Peer-to-peer networking tools, like Lantern and uProxy, are increasingly important for circumventing Internet censorship rules. But this strategy isn’t actually very new, as GNUnet, an open source peer-to-peer connectivity tool developed since 2001, makes clear.
GNUnet establishes a mesh network with no central control point. That lets users skirt traditional gateways that Internet censors could use to censor traffic. It provides robust encryption features and supports a variety of transport protocols, including tcp, udp, http and https. It is also compatible with both IPv4 and IPv6 networks.
In addition, GNUnet provides its own alternative to the Domain Name System, or DNS. Rather than relying on centralized servers to resolve domain names, users can set up their own DNS zones. That helps protect their online activity from being monitored.
While GNUnet’s support for many protocols means it could theoretically be used to circumvent censorship for most types of Internet traffic, its primary use to date has been for file sharing. Users can send and receive files using URIs, providing a way to share information anonymously and without being subject to Internet censorship rules.
In the future, GNUnet may also become a new platform for private chats that are free of government censorship. A 2013 thesis outlined how to use GNUnet to provide secure, encrypted chat service. Because conversations would be secured at the network layer rather than only by a chat app or protocol, GNUnet chats could provide more robust security than other secure chat platforms.
In addition, because GNUnet’s mesh network provides a solution around censorship rules, chats conducted over GNUnet would have the benefit of working in situations where governments limit individuals’ Internet access or attempt to block certain protocols, including those used for chatting.
For now, however, GNUnet chats remain more in the realm of theory than practice. More generally, GNUnet is much harder to configure than similar peer-to-peer anti-censorship tools, and is probably only well suited to users with advanced technical expertise — but for those who do learn to use the system, GNUnet can provide a very high level of security and anonymity for combating online censorship.