Would you share your internet for cash?

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Orchid plans to make it easier for users in countries like China to circumvent restrictions
Orchid plans to make it easier for users in countries like China to circumvent restrictions

For those living in countries like China, where the internet is heavily restricted, one way to get access to the open web is via a virtual private network, or VPN.

These help obscure who you are and where on the internet you are going.

There are catches, though. You often have to pay to use a good VPN. Or you give up something else, like your data, privacy, or even safety if the authorities find out what you are up to.

One idea that hit my inbox earlier this week was Orchid.

Orchid is a system that gets people to share their own internet bandwidth in order to create one big decentralised VPN service, which people in restrictive countries can use. (Or indeed, people who just want to browse the web anonymously.)

Why would you do such a thing? Because you will get paid… sort of.

‘Credibility’

In return for a slice of your bandwidth you will receive a new crypto-currency – the Orchid Token – that might be worth something, someday.

Hard emphasis on “might” and “someday”.

“What they will be worth in the future… I do not know,” says Steven Waterhouse, chief executive and co-founder of Orchid.

“I’m not in the business of making forward projections. But we’ve sold rights to these tokens to investors in Silicon Valley, Europe and Asia. We will be selling more rights very soon, and some time in 2018 we’ll be doing a public token sale.”

The system routes internet traffic through several different machines before its final destinationThe system routes internet traffic through several different machines before its final destination

What that means is Orchid Tokens do not yet have a tangible value, but investors – including the extremely well-regarded venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz – have backed their future value with real money, to the tune of $4.7m (£3.5m).

It is just one of a number of new crypto-currencies that are popping up, modelled on the success of Bitcoin. Some show promise, but collectively they come with a warning: you might lose everything you put in.

“What I would ask people to look at is the credibility of our team and the credibility of our advisors,” says Mr Waterhouse.

“We’re very mission-oriented, we’ve had great careers in this space and a lot of experience.”

Whitelist

Assuming for a moment that Orchid Tokens become something people actually want, the system will work by combining bandwidth contributors and bandwidth consumers.

A contributor would be someone in – for example – London, who wants to earn some tokens by connecting his computer up and sharing out his internet connection so it can be used as part of the Orchid VPN.

Meanwhile, the consumer pays tokens in order to connect to the VPN. The user in London gets a cut of those tokens, as do other contributors offering up their bandwidth.

If you have alarm bells ringing in your head, I do not blame you. The prospect of allowing someone I do not know to route data through my internet connection is terrifying – who knows what they may view or download.

But Mr Waterhouse said they have built in safeguards against abuse.

“You might say, ‘Hey, I’m willing to access Wikipedia or Twitter for people in China, but I don’t really want to access some of these dodgy things’.

“I can change what I’m going to allow people to access. They can go to Wikipedia, but not something else. Those white-lists are things that you can create, or you can subscribe to one that the community creates.”

Or, Mr Waterhouse adds, you could take the opposite approach.

“You could say ‘yeah, do whatever you want’ – and you might get paid more for that.”

Not like Tor

The main stated use case for Orchid is for people in restrictive countries to get around firewalls, censorship and surveillance.

But in countries where internet use is relatively open, Mr Waterhouse expects there to be interest in Orchid as an anonymising tool.

However, he insists it will not be a place for illegal activity, which is known to occur on the existing anonymous network Tor.

“We don’t enable dark services by default at all,” he said.

He predicts the “good traffic” from Tor. People not using it for illegal purposes will migrate over to Orchid because it may be quicker, he believes – though that relies on Orchid having a large number of bandwidth contributors.

A lot of ifs and buts in there.

As I leave our interview, I apologise for pointing out the cliche “chicken and egg” scenario that Mr Waterhouse and his team face. Orchid needs contributors so consumers can connect. Consumers will only connect if there are contributors. And all of it relies on the Orchid Token being worth something, when right now its dollar value is precisely nothing.

A beta programme for the service launches on Thursday, and if everything stays on schedule Orchid will be open to the public in January.

Mr Waterhouse says he will quickly put many current VPN services out of business, but that remains to be seen.

 

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