We are all browsing the internet daily, but what happens when you sit down to watch a video on Netflix? The internet is a fantastic invention. We would like to imagine that our internet traffic is always handled as efficiently as possible to give us the best possible experience. Sadly, this is not how it works. Consider this: you are watching Netflix, but your internet provider purposely gives you a reduced internet connection. You then go to Netflix to give feedback: “video quality is bad - I am changing to HBO”. Now to the clever part: The same internet provider goes to Netflix and offers: “we will sell you a better internet connection to this exact customer”. Netflix, losing a customer if they do not accept, has no choice but to buy the improved connection. Believe it or not, this happens every single day. This is one of many examples of how the highly competitive market of internet providers corrupts the quality of the internet. Here we will look at why this dynamic has taken shape. Then, we will see how new technologies can remove this non-compliant behavior from the internet providers to create a better internet for everyone.
When the internet was born, just a small set of routers controlled all routing. This set was called "the internet backbone". To acquire an internet connection, you would just connect to the backbone. All your e-mails, messages, and internet services would go to the backbone, which would route the traffic to the correct destination.
Simple enough, right? As the internet expanded, the load on the backbone became so large that several backbones had to be created. Today, those are called Internet Service Providers (ISPs): AT&T, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, and so on... For internet connection, you connect to the services of some of these companies, typically paid for through a subscription. But now the question arises: how do the ISPs decide how to route my internet traffic? Is it done fairly? Do I get the best possible internet speed, and could it be cheaper?
To route traffic on the internet we know today, ISPs need to cooperate. ISPs in different parts of the world are connected to separate networks. To read an online newspaper, you begin by sending an internet request to your local ISP. Now, this ISP routes your request through the networks of multiple other ISPs until the ISP that serves the newspaper is reached. The same happens in the other direction. While this may seem like a good way to organize the internet, we still have to be cautious of clever ISPs making questionable routing decisions. In reality, they are not always as compliant as we would want them to be.
There are countless examples of how ISPs route internet traffic in a suboptimal way for the end-users to maximize their financial gain. Let us look at one of them: if you have a subscription at ISP A and your best connection when watching Netflix is the route ISP A - ISP B - ISP C - Netflix. "Best connection", meaning measurements like lowest latency and least possible downtime on the links. Even though your ISP knows this is the best path, it still chooses to route your connection like this: ISP A - ISP D - ISP C - Netflix, giving you a worse viewing experience. Your ISP would want to do this because ISP2 is a direct competitor in the market. This leads to competitors losing out on additional revenue at the expense of the quality of your internet connection!
We have seen how our internet connections are maximized for company profits instead of optimized quality, so we need to ask: can it be improved? There are technical solutions that would remove these problems - if only everyone converted to that solution at the same time altogether - which is more or less an impossible task. Therefore we are left with two crucial problems:
- Find a technical solution that removes the possibility of maximizing profits instead of quality.
- Facilitate for people to migrate to the new solution gradually over time. Therefore removing the impossible requirement that everyone needs to do it simultaneously.
Removing the possibility of non-compliant routing
Because ISPs control the networks that make up the internet, we need to trust them to make the right decisions. But what if we did not have to trust them at all? Imagine if we could just verify that they are acting benevolently instead! This is precisely what the Zero Trust Model introduced in 2010 by John Kindervag is based on. Instead of trusting actors to do the right thing, we verify that they act as they should. While this may sound simple enough, it can be tough to implement. A solution could be a large-scale network of individual entities where everyone shares their latency measurements. This way, the network can calculate the best routes so that everyone can see the best internet paths. You can always verify that your connections go through the best ones. If an ISP routes your traffic suboptimally, you can choose the better paths. We no longer have to trust the ISPs, but can instead verify that they use the best internet paths by utilizing a Zero Trust Network.
How to get people to participate in the solution
Now comes the hard part. You have found a solution that removes bad routing with a Zero Trust Network, but how do you get people to use it? The network obviously would not work without people participating because you would not find better internet paths. ISPs could then continue routing your traffic for their benefit. The same holds oppositely as well. The more people that participate, the more improved internet paths will be present, and the harder it would be to route non-compliantly. To get people to join the network, we need to use the exact mechanism that makes ISPs route the way they do: economic incentives.
Creating economic incentives in systems that users only govern has long been a near-impossible task; the introduction of blockchains has, however, drastically changed this. Now we can create a Zero Trust Network on a blockchain, with the network itself distributing cryptocurrency to the participating members. All this without the need for any central unit to administer and secure it. Not only do you achieve maximum compliance regarding the ISPs routing decisions. You also get a trustless platform governed by the users themselves. As we talked about earlier, this also removes the need for everyone to jump on simultaneously. As well as a better and more secure internet, there is also an economic incentive to join. People can join the network gradually, so the internet slowly can migrate over to what it should be, a user-centric network for everyone.
This has been a very brief, simplified vision of how you can achieve maximum compliance on the internet with a Zero Trust Network. You would need state-of-the-art encryption and clever solutions for routing algorithms to achieve it. However, there is no doubt that ISPs are taking advantage of the current internet infrastructure for their economic gain. While this may have been the best solution to form the internet in its lifetime, technologies that allow much more intelligent infrastructure have now emerged. Technologies that are not as easily exploitable as the current versions. These include blockchains, routing algorithms, security concepts like Zero Trust Networks, and state-of-the-art cryptography. I hope this summary of how your internet connections are being exploited struck a nerve. And that also you get excited by how new technologies and concepts can create a more fair and transparent internet for everyone.