Censorship-Resistant Anonymous P2P Network Turns 20 *TorrentFreak
Peer-to-peer technology was in vogue in the early 2000s, with many developers building their own networks, protocols, or applications.
Napster was considered the poster child for these early developments but, soon after, iconic names such as LimeWire, Freenet and BitTorrent emerged. These technologies would grow to become game changers.
Outside of the computer, there have also been major developments in the real world. This includes September 11, 2001, when even the most avid coders were taken away from their CRT monitors. It would change history.
After the attacks of September 11, the world was in a state of shock and uncertainty. Terrorism has become a global threat and, in response, online surveillance has moved to the top of the political agenda. For good reason too – most people wanted the terrorists arrested.
At the same time, however, the range and power of the digital surveillance device have also raised concerns.
In this environment, a young developer named Lance James pondered the implications of increased online “surveillance” on the privacy of law-abiding citizens. In response, he came up with the idea of a network layer that would be anonymous and censorship-resistant.
It was a fairly unique concept at the time, but several other developers were toying with similar ideas. The US Navy, for example, was working on Onion Routing, which later became the TOR network. However, this code was not yet publicly available.
James, also known by his nickname “0x90”, was aware of these initiatives. He was already using the anonymous P2P platform Freenet for personal use. It worked well, but he was looking for a way to supplement this idea with instant messaging functionality.
“I’m very fond of codes and ciphers, and the problem of large-scale anonymity and cryptography,” James tells us 20 years later.
“I was a huge fan of Ian Clarke’s Freenet at the time, but there was a problem. I was unable to send a real-time message. I wanted to figure out how to fix this problem. He came to me at 4am one morning and woke me up and I began feverishly sketching on a napkin.
The Invisible IRC Project
In February 2002, James first presented his Anonymous Communication project to a wider audience at CodeCon in San Francisco.
“There’s a lot of study and reading about anonymous IRCs, it’s been long overdue. So we’re starting to do something about it,” he told the cypherpunk audience, before presenting an early version of the software.
This presentation was the start of a dedicated developer community that continued to improve the project. While James never intended to use the code as a political statement or tool, others have been more outspoken about what the goals of the Anonymous Network should be.
When anonymous developer “jrandom” joined in 2003, things started to change. The prolific newcomer had a clear vision of the technological and ideological goals of the project and began to take more control into his hands.
IIP becomes I2P
After a few months, jrandom took on the role of project manager and renamed it Invisible Internet Project or “I2P”. This rebranding was accompanied by a detailed philosophy document, which set out the future path and goals.
“InvisibleNet has formed the Invisible Internet Project (I2P) to support the efforts of those trying to build a freer society by providing an uncensorable, anonymous, and secure communication system,” the document begins.
In the years that followed, I2P developed into a network layer that allows applications to use anonymous connections. This prevents outsiders from tracing the source of the traffic, which could be chats, files, or anything else.
There are a variety of applications that use or are compatible with I2P. These include file sharing tools like BiglyBT and MuWire, but also IRC clients, routers, chat tools, and even cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Monero.
As an original pioneer looking back today, James holds no grudges. He’s the kind of person who likes to brainstorm ideas and see them grow, but he doesn’t feel the need to stay involved indefinitely.
Also, some people who joined the project early on had strong anti-government views and political agendas that the original developer was not comfortable with. While those outspoken voices, including those of jrandom, eventually faded away, James had made up his mind and was gone as well.
“So I left, amicably. It was about time because I was happy with the impact it was having on other projects, and I learned a lot about crypto. And the activists left, by the way, but I left because it was time,” James tells us.
Today, crypto and decentralized networks are all the rage, and in a way, James and his cronies laid the groundwork. Although I2P has its own shortcomings, it continues to fuel new projects.
After 20 years, James is proud of how his idea has inspired others. He is currently the CEO of Cybersecurity Intelligence Company Unit 221b and looks back on his beginnings with a sense of accomplishment.
“I’m proud that it lasted 20 years. I’m proud that this is a first of its kind even before Tor, and that it inspired action among cypherpunks to do (code) more and talk less. I’m happy with the development culture that inherited it, and I’m proud to have seen it used to strengthen conversations, turning adversaries into friends,” adds James.
To get a more complete picture of the evolution of I2P and the current state of the project, we also reached out to developers who are still actively working on I2P.
This includes ‘zzz’, who tells us he first got involved in 2005. He eventually transitioned from a user to a bug reporter and became more active over time.
When “zzz” started attending conferences such as HOPE, DEFCON, and CCC, meeting other developers on the team, his contributions grew even more. Today, he is one of the leaders of the project.
Although I2P has tens of thousands of active users at any given time, it remains a relatively niche project. However, ‘zzz’ believes that mass adoption is still possible but to achieve this, it would have to become easier to use.
“The need for privacy and security tools has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. Complex threats from governments and other actors are growing rapidly, and people need easy-to-use solutions.
“Our challenge is to offer I2P as a solution and spread the word. If adoption isn’t growing, it’s because we’ve failed to make it easy enough to find and use I2P. That continues to be our goal,” says ‘zzz’.
As you can see from a slide from zzz’s Hacklab presentation in 2015, these “marketing” issues are nothing new. That said, there is now a strong user base which, with a viral app, could easily explode.
Free and anonymous internet
Another person who has joined the I2P community is former LimeWire developer Zlatin Balevsky, who was also involved in the early Freenet project.
“During my years at LimeWire, I would occasionally ‘drop in’ to the I2P developers just to see how they were doing,” Balevsky tells us.
About ten years ago, when Wikileaks, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were dominating the headlines, he decided to get more actively involved in I2P as a developer.
“What excites me about the project is its vision of a free and anonymous Internet. For me, this is the real “Promised Land” of our time, and it is our duty to preserve it for future generations.
In 2019, Balevsky launched the I2P-based file sharing client MuWire. On his personal blog he wrote in detail about his personal life motives to start the project, criticizing the “monetization” element that poisoned the true purpose of sharing.
MuWire works well but there are downsides as well. One of the disadvantages of I2P is that it routes traffic through multiple nodes, which tends to be quite slow. However, there is steady progress on this front.
“In 2015, 30 kb/s was considered normal for I2P, whereas today we see speeds over 1 MB/s. And we’re not done yet,” notes the MuWire founder .
Looking ahead, Balevsky believes privacy will become more important over time. And while there are commercial privacy tools like VPNs, he sees an open-source, nonprofit solution as the best way forward.
Overall, the way I2P has grown and evolved over the years is quite an achievement. While many developers have come and gone, it continues to evolve. We can’t wait to see where it will be in two decades.