Our modern internet experience is the product of what governments want citizens to see. In most countries, that is harmless in practice, but in others, it can be a matter of life and death. Tomi, a collective of one hundred developers in eight countries, is building a new internet to tackle that, with privacy at its core. Michael Stahl explores what it might look like.
In China, peaceful protestors challenging the government’s COVID-19 restrictions have their foresight rewarded with imprisonment. A prominent Russian journalist blows the lid off civilian killings by the state and, like dozens of others critical of President Vladimir Putin in recent years, is murdered in her apartment building. After an earthquake kills tens of thousands in Turkey, police across the country round up citizens who post on social media, claiming the users spread fear and panic. The president of a nation that recently fought for democracy, Tunisia, passes a law mandating prison sentences for anyone who publishes information deemed “false” by state authorities.
These incidents and others like them have inspired an anonymous band of eight developers, leaders of a group they call ‘tomi’, to create a new internet. TomiNet, they say, “is a secure and encrypted protocol empowering journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens to surf the web free of government and corporate surveillance.” To ensure “community-driven censorship” of “illicit activities,” like those occurring in the nefarious corners of the dark web, tomiNet has formed a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) to set the rules.
“We give this power to the people.”
— Techno, core developer, tomi
TomiNet’s DAO membership currently numbers 1,500, according to one of the eight tomi core developers, who in conversation refers to himself as “Techno.” Dubbed ‘Pioneers’, the token symbolises their membership in the DAO, and is currently selling for comfortably over £2,500. Techno confirms that plan has always been to open up more DAO membership space in order to bring that price down and boost accessibility.
After all, they’re trying to create something that’s literally for everyone.
“We wanted to build an alternative internet in a way that doesn’t give this power to the few, to governments,” says Techno. “We give this power to the people.”
Not only are governments in charge of information access in today’s internet age, with many outright banning websites, social media platforms and other digital pages, but so are a strikingly small number of organisations. There are only 13 DNS root servers in the world — with most of them existing in the United States — which connect web browsers with websites by translating typed requests for page names into IP addresses. This is the tech that makes URLs work. For Techno and the rest of tomi, its concentration is highly problematic.
“In a critical time, the US military or police can just knock on the door and just instruct them, ‘do A, B, C, D,’” Techno says. A, B, C, D could perhaps mean “disrupt connection capabilities for a select group of websites.” Regardless, Techno points out that the current iteration of the internet is “not decentralised” and is nearly in the “full control of America.” To him, this creates issues with freedom of speech all on its own.
Techno says some of tomi’s leaders come from places “like China and Pakistan” where they have seen governments crack down on web freedom and general freedom of expression. A truly international project, Techno believes that an effort like tomi could be seen by officials in those countries as “a provocation” against their governments — hence the tomi founders’ anonymity.
“We think the project should be judged by the essence of the project and not by the people” behind it, he says, positing that Bitcoin might not have become the force that it is today if its founder’s name was known upon its launch. “Too many people would have wanted to attack him personally, and the idea wouldn’t stand by itself,” Techno suggests.
He describes all of the tomi core leaders as “veterans” in the cryptocurrency and web3 space. The tomi DAO is in place because the project’s developers believe there should be safety on the web, despite the censorship and bylaws that put off blockchain’s most libertarian enthusiasts.
“The question is, ‘Who is the judge?’ Is it some dictator? Or is it the people?”
— Techno, core developer, tomi
The new tomiNet, with its own browser, will be slowly rolled out so that the DAO will comfortably be in control of it, Techno says. Then, “if there’s a terrorist,” he says, “the people will take him out; if there’s a pedophile, then for sure the people will vote him out.”
“But the question is, ‘Who is the judge?’” says Techno. “Is it some dictator? Or is it the people?”
There are tomi tokens for transactions, currently held by about 7,000 people, according to Techno. They were made available for the first time in mid-January on exchange platforms like Gate and MEXC. The token launched last January at $0.10 and now trades at $1.60, peaking at $2.24, a hefty increase that Techno says surprised and overwhelmed even the tomi founders.
Every store on the tomiNet will be required to recognise and accept tomi tokens, which will be accessed in, naturally, a tomi-branded wallet. TomiPay, which has multi-chain storing capacity, already boasts 40,000 users, Techno claims.
People who surf the encrypted tomiNet will be able to retain their privacy without handing over their personal data to websites and their advertising partners. TomiNet’s builders are exploring a subscription model and, should that come to fruition, Techno says its users will have a safer and – sans pop-up ads – a more pleasant browsing experience. Those users who are willing to pay monthly for a web browser are promised the freedom to express themselves as long as they’re not bad actors — as judged by the DAO of course — and access to more online information, particularly that which has been blocked by governments around the world.
In addition to seeing their ownership stake potentially rise in value, if demand for the tomiNet increases, Pioneer members of the DAO will also be gifted, Techno says, a “sense of importance to their contribution” to the construction of the free tomiNet. Techno believes that three billion people, from countries like China, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Tunisia, and others where freedom is at a premium, should want to use tomiNet from the get-go.
“We will allow web2 platforms to very easily make themselves accessible to people in these regions,” Techno says. “If Chinese people want to use Facebook or YouTube they will be able to. We can encrypt their IP addresses and make it accessible to Chinese customers without allowing the Chinese government to block them.”
He says tomi is in talks with “mega content creators,” both individuals and “big companies that create news,” for partnerships. He notes that interest in reaching internet users from countries where censorship is ubiquitous, to varying degrees, has been high. As is his own interest. “People go to places with content,” Techno reflects. “If I have the best tech and I don’t have content, then no one wants to use it.”
Tomi’s DAO fund now boasts $11 million, which Techno says is strictly for “investing in the ecosystem.” There are a hundred or so people working on tomiNet, he says, in eight different countries: as well as China and Pakistan, they herald from Brazil, Estonia, Switzerland, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. Some clock in remotely, while others report to one of tomi’s offices, located across the world.
“We think it will lead to, I don’t want to say a ‘free world,’ but a more free world.”
— Techno, core developer, tomi
“It will take some time to build,” Techno says, “like the internet took time” — with its flaws it may be.
Techno and his compatriots have built tomiNet to thrive indefinitely. The DAO means that he leaders, who, as Techno points out, “won’t live a thousand years,” are replaceable, as their own replacements will be. Tomi’s leaders will, thus, always have to remain “on their toes” and “do a good job,” Techno says, or else the DAO can vote them out.
The plan is, with incentives like that, tomi will execute successfully on the vision, transforming how everyone uses the internet.
“With our tools, people will have the privacy to express their opinions, which we think will lead to a next generation with, I don’t want to say a ‘free world,’ but a more free world than it is right now,” Techno says.
When will tomiNet be deemed a success?
“When I see my sister just downloading the browser and just surfing the web to get information,” Techno says. “That the people using it pay no attention to its blockchain and the encryption — they shouldn’t care. All they should care about is the benefit that they are getting.”
“My sister is kind of the opposite from me when it comes to everything that has to do with technology,” says Techno.
In other words, she just about represents everyone.
Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His reporting has appeared in a number of publications, including Rolling Stone, Vice, Vulture, CityLab, and Huffington Post.
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