No, Blockchain Isn’t Net Neutrality’s Silver Bullet: Part Two

But maybe mesh networks can help.

Be sure to check out Part One, if you haven’t already.

Along Comes Blockchain, Right? Not So Fast

After all that doom and gloom, it’s time to ask everyone’s favorite question: “Can you put a blockchain on it?”

Broken up into smaller, less abstract, questions it might sound like the following queries: Can blockchain help the free internet projects? Could it be used to hold ISPs accountable? Where will it be used best in the everyday functioning of the internet going forward? Storing private information on the blockchain is a bad idea, but can the blockchain be utilized to keep private information that is stored elsewhere safer? If I say “mesh networks” enough, will slapping a blockchain on some of those save the day for us? (Maybe. Possibly. Who Knows. Probably.)

As I mentioned in the first of this two-part blog, I thought blockchain would be the savior in the net neutrality fight, but now it’s looking like it’ll be just another victim. Blockchain technology could struggle to get a foothold in the United States if ISPs control bandwidth and access to certain sites and servers. Unlike the concern of paying more to access Netflix and Hulu, with blockchain it wouldn’t be absurd to assume telecom providers would cut off access to outside systems altogether in favor of their own blockchains or token-based platforms. This is where we could see the crypto space potentially get quite bleak. I don’t believe I’m being hyperbolic when I say that getting rid of net neutrality has the potential to dismantle blockchain growth, at least within the United States.

Justin Tabb, CEO and co-founder of Substratum Network told International Business Times about some of the far-reaching concerns. “The elimination of net neutrality protections could pose a threat to Bitcoin miners and traders in the form of throttling or even blocking access to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency sites, including exchanges,” Tabb said. But that’s not all he’s concerned about: “ISPs could potentially have the power to control access to exchanges, the speed of transactions, and even create and prioritize accessibility to their own cryptocurrencies…which is not such a crazy idea when you think of all the places in this country where a single ISP has a monopoly.”

And these concerns are not without some precedent, either. In the article, “Net Neutrality and Blockchain”, written by Noam Levenson and co-written by Nir Kabessa, we’re reminded that “in 2005, Comcast slowed speeds (throttling) to certain file sharing and torrent sites. In 2014, Verizon blocked access to Google Wallet to encourage users to use Verizon’s own Isis Wallet.” Sure, you could argue that in the Comcast scenario, they were hindering services being provided outside of the law, and in the Verizon scenario they were protecting their product. But from all we’ve already seen in our battle for an open internet, these examples could be merely setting the stage for much more egregious steps by telecom providers, should they keep Congress and the FCC on their side.

Our Nightmare Future?

We’ve got a lot to work toward, to be sure. In the fight for open internet, mesh networks are one obvious way blockchain can help. However, there are a few setbacks when it comes to creating mesh networks on a larger scale. These challenges are only part of the complications surrounding both blockchain proliferation and the fight for an open internet in the US. Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize the way we store and access data and the way in which we access the internet at large. Should we manage to save net neutrality in the United States, it will be exciting to see where we can take blockchain as we head toward the next decade and beyond. If net neutrality fails, however, we can’t look for blockchain as the antidote. Blockchain potentially fails in the US if net neutrality fails in the US. But, as we see with technology like mesh networks, there may be an avenue for blockchain to fight back on the side of open internet in our country.

As of June 11, the repeal of the FCC’s rules regarding net neutrality has gone into effect. That doesn’t end the fight for a free internet, but it does significantly raise the incline we’re traversing. So, while personally I may be of the mind that the sky is falling, perhaps a more accurate assertion is that there are sections of the sky that are falling, and, if we aren’t careful, the whole thing will come down. The recent findings of the FCC inspector general validate some concerns, but I’m of the mind that those findings won’t end up mattering. My hopes were momentarily lifted when we found out Congress wanted to chat with Mr. Pai. Unfortunately, we saw even a hearing to hold the FCC accountable amounts to Pai smiling his way through low-ball questions. That hearing came off like a bunch of people mocking the idea of an open internet in the United States. Pai has such an openly-hostile, terrifyingly-jovial view toward opinions that don’t align with his agenda, that I imagine this report and the subsequent hearing will lead nowhere in terms of repercussions for the FCC or their current stance on open internet in our country. More troubling, Pai has the backing of both the White House and both houses of Congress, and soon enough, the Supreme Court, should Kavanaugh make it onto the bench.

With ISPs partnering with platform providers to make customers pay a la carte for the services, mesh networks have an uphill battle. If we were to see ISPs throttling services, mesh networks would either need to make those deals too or potentially become nothing more than a messaging service. Subverting the ISPs for the basic connection is one matter, trying to access services with that connection is another matter altogether. Don’t try telling people like Karl Floersch that mesh networks aren’t a potential for the future, though. In an article for CoinDesk, Michael del Castillo says Floersch, an ethereum developer and Casper researcher, “described an ethereum-based system that runs “in the background” of any mobile device. Using an interconnected series of smart contracts, the mobile device could theoretically be turned into a Wi-Fi enabled “node,” helping expand the mesh network’s reach.” Right now, many mesh networks already in existence are locally supported, donor supported, or set up through their own foundations. The future of these networks could be bright, should monetary and community support grow in the coming years.

Everything isn’t pure gravy, though, as you could have probably guessed by now. Later in the same CoinDesk article “software engineer Brian Hall…argues all these projects [blending mesh networks and the blockchain] fail to adequately understand two things — first, mesh nodes have to be in geographically close proximity to one another, unlike blockchain nodes, and second, growing these networks requires huge amounts of social capital to gain adopters.” While this may be frustrating to accept, we are at least aware of these shortcomings. Just as we shifted from dial-up connections to broadband internet, we can be sure there will be plenty of advancements in the mesh network space as well as with blockchain as an industry.

We should close this out on a positive note, right? Like we saw with the attempts to bring internet to communities the ISPs ignored, small groups are fighting back in the small towns and big-city neighborhoods. We’re seeing them fight for open internet, and we’re seeing some using blockchain to help get there. We’re Americans, we’re fighters. We just need to direct that fighting spirit toward keep our internet accessible to all in our country. What if this repeal of net neutrality and rebuke by our leaders of an open internet sparked a rise in mesh networks? Clearly there are questions remaining, and only time will tell, but we may not be totally doomed after all.

This article was written by Michael Putnam, Writer at MIMIR Blockchain Solutions.

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