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What is the I2P Network? How Does It Compare to a VPN?

If you’ve heard of the Darknet, then you’ve probably heard of the Invisible Internet Project (I2P) network too. I2P is an anonymous network layer that allows users to bypass censorships and to communicate using peer-to-peer technology. This means that you can access restricted sites and download torrent files, all while remaining anonymous because I2P uses end-to-end encryption.  

If this sounds familiar, that’s because you can do similar things with a VPN too. However, the similarities between the two “networks” end here. So, how different is the I2P network from VPNs? Is I2P an alternative to a VPN? We will get to the answers to these questions later, but first, let’s learn the basics of I2P.

What is I2P?

The I2P network has been around since 2003 and has been in beta version since then―it hasn’t even reached version 1.0 yet as of this writing. This could be attributed to the fact that the project isn’t privately funded. It is open-sourced and gaining popularity recently, so several developers might pitch in and help get it past beta.

I2P version

I2P is written in Java, but some I2P alternative clients can be used even without the programming language installed on your device. I2P will only run on Linux, Windows, OSX, FreeBSD, and Android systems.

Unlike other anonymous network layers, I2P is decentralized. This means that no single server or network is managing all traffic. Instead, each I2P user stores their content on their own devices. The result: other users won’t be able to access the content if the owner is offline. This dynamic also helps make I2P more secure since there are over 55,000 computers on the I2P network. With thousands of possible paths, it will be difficult for anyone to intercept any traffic.

I2P in the news

I2P became popular when Silk Road and Cryptowall moved their operations into the anonymous network. More people have joined the network, as shown in the I2P metrics portal:

Other shady marketplaces and communities have also found their home on I2P after Silk Road and Cryptowall proved that the network is truly anonymous—in fact, even more anonymous than Tor.

  • Silk Road: Silk Road is an online black market operating on the Darknet. It was a venue for selling drugs and other illegal stuff, and it first ran on the Tor network. Think of it as the eBay of the Darknet, but what you’d find here are guns, forgery services, and illegal drugs. The FBI and Europol were able to shut it down in 2013, leading to the arrest of the alleged founder in 2014. However, Silk Road kept coming back; in 2015 it went live again on a new home―the I2P network.

Although Silk Road went offline for good in 2017, it wasn’t because of the authorities. Whether it was an exit scam or due to stolen funds is up for debate. However, its short stay within the I2P network has made people curious about I2P. This is how Silk Road has made I2P popular as an anonymous and secure network.

  • Cryptowall: Another controversial community that found a home on the I2P network is Cryptowall. It is a particularly clever and appalling Trojan horse that can get into your computer through malicious emails. It hides behind your OS and adds itself on the startup folder.

The main purpose of Cryptowall is to encrypt your files using RSA-2048 encryption, a powerful encryption standard. To unlock your own files, you will be obliged to pay the people behind Cryptowall. Aside from being ransomware, Cryptowall can also steal your passwords and infiltrate your Bitcoin wallets. So even if you’re not willing to pay for your encrypted files, Cryptowall can still get your money through this means.

While Silk Road has been shut down, Cryptowall continued to exist along with other underground markets. Since 2014, Cryptowall has reportedly caused more than $325 million in damages with hundreds of thousands of victims. These victims are mostly from North America, ranging from individuals to corporations, medical facilities, and non-profit organizations.

Cryptowall infections

No matter where you are, the thought of being infected with this ransomware is frightening. What makes matters worse is that no charges were filed as the identity of the hackers behind Cryptowall can’t be traced. Well, that’s thanks to I2P.  

I2P vs. VPN: How are they different?

The I2P network and VPNs are similar in some ways―they both make users anonymous by using end-to-end encryption. Because of this anonymity, users can bypass censorship and download torrent files. However, the two have major differences, as detailed below:

I2P wasn’t designed for regular Internet browsing

The most glaring difference is the fact that I2P won’t let users properly browse the regular Internet since it is designed for the Darknet. Instead, users can only access ‘eepsites,’ the I2P equivalent of normal websites.

On the other hand, VPNs allow users to browse the Internet normally. I2P focuses on internal connections between users while VPNs allows external connections.

I2P is associated with communities with a notorious reputation

Because it was the home of Silk Road, Cryptowall, and who-knows-what-else, I2P is associated with illegal online markets. Whether it was intended for such uses, no one is sure.

On the other hand, VPNs started in a perfectly legal context―to allow employees to access work files remotely and securely. Though VPNs have also been used for illegal activities over the years because they can hide the IP address and identity of its users, such activities are rare. Nowadays, VPNs are primarily used to bring back online privacy to avoid the tracking move of ISPs and to access content behind geo-blocks.

I2P isn’t very stable yet

I2P has been in beta version for 15 years, and that tells you a lot about the stability and reliability of the network. It may contain undiscovered bugs and issues since its user base is quite small as compared to that of VPNs. Moreover, I2P is not privately funded; it relies heavily on volunteer work.

VPNs have been around for decades, and they have gone a long way in terms of features and functionalities. Besides, the quality of a VPN service relies on your choice of provider. Just like any product or service in the market, the competition assures you that you will get high-quality service with the right VPN provider.

A level of technical expertise is needed for I2P

While I2P provides in-depth installation and how-to guides, these materials are mostly written by developers and are full of jargon. Non-developers may find these resources difficult to understand. You also need to configure your browsers to be able to access eepsites. There are video tutorials available (such as the one below), but you still need some technical know-how.

With VPNs, you don’t need to do anything special after installing the VPN client on your computer or router. While there are advanced settings that you can tweak and take advantage of, all the settings you need to use the VPN are already pre-configured in the client.

Limited torrent files available with I2P

The amount of content available to torrent is limited to whatever content is available on the I2P network, a far cry from the vast options outside I2P. However, there are torrent programs (such as Vuze) that will allow you to access torrent files on the Internet while using I2P.

However, the main issue here is that you can’t access a file within I2P if the owner is offline. This limitation doesn’t apply to VPNs since torrent files are seeded within a centralized network, making it available to anyone, anytime. Here are two VPNs which do allow torrenting, as some restrict it:

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Is I2P an alternative to VPNs?

Definitely not. While I2P certainly has its uses and is similar to VPNs in some ways, it has limitations. If you are a regular Internet user who seeks online privacy while browsing the Internet or streaming movies anonymously, then a VPN is the better choice. This tweet perfectly answers this question:

A VPN will not only provide privacy and protection to your browser, it will also provide the same functionalities on everything that’s on your device. Thus, you can use a VPN regardless of the network you are connected to. That’s why the use of VPNs is highly encouraged if you’re connecting to public Wi-Fi networks like those in coffee shops, hotels, and airports. Check out three of our favorite overall VPN providers more, which excel in many areas which an I2P network simply can’t:

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