The United Nations (UN)—a forum of 193 nations—regards freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
However, disinformation—ie, false information deliberately spread to receive people—has been one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression and creates a loophole for organizations and governments to impose censorship.
The problem, the UN says, is that there’s no universally agreed definition of disinformation because of the diverse contexts—elections, wars, etc.—that spring concerns about disinformation.
The result: different governments and organizations make up their own definition and censor anything that falls within. This has led to the denial of, or limited access to, information in some parts of the world. Countries like China, Russia, Iran and Turkey have been criticized for censorship, including denying citizens access to certain information and content online.
Savvy internet users have sought ways to circumvent governmental and corporate censorship via tools, including virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Tor Network, that allow varying levels of a private and secure connection to the internet.
But these tools either do not offer foolproof privacy or have user experience flaws.
Tomi, a Web3 company, believes it has a more efficient solution to help people in places with heavy censorship and surveillance gain equitable access the information through its parallel internet dubbed TomiNet.
“What we are creating is an alternative internet network that we believe is what the internet would look like if it were created today,” says Techno Prince, a pseudonymous member of Tomi’s founding team. “When the internet was created, I am sure they wanted to allow freedom of information and speech, but because the architecture of the technology includes [internet protocols] IPs and centralized entities like [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] ICANN controls domain names, the result is that governments can, through IPs, know who says what, go after them and block websites.
“IPs are a big vulnerability in the architecture of the internet.”
Tor—short for The Onion Routing project — is the closest thing to TomiNet, says Prince. The difference is that Tomi wants to fix what it considers flaws in the Tor setup.
“Tor is the first meaningful attempt to free the internet, but they [made] a few mistakes; it became a darknet instead of a free net because there’s no governance to this network,” said Prince. “The result was that it became a paradise for criminals, pedophiles and other bad actors.”
Still, Tomi identifies the value of Tor’s underlying architecture and is incorporating some of Tor’s privacy features into its parallel internet.
“We are using the onion protocol’s IP encryption technology, but with our own blockchain-based [Domain Name System] DNS,” Prince said.
This is to alleviate the usability issues plaguing the Tor network. Onion addresses aren’t as easily readable as the familiar domain names; they are made of a string of 56 letters and numbers followed by “.onion”.
Prince said Tomi routes its onion-type addresses to traditional-looking domain names. The difference is that those domain names need to be purchased within the Tomi ecosystem. In essence, a news website that wants to reach readers worldwide without restrictions can buy a . com domain name and host a version of its website within TomiNet. Users can visit TomiNet websites via the Tomi browser.
In addition, Tomi hopes to avoid building a web space for illicit activities by introducing a governance layer. TomiNet is designed to be fully controlled by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO
Prince says the DAO is fully decentralized and on-chain and already has every possible governance scenario and processes hard-coded into a smart contract. In essence, the users will be able to vote on decisions ranging from censorship, treasury management, replacing the core development team, etc., and the smart contract will automatically execute the prevailing decisions. Tomi is building its network to be fully controlled by a DAO to limit individual influence.
By employing a similar architecture to Tor and adding a governance layer, Tomi hopes to build a parallel web that is both accessible to everyone and resistant to government and corporate censorship.
While this is exciting in theory, the project will likely encounter centralized resistance, potentially significant enough to impede its success chances. For example, the project could face some of the challenges that Tor has faced as well.
There have been instances of governments attempting to block citizens from accessing Tor. As recently as December 2021, Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor enacted a court order allowing it to mandate internet service providers (ISPs) to block the Tor website, which is the primary source of the Tor browser. In China, the Tor website is completely banned, and users often have to download the Tor browser via third-party websites. Tomi could find itself fighting these same battles.
There’s also the issue of competing with the billion- and trillion-dollar companies behind leading browsers such as Google Chrome, Safari, Edge, etc. Tomi would need a large marketing budget to have the slightest shot at challenging these incumbents and building a good public image for the project. And even then, success isn’t guaranteed. It’s unknown how consumers would receive it. Researchers have found evidence that individuals in heavily censored regions like China “generally do not expend significant energy to find censored or alternative information source ” in normal times. The desire to find censored information only heightens in periods of crisis.
Asked about these huddles, Prince said: “We are aware of the challenges ahead. When you weigh the potential gains of a truly free net for the world against the costs, it becomes clearer that it is worth trying.”