The problem with traditional websites is that they are hosted on servers, and can therefore be taken offline (as happened to The Pirate Bay (TPB) at the beginning of this year, for example.) One very promising solution to this problem is to host websites using the BitTorrent P2P network, where, as with sharing files using this protocol, websites exist as seeds on thousands of users’ computers, and therefore have no central point (such as a server) that can be easily taken down.
The TPB team has for some time now been hinting that it is working on such a distributed anti-censorship solution, but it seems μTorrent developer BitTorrent Inc. has piped it to the post with the beta release of Project Maelstrom, a Chromium-based distributed browser,
‘With Project Maelstrom, we aim to deliver technology that can sustain an open internet; one that doesn’t require servers, that allows anyone to publish to a truly open web, and that uses the power of distributed technology to scale efficiently.’
The distributed websites we tested worked very well, and prove the potential of Maelstrom to become an invaluable anti-censorship weapon. Just this week, for example, WikiLeaks published a set of documents relating to the Sony hack that show ‘the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation.’ Hosting the leaked documents on a distributed Project Maelstrom website would ensure that they could be easily taken down.
Although very few such torrent-powered websites exist at the moment (Project Maelstrom is still at a very early stage of development), BitTorrent Inc. has released a tool for developers interested in pioneering torrent publishing. As project leader Rob Velasquez explains,
‘The developer tool for publishing will help you build for Project Maelstrom easily, even from the command line. This will streamline the process for creating and publishing content for other users to access while using Project Maelstrom.’
Although the ability to host distributed P2P websites that cannot be easily censored or taken offline is the most exciting aspect of the Project, as something of a side-benefit users will be able to stream torrent files from within the Maelstrom browser.
All a user need do is click on any regular magnet link to start media playing right inside the browser. We found this feature generally worked sort of ok, but it won’t replace Popcorn Time any time soon (although to be fair, the software is still very much under development.)
In addition to not requiring a server to host websites and content, Project Maelstrom means that no domain registration is required, and that web site developers do not have to give personal details to hosting companies , which can allow information to be published with a high level anonymity,
‘The BitTorrent protocol remains the same, but it does mean that you no longer have to hand over personal, private data to domain registrars or hosting companies to put up a simple website.’
Although these are still early days for the Project, its potential is incredibly exciting, and BitTorrent Inc. claims to already have 10,000 developers and 3,500 publishers on board. At present the main drawback is that the Maelstrom browser, although based on open source Chromium code, is not itself open source (and BitTorrent Inc. is unlikely to make it so).
However, the publishing platform is open, so it should only be a matter of time before compatible open source alternatives become available, and when they do, the entire concept is likely to take off in a big way.
One thing that users should be aware of is that, as always with the BitTorrent technology, everyone else sharing the same file (or website) can easily see the IP address of everyone else sharing that file (etc.), so it is almost certainly a good idea to protect yourself with a good VPN service if you value privacy.