Exploring a business model where startups are challenging the whole governments to heal the world faster than charities.
What my Internet looks like
Hi, my name is Pyotr. I’m from Russia. I use VPNs so you can easily reach me on LinkedIn and Reddit. You can also text me in Telegram because I’m using it’s proxies.
I have a sophisticated system of passwords. I prefer pin-code for my phone over touch id. My disks are encrypted. I’m hiding all sensitive data with double bottom to protect it from thieves and (more importantly) from those who swore to protect me from thieves.
Yes I’m a bit paranoid, but… People are getting jailed just for likes and reposts. So I guess I do have a real danger of being arrested for the kind of shit I’m going to discuss here. Nothing will stop then an officer to “use” my finger (no, no, not separately from me, not that bad) to unlock my phone and get evidence against me.
With all these measures I’m still risking. But I value freedom and truth more.
I’m not unique
Not at all. In Russia — and I believe in many other countries with authoritarian leadership — almost everyone who deals with Internet (meaning everyone) feels a bit constrained. The only way to feel free is to use some or all of the means described above.
From one side it’s getting worse. Services get banned. Telegram, LinkedIn, archive.org, deviantart.com and many other seemingly random websites, like PornHub and the new design of Reddit (old.reddit.com is fine — try figure out the criteria!) are all unavailable in Russia.
From the other side there is a technological response. Startups are already helping. There are literally billions of people who want to use services unavailable in their countries. Citizens armed with unstoppable technology are starting to oppose their own governments.
I believe a huge market is hidden here, underestimated both by entrepreneurs (in terms of income) and governments (in terms of threat). In this post I would like to explore its opportunities from an entrepreneur’s point of view.
This year’s telegram story in Russia is a good example of Tech vs Gov fight. The fight which made Telegram way more advanced, brought an army of new users to it and made them super-loyal. It shifted Telegram in peoples minds into another dimension, now associating it with resistance, freedom and hope.
On October 2017 FSB (Russian federal security service) asked Telegram to hand over users’ encryption keys. Company declined, payed $14,000 fine and found itself in a half-year-long futile debates.
FSB is above Constitution. They don’t care for free speech and the right for anonymous communication. They just need the encryption keys. FSB is above logic. They don’t care end-to-end encryption means Telegram even doesn’t have the keys. They just need the encryption keys. Or they will shut down Telegram in Russia.
On April 10th 2018 seeing argumentation is useless, Durov steps back and decides to send the “keys” in an “official” response to the FSB head:
Less than a week after another Russian bureaucracy beast — media watchdog RosKomNadzor — started blocking Telegram. The fight had begun. RosKomNadzor blocking millions of IPs every day, Telegram creating even more.
During the first couple of days over 17 mln ip-addresses were blocked. The number of Telegram users in Russia is 13 mln. Four million less than that! Another fact — 17 mln is 0,5% of all possible public IPv4 addresses in the world!
One just cannot shut 0,5% of Internet down without consequences. First, a lot of “good” Russian websites hosted at Amazon AWS, Digital Ocean and other foreign hosting services were down. Second, Google, Viber, Facebook — all started to have blackouts but stayed more or less available. Then Asana (task manager), Dashlane (password manager), Trello, npmjs.com were down. This was the point when I started to use VPN just to continue work on my charity blockchain project. After that came the total collapse. The Internet became useless. And not only Internet. People complained on ATMs and credit card terminals not working. At an apogee RosKomNadzor even blocked itself!
2 weeks after businesses were estimated to lose $2 billions. RosKomNadzor finally listened to major Russian media companies, begging it to calm down. The Internet gradually became usable. I still can’t imagine myself without a VPN though.
As it was often heard those days RosKomNadzor broke the Internet. But had it broke Telegram? Well, I couldn’t access Telegram for around 2 hours one day. Shame.
Aftermath of this battle
I believe by starting this battle Russian government made one of the most crucial mistakes in it’s modern history. They broke the Internet, damaged or destroyed business, wasted tax money. All for the battle with some phantom terrorists (but perceived as a battle for control over masses). Which is more important — they’ve lost this battle. Unsurprisingly it lead to protests and made the already growing antagonism of us vs them even stronger.
Not only in Russia
Technology evolves so fast that no government is capable of keeping up with it. The smartest ones cooperate and those who try to fight technologies fail. Startups have more competence and will always by ahead. Durov understands this asymmetry. He had a competence to see the robustness of his app. He saw no positive outcomes of negotiations with the officials. He saw the opposition leadership vacuum in Russia. And he exploited the situation, mocking the officials with “keys”, organizing the paper planes campaign, promoting provocative artwork and urging people for “digital resistance”.
A young smart outcast fighting the whole government. Can you imagine a better pr campaign?
Having poor competence in technology Russian government had only succeeded in creating an important precedent. It showed that WE’ve got something THEY can’t fight with — the unstoppable technology.
How can other entrepreneurs benefit?
A feature that helped Telegram survive is it’s MTProto proxies. It allows anyone to create a telegram proxy and invite advertisers. Advertisers in turn can add their chat to user’s chat list. While using proxy a user cannot unsubscribe from this chat. This way users are paying with their attention to get freedom of communication. Telegram gets unlimited source of new proxies.
A foreign company providing a service to resists the current regime. The regime can’t do anything about it. People are willing to pay for it. Providing basic human rights with unstoppable technology from an unreachable jurisdiction — sounds like a business model!
For convenience of further conversation let’s coin a term for it.
Freedom as a Service is too pessimistic as it suggests that you’ve already lost your freedom. Revolution as a Service is closer, but too romantic and suggests lost freedom too. What comes before you lose freedom and have to regain it through revolution? You resist. I’d suggest Resistance as a service (RaaS) is the best candidate.
Let’s keep the definition simple and broad enough not to limit our further thinking. RaaS — a service providing access to basic human rights.
Now that we have a term lets explore the business model further. We are still looking from an entrepreneur’s perspective. We need to understand opportunities and maybe generate ideas.
Demand is growing and self-generated.
Have a look at Internet censorship and surveillance by country at Wikipedia and try to estimate the number of people in those countries. There are literally billions of people. The demand is already huge.
And demand is growing. Any government has to defend it’s sovereignty. Foreign influence is a threat. Defense lines are trenched through means of communication. But these are the same means people and businesses operate on. Push too little and you’ll probably lose some power letting foreign ideas to leak in. Push too hard and you’ll find yourself slowing down economy and depressing people. Which may lead to losing all power in a more dramatic way.
A pragmatic solution would be to relax and stop fighting. Redirect huge fighting budgets into social programs. Doing good is the most cost effective strategy as one cannot influence a happy nation.
But the most important goal of power — is to keep the power. Oppressive countries tend to deviate into fighting. The more they fight the more the demand to resist the more they fight the more the demand to resist… This is what we see in Russia — positive feedback loop. The demand for resistance is self-generated.
More of unstoppable technologies are coming.
RaaS is possible with existing VPNs, torrents, IPFS and a variety of peer-to-peer techs. But true unstoppable technologies are just about to come.
Consider blockchains. With decentralization, trust, security and sometimes privacy out of the box blockchains got a crucial success driver — incentivization. People can actually make money by keeping the system secure. Mining is the simplest example. Telegram with its MTProto proxies created a platform where advertisers met proxy providers. Blockchains will unleash all kinds of unseen interactions like that. Durov is already there by the way with his Telegram Open Network.
Consider satellite or stratosphere Internet. It might be very close as Starlink, Project Loon and OneWeb are competing hard to deliver it. Today governments can only stop digital resistance by hurting themselves. In the nearest future there will be no chance at all. Unless somebody is considering shooting 650 satellites.
Add up open hardware DIY devices and you have a fairly good primordial soup of technologies to play around.
This mix of technologies is so powerful that frankly it scares me. I can imagine a world where governments are helpless (or even useless). No matter how liberal you are you don’t want a government to collapse. Let’s just gradually replace its functions.
Competitors. There are no pure RaaS solutions.
There is a VPN which advertises uncensored Internet as its main feature. There is Lantern, which is a peer-to-peer networking tool and FireTweet (“unblocking” twitter) powered by it. There is petitions platform change.org. These may be considered pure RaaS solutions.
But usually censorship circumvention and RaaS come as a byproduct. Or a service qualifies as a RaaS only for a specific group of people. Depending on where you are and what you are doing.
You can use Torrents or IPFS to download free music and videos, or you can share a book prohibited in your country. You can avoid ads with Tor network, or you can build a censorship resistant opposition website. You can use VPN to stay safe on public WiFi or you can reach out to somebody on Facebook from China (or enjoy the new design of Reddit from Russia!).
The mere fact that there are so few of pure RaaS is an opportunity itself.
Ideas. RaaS is wider than just an Internet access.
We have determined RaaS as a service providing access to basic human rights. This may sound a bit obscure, especially if you need no effort to receive these rights.
Here are some example situations for you to figure out what human rights are ready to be outsourced (maybe a better definition of RaaS is outsourcing government functions?). Sorry for the long and pessimistic list:
- a huge bully keeps beating bar visitors and security is afraid to stop him because he is from police
- a women tries to get medicine under sanctions for her son and end up in prison as a drug dealer (happy end story, thank God)
- all the money you’ve earned the last month now worth less than a loaf of bread
- 40 children killed in a shopping mall fire and no official is punished (damn it hurts).
- you return from a war and find somebody occupying your house, there is no record proving it belongs to you
- you don’t trust elections (or you’ve got no choice)
- you’ve got no identity
- you’ve got no Internet access (no device, no line)
These are still unsolved problems in many areas of the world. With technology and competence solutions may be simple and even profitable. This may sound cynical, but maybe it is the fastest way to make people happy.
Maybe RaaS can solve problems which cannot be solved by charity and non-profits. Maybe it is worth trying to figure out a solution in terms of for-profit? Try asking new questions. How can we provide basic human rights as a service? Or — another way of thinking — how can we outsource government functions? Can RaaS be more efficient and even more ethical than charity?
These questions may bring a lot of ideas. Demand is huge and growing. Resources are in abundance. Competition is little. And most importantly there is a great chance to make the world a better place.
Resistance never dies
If you are an entrepreneur in a safe place, have a cup of coffee and think about it. You probably got skills and resources to help a lot of people.
Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing — John Stuart Mill.
If you are a citizen of an oppressive country. Remember after one hope is gone there is always another one. Resist.