent Network domain name, in the usual manner, for the standard fee, and automatically route the calls to their existing .com website.

This provides a simple demarcation for visual pornography. Anyone breaking this rule would lose their Independent Network domain registration.

During the first year, the Independent Network's own side-by-side DNS operations would be rolled out to the world's servers and server OSs, operating as ICANN ones are. After the intial transition year, new Independent Network-only domain names could be purchased on the Independent Network, in the traditional manner, and the Independent Network DNS system would operate entirely independently of the ICANN system.

The Independent Network's Ts&Cs are global and net-centric. That is to say, as a private system, content is blocked according to the service's own Ts&Cs at the DNS call. The following are banned:

1. Obvious, visual child pornography.

2. Phishing (fake bank sites etc).

3. Fraudulent commercial services.

4. Spam.

5. Denial of service attacks.

6. Zombie networks.

Some of these bans only operate on specific services, such as e-mail. The Independent Network's e-mail service would incorporate centralised anti-phishing and anti-spam techniques, and would block known spambots. All known spammers or phishers would, where identified, be banned from the system for 5 years or life. Anyone operating on behalf of a known spammer or phisher would receive the same punishment. Spam is not a free speech issue, it is a digital pollution and fraud issue and would be dealt with as such.

Any fraudulent commercial service offered through Independent Network would similarly be dealt with (this relates to non-existent lotteries, selling properties that do not exist, and multi-level marketing scams etc).

Although a comprehensive and foolproof implementation of these bans would never be attainable, the mere right to ban individuals from the DNS system for operating such abuses in breach of the Ts&Cs is a massive advantage over the current ICANN system.

The internet is global, and as such cannot be globally subject to national laws, but must operate in accordance with those laws in the nations where legal action is upheld. Consequently, if a UK court banned a site which did not break the Independent Network's Ts&Cs, all UK-based Independent Network DNS systems would block access to that site, in compliance with the law, and state the details of this when an attempt was made to access it. However, the site would not be blocked by Independent Network DNS systems held in other countries, and users could manually transfer to a foreign Independent Network DNS system to access the site using the browser patch, or the Independent Network browser (see below).

It may be that the Independent Network system would be banned from specific countries, for refusing to comply with dictatorial governmental privacy intrusions and state censorship. Most likely from China, North Korea, Singapore, and the United States. Foreign Independent Network DNS system calls would of course be accessible to users in those countries unless those calls were also blocked, in which case they would be forced to access the system using a Stargate (see below).

Once the system was up and running, an Independent Network browser would be released that would only access the Independent Network system (that is all content on the internet where the domains were registered with the Independent Network, that complied with its Ts&Cs). E-mail could be sent and received within the Independent Network system, or directed to Internet users not on the Independent Network, and received from them (via the Independent Network's centralised mail filters).

The Independent Network browser would incorporate secure (subscription and registration required) file-sharing and distributed-processing features, incorporating micro-payment facilities. Content uploaded on to these systems would be the legal responsibility of the uploader, and they would be liable for that content, their identity being revealed at the request of a court of law.

The (free) Independent Network browser would also incorporate disability access, text to speech, speech to text, messaging, video-conferencing, VoIP, domain registrant checking, encrypted point-to-point browsing, and VPN tunnelling features as standard. It would also include an internet radio player, an internet video player and an iTV system. Webservices could be built using an Independent Network programming package. All services could be free, or paid for using built-in secure payment systems. A version of the Independent Network browser would be released with a thin OS that could be loaded without an OS on to a PC or installed in a PROM. The browser could also be run from a memory stick. This permits the browser to replace the OS, and thus keep the costs down.

Finally, the browser would incorporate a Stargate code generator. A Stargate is simply a virtual mini-browser that can be placed on any website. Using a graphical virtual keyboard, any user in any country can access any website as an encrypted or unencrypted html page or image file via this service, which can be provided freely or charged for. It is a proxy surfing utility designed to circumvent dictatorial state censorship, and cannot be blocked. Any webpage, anywhere, can maintain an obfuscated Stargate. To prevent Stargate use, a nation would have to cut off access to the internet (and the Independent Network) entirely. And that is not economically viable.

The Independent Network would be run by a small board of trusted individuals as a not-for-profit agency initially based within a university. The board would be made up of members chosen for their known trustworthiness and public stature, over time replaced by individuals nominated by users in free online votes. No serving politican could ever be a member of this board.

[Following the appearance of Independent Network on Bob Cringely's I, Cringely website, its generated some feedback. Below are some attempts to answer the main points:]

This would be a Nanny State

We already have that. We have BT 'Clean-Feed' in the UK, with blocking-lists being rolled out 'one way and another' to all UK ISPs, and similar lists in preparation for Australia. Similar systems are no doubt in place in the US. None of these have any public accountability, all are operated behind closed doors, often with government intervention, and none work particularly well. Nor do they stop the biggest pains on the net for actual users: phishers and spammers. The Independent Network would offer a fast response on these issues but would not block anything beyond its mandate: that would be a matter for the uploader and the complainant to deal with directly on a one-to-one basis. It would have a clear and transparent mandate on what it blocked, controlled by a board made up, eventually, of individuals elected by internet users. A court could only block a site from the Independent Network DNS within their country: users could switch to foreign Independent Network DNS systems to still access a site. The Stargates would render ISP blocking lists ineffective, replacing them with the central Independent Network blocks.

This would lead to a block on file-sharing systems

Distributed networks, including file-sharing systems, are fundamental to the development of the internet. They should not be blocked. Closing down file-sharing services on the basis that the user-generated content passed on them broke copyright laws was a glaringly incompetent failing of the judicial system and has damaged the development of the Internet. Internet services (ISPs, file-sharing networks, social networking sites) are conduits through which user generated data flows, or communal spaces within which user generated data resides. In both cases, the service itself should not be held accountable for the user-generated content it holds or passes. The Independent Network would only block sites on specific, stated grounds, and would always err on the side of liberty.

This is an oversimplification

It is a first draft knocked out in 30 minutes. If I'd known it was going to get so much coverage, I'd have worked out a few more details. The fundamentals are sound. As for previous alternate-DNS failures. Well, the Pippin and Newton failed commercially, but there's a fairly strong market out there for consoles and PDAs. Timing is everything.

Where does the money come from?

Good point. There is a lot of money out there. The tech industry is notoriously wealthy. The bottom line: are there enough people who want to freely donate large chunks of money to get a better version of the Internet off the ground?

You won't have enough staff

The '24 hours' rule is pushing it. Maybe a target of a week or two for resolutions. The point is that the Independent Network board would treat everyone equally. Turn up with 10 top lawyers and it will not benefit you one jot. The Independent Network's board's decision is final.

You are replacing one tyrannical system with another

All systems are tyrannical by design. I'm going for the best option available, with rules and transparency. Note that the internet happily continues alongside the Independent Network on the same infrastructure. Join if you want. No compulsion. The two would work happily side-by-side on the same infrastructure. Much of the content would be shared.

It's not perfect. It has flaws. So let's dismiss it

Every system has flaws, and I'm not saying it will work perfectly. It is a step towards a better network: a network with a constitution, not controlled by a single government, with capacity increasing as the distributed DNS expands. This is v.0.0.1. Alpha.

It would start empty of content

It would kick off with the major websites getting their free registration. That would be a lot of content in a short space of time. Note the one year transition period too.

It would police the internet

It would not. No content would be removed, only access to content that breached the Ts&Cs of the Independent Network-and the Independent Network would be for surfers who wanted a system with those Ts&Cs. A domain would not be removed because one of its users was posting material that breached these Ts&Cs on a webpage: individual parts of a domain could be blocked by the Independent Network DNS system. In truth, very little material would be blocked. Read the list of 6 items above. That's not a starting point for a long list to cut down on surfers' freedoms. You can be as abusive as you want to be on your website and the Independent Network would not block you, even if you break national laws on 'incitement'. That is a matter for national judicial systems. The Independent Network would report no site to the police: ever. It would block sites or pages, or not block them, and may receive information from law-enforcement authorities, individuals, or concerned NGOs upon which it would act, but that would be one-way traffic. Judicial action is the prerogative of national law enforcement agencies. The Independent Network's only concern is to block access to content that breaches its Ts&Cs, and contact domain name owners if their sites contained material that was available on the Independent Network, but breached its Ts&Cs under its constitution.

The punters don't like it! You are running at 35-40% approval

I'm not surprised. The internet as it is, is deemed to be free, and the Independent Network seems to be a private and tyrannically controlled subset of the net. But the internet is not free at the moment. People just think it is. There has to be some form of control (because there are bad people out there) but lots of folks hate the idea of any control. There has to be some constitutional guarantee of freedom (or society chokes) but lots of folks hate the idea of free speech. The Independent Network is designed to place the future of the internet on a global footing, with a constitution, and a board elected by its users. The ideal is a network where sites are what they say they are, and you have the choice to access or avoid porn sites according to your wishes. Using Stargates, those who wish, can visit any site, on the internet or the Independent Network, but nobody will stumble on to a site that is misrepresenting itself on the Independent Network. And everyone has the choice: the internet, the Independent Network, or both. We may never achieve an ideal, but it is a good thing to work towards.

This is just America-bashing

No, it isn't. Although a huge number of people outside, and a large number of people inside America do not trust Bush, the whole point of this is to place a version of the internet outside of the control of any single nation, so that it cannot be controlled by the laws or the government of that one nation, when it serves the whole of humanity. The regulation the Independent Network would offer would be minimal and largely functional. Users who still wanted spam and child porn could find it on the internet, that would still be running alongside the Independent Network, on the same servers, and on the same infrastructure. But it is likely that some free speech content, which might be banned from the internet by individual nation's governments, would still be accessible in those countries via the Independent Network using a foreign-located DNS. It would also be available via a Stargate. The Independent Network is not about limiting your online freedoms, but about preserving them on a network that cannot be censored globally by the laws or government of one nation.

He's replacing the "imperialist US system" with his own system of which he is king

Although chunks of this are probably owned under various patent filings, this concept has been placed on the internet as a form of 'prior art' that any part of it not yet patented could not be, for the public good. The Independent Network would have a board of overseers, elected by surfers as soon as an election system can be put into place, transparent procedures, and a clearly stated constitution. Every aspect of its operation would be publicly documented. No king. I doubt I would even have a role in its operation. Now compare the way it would work with the way ICANN and the ISP blocking lists work. Which would you rather trust?

But my domain name....

Many of the responses regard fears over domain name ownership. Domain name ownership on the Internet with ICANN would be unchanged and entirely untouched by the Independent Network. The Independent Network would have its own new domain name system, starting from scratch, with stated rules based on known past issues of conflict and abuse. If you own a trademark, you get the domain names. If someone in another country has a locally recognised claim, they get the relevant domain name in that country. The ban on websquatting would simply be intended to stop companies from buying thousands of the things and not implementing sites on them. If you are a private individual and own three but only use one, and nobody else wants them-no problem. If you went on holiday for a week, you wouldn't come home to find your site closed down. Part of the 'patching' of the domain name system would be to recognise that large users and private individuals have their own needs in domain name ownership. The intention is simply to stop the most obvious abuses of the service that get on surfers' nerves. This is an attempt to make the system work a little better, not make life hell for everyone. And I would emphasise, all of this involves Independent Network domains. ICANN would carry on as normal. For the first year, Independent Network domain names would be translated to relevant ICANN domain names and passed on. Only after that would the Independent Network's DNS systems kick in, working globally, alongside ICANN's, via compliant ISP's servers, or using browser patches.

Here are some notes regarding the intentions behind Independent Network's features

The .xxx TLD should allow the 95% of the porn industry that is legal to appear on search engine results made by adults, but not by kids. Currently that is impossible. It makes it easier to find and to avoid legal porn, which is a good thing for most people. Blocking it for political reasons in favour of .hotel or whatever, is ridiculous.

This, combined with a firmware implementation, would be good for schools, parents, and public terminals without interfering with those who want to buy, sell, or access porn.

The Independent Network can cease direct access to any illegal material (porn images involving children) rapidly, without needing to go through the courts in obscure countries. Ditto with phishing sites.

As a private data network (operating a central mail filter via the Independent Network browser) the Independent Network offers a new weapon against spam. Spam would have no recourse to US law on freedom of speech. It's a private data network, not a default public system. Spam is a real problem. The Independent Network could ban the ownership of domain names by known spammers, spot spambots emanating from dubious sources, and filter mail. The spammers would have no legal recourse beyond the Independent Network's appeals procedure. Malware could also be treated in the same manner.

The ICANN bottleneck (subject to political interference and snooping) is removed. The system is run by academics from universities (there is a UK precedent: JANET). The intention is to ban obvious non-speech crime rapidly, but permit entirely free speech. There is no censorship of opinions-these would be dealt with in national courts according to national laws. The use of distributed DNS servers means that national court judgements would only apply to DNS servers operating within those countries. It might stop the net being subject to 'lowest common denominator' justice.

The Independent Network browser would be the first proper nextgen browser, with all the good bits in as standard, and free. Multiple services could be added as modules, so the default video-conferencing could be replaced by Skype. Generic media playing would be included, but Apple and other vendors could incorporate their systems if they wanted to. This is not anti-capitalism. I want people to see this as an opportunity-a platform they can make money through, and so use it.

I really like the Stargates, which will open up China, cannot be censored, and could work today on the internet. I also really like the idea of replacing Windows or the MacOS with a thin OS and the Independent Network browser to produce a cheaper, more secure system: the browser would become the GUI.

This is not The Internet version 2. More a reboot with patches to get rid of some of the annoyances that we should be able to get rid of, but cannot. The net develops continuously: Arpanet, Darpanet, Viewdata systems, BBSs, Fidonet, Newsgroups, the Web, and file-sharing systems. The Independent Network or something like it may be the next evolutionary step.

The Independent Network can run alongside the internet, on the same fundamental infrastructure, so its a minimum effort development. At every step it makes it easy for people to adopt the system, as they would benefit from it. The core features would also all be free, paid for by initial funding and long term domain name sales. The equivalent of ICANN revenues providing the start-up cash for the first generation of services that became Skype, Paypal, Mozilla etc. Commercial alternatives would follow, and would happily be incorporated as value-added modules.

There may be many alternative distributed Independent Network-alike DNS systems in the future. The hope is that we get the first alternative one right, make it work, and the internet will not fragment.

I suspect, however, that the first one to appear will be run by the Chinese government, and will offer none of the constitutional freedoms that the Independent Network intends to enshrine.

Following independence from Parliament and King George III, the US Constitution formed the legal basis for a new nation, and Americans are rather proud of it. I am simply suggesting that the internet obtain independence from ICANN and President Bush, and have a constitution of its own.

The name 'Inet' was dropped to avoid stepping on any trademark owner's toes, and has been replaced with the more generic 'Independent Network'. This is only a first draft title anyway.

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