workshop // Othernet, Alternet, Darknet

Once more, thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you about “Other Networks” and give a workshop on “Othernet, Alternet, Darknet // the Past, Present, and Future of Alternate Networks.” In preparation for today’s workshop I suggested you read “Against the Frictionless Interface! An Interview with Lori Emerson” and “What’s Wrong With the Internet & How to Fix It: An Interview with John Day.”

Before I build on these readings with a more extensive discussion of TCP/IP, I would like to discuss what it currently means to be on the Internet for many people and then show you a couple tools that make it alarmingly clear the way in which profit and capital saturates every single one of our clicks online. To that end, I’d like you to download a couple revealing extensions to your Chrome browser and/or an add-on to your Firefox browser to clearly visualize what’s happening when you’re on the web ; I use both browsers so I encourage you to download both but it’s also fine if you just want to play with one

  • open up Firefox and install Lightbeam – an add-on that “shines a light on who’s watching you” by way of interactive visualizations that show you the first and third party sites you’re often unwittingly interacting with on the web
  • now open up Chrome and install Disconnect – a browser extension that stops major third parties from tracking the webpages you go to
  • have any of you used these tools before? anything revealing or surprising?

Now I’d like to talk about alternatives to the current structure of the Internet, beginning with a brief overview of how TCP/IP itself could have been different (picking up the interview with John Day), leading to a different present-day Internet, and then moving on to contemporary projects and platforms you might use to get off or disrupt the Internet. I will touch on the following:

  • how thinking about the past and present of networks could be a way to imagine the future of our connected lives
  • how excavating the knowledge/power structures underlying TCP/IP can denaturalize that monolith “the Internet” and help us think about how the Internet could be otherwise. In particular, I discussed:
    • how TCP/IP was created to benefit the free market, not necessarily to exemplify democratic ideals of freedom and openness
    • the result of intense, complex political wrangling between communities of engineers, industry workers, and representatives who were almost uniformly white, middle class men often from the same school or neighborhood
    • how the protocol is based on concepts of blackboxing and layering taken from the design of operating systems rather than networks
    • how there were and still are alternatives to TCP/IP such as RINA that could potentially make the Internet work better than it currently does


With this groundwork, I would like to use the rest of the workshop to think as expansively, broadly, and imaginatively about what an alternative Internet might look like – one that we built ourselves, imagining for the moment that we can build whatever structure we dream up.  Here, then, are some contemporary examples of Other Networks I would like you to explore and/or experiment with:

  • Netless, created by Danja Vasiliev
  • Alternet, created by Sarah T. Gold
  • Firechat, created by Open Garden
    • create an account, see if you can find the #OtherNetworks chatroom I created, and start talking to each other
  • PirateBox, created by David Darts
    • if there’s time, I will demo a PirateBox I built to prove to you that even the most inept Internet user can do it
  • Tor, created by the United States Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA
    • read my notes and warnings below, download Tor, and try accessing the links I include below

Because Tor has become synonymous with criminal activity, for the sake of educating you, here is a bit more on what Tor is and why you might like to use it. Tor is primarily a privacy network that allows you to access the surface Internet without being tracked; it also allows you to access the deep web/darknet – any site or material that’s on the Internet but not indexed by search engines; keep in mind that most of the deep web/darknet is dedicated to innocent forums, blogs, essays and so on; because of the protection it offers, the darknet is attractive to activists in oppressive regimes as well as government agencies.

Why use Tor? While the Tor browser will work much slower than Chrome or Firefox, if you value privacy or if you would like to find a way to circumvent the online tracking we discussed earlier, you might like to give it a try. You might also give it a try if you would like to become a more informed, more active Internet user.

Some warnings:

    • not surprisingly, Tor does not guarantee perfect anonymity; if you don’t use a Virtual Private Network in addition to Tor, people can still see you’re using Tor even if they can’t necessarily see what sites you’re visiting; hopefully it goes without saying that you shouldn’t use a university VPN – instead consider purchasing the very inexpensive IPVanish and take a look at tips here and here to understand better how VPN works with Tor
    • don’t Torrent over Tor and especially don’t use BitTorrent and Tor together
    • according to the Tor website, avoid opening  .doc and .pdf documents while on Tor as there seems to be a way to reveal your IP address once you do this
    • try to use HTTPS versions of websites; Tor encrypts your traffic to and within the Tor network but to ensure encryption at your final destination, try to also use the HTTPS Everywhere extension
    • to make sure you’re not tracked down if you inadvertently visit a website that’s criminal in nature, turn off scripts and plugins in the Tor options (according to their website, you do this by clicking the button just before the address bar).
    • be very cautious about clicking on links on Tor – try to only use known directories to reach authenticated destinations.

Here are a very few safe Tor links that have worked for me:

  • search engine TORCH at http://xmh57jrzrnw6insl.onion/
  • search engine DuckDuckGo at http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/
  • the first issue of a Tor-hosted literary journal, The Torist (pdf) at http://toristinkirir4xj.onion/issue1.pdf
  • and, surprisingly, Facebook! at https://www.facebookcorewwwi.onion

If you’d like to continue thinking about these issues post-workshop, one place to start is to think about the repercussions of the underlying structure of the Internet – especially in the context of how the structure might create a certain power dynamic that excludes (women, minorities, underprivileged communities, those who are less technically savvy) more than it includes. Questions I’ll leave you with:

  • What does a cooperatively owned Internet look like and why might we want one? If you need help getting started, consider checking out Platform Cooperativism.
  • What does a non-profit, non-commercial network look like?
  • What does a feminist network look like? Can the Internet be feminist? These 15 “Feminist Principles of the Feminist Internet” might help you get started.  You might also like to look at this interview with Jac sm Kee who has been deeply involved in the Association for Progressive Communication’s (APC) Women’s Rights Programme; Kee states that “to start, a feminist Internet is one where everyone has universal, equal and meaningful access to an open and transformative Internet to enable the exercise of all of our rights, to play, to create, to form communities, to organize for change, in freedom and pleasure.”