Dear citizens of the internet,
I am writing to deliver dismal news.
The world wide web — the internet you, I and billions of others rely on — is broken. Defunct. If it were an elevator, there would be an Out of Order sign swinging from its doors. And yet we doggedly persevere, convincing ourselves that the internet we’ve got is just fine.
We didn’t listen when the fathers of the internet declared their creation to be broken. It’s not that we didn’t respect Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf; it’s just that the truth hurts, even when it comes from such luminaries. So instead we buried our heads in the sand and our faces in Facebook and tried to carry on as normal.
A short, sharp shock
Oh, the warning signs were there alright, that everything wasn’t quite right in Internet Land. May 2013, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong with a trove of classified documents which revealed the reach of the global surveillance industry. That was a wake-up call alright. For months, we were glued to those headlines as dragnet operation after dragnet operation came to light, each eroding a little more of our privacy and personal freedom. The revelations have scarcely stopped since, with 2017 seeing the release of Vault 7, Wikileaks files revealing the extent of the CIA’s cyber warfare capacity.
We were going to stop using Yahoo, we averred, after it emerged that one billion accounts had been compromised. Google too, after reports emerged of the NSA tapping into their data hubs. Switch to an encrypted email provider. Petition our congressman for a repeal of warrantless surveillance. We had such good intentions. Empowered and incensed, we were going to take back our freedom and make the web a safer and more discreet place for all.
But then…but then nothing. Everything just petered out and went back to normal. It was as if nothing had ever happened. It’s not that we were lazy or brainwashed or incapable. It’s just that change is uncomfortable. Disruption is — wait for it — disruptive and requires new behaviors that feel alien at first. The status quo, on the other hand, is warm and comfortable. It’s what we’ve always known and, for all its flaws, it works. Sort of. Some of the time.
Sure, we’re forced to endure untrustworthy corporations selling our data to governments, and governments spying on our every action, and centralized databases containing our personal details being hacked on a regular basis, but that’s just the trade-off we make for the sake of progress, right?
Dear citizens of the internet, what if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way? That there’s a better way of doing business, one which doesn’t call for sacrificing your security or the convenience you’ve become accustomed to? There’s a new paradigm that has the potential to save us all and restore our right to privacy and security.
Yeah, you’ve heard that word before and you might even have experienced decentralization in action, whether it was purchasing a decentralized cryptocurrency or acquiring goods on a P2P marketplace. But when I invoke the D-word, I’m not talking explicitly about distributed ledgers. Nor am I talking about P2P platforms with a UX that looks like a command line and a 9,000-page manual to master. Decentralization doesn’t have to mean forgoing the comforts you’re accustomed to.
Rebuilding the web, one block at a time
If dentralization is to wrestle control from the oligarchies that run our internet, it needs to be workable. Nimble. Accessible. And understandable to the average layman or woman on the web. It’s a big ask, but it’s one I firmly believe to be within our reach. I believe it’s possible to leverage decentralization to create a better internet, one where the power resides with the many and not just the few. The decentralized web is all about handing data back to its rightful owner — the end user.
A place where everyone controls their own data and no one is beholden to monopolies, despotic regimes, careless and faceless corporations, hackers, scammers, and bad actors. Everyone who would like to steal, surveil, and sell your data in other words. Centralization also raises the question of who owns your data and the services you pay for. Do you truly own your smartphone, for example, or are you effectively leasing it from a company who can withdraw the service at a moment’s notice? As demonstrated by the case of Apple slowing the performance of its older iPhones, there are dangers with being beholden to a single service provider who calls the shots.
That’s not to say that organizations possessing your data is necessarily a bad thing; in fact it’s a basic requisite to doing business on the web. Suppose you decided to allow a charitable foundation to access your data for the purposes of making a donation, for example. On the centralized web, you are largely powerless to dictate what third parties do with this information. On the decentralized web, you’re able to consent to your data being used while still retaining control of it.
The difference is that decentralization allows you to retain control of your personal information, right down to determining where it is stored. Think Siacoin instead of Dropbox in other words: the same basic concept — cloud storage — but very different solutions. On the decentralized web, options such as Storj or Sia split apart, encrypt, and distribute your files across the network. Since you hold the keys, you own your data. No outside company can access or control your files, unlike traditional cloud storage providers. Other solutions include IPFS, a peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol to make the web faster, safer, and more open.
Nevertheless, it is imperative to be granted enough privacy to go about your business on the web, in confidence that eyes aren’t prying and spies aren’t spying. If the internet is your digital home then your data is your possessions in that home: yours and yours only, and certainly not be the property of ISPs, social networks, hackers, and governments to extract and freely trade.
Campaigning for better online security is one thing of course. Implementing it in a manner that is accessible and usable for the world at large is quite another. Developers and hackers possess the skills to use complex privacy tools, but these are off-limits for less tech-savvy individuals. What’s required is a decentralized set of tools that emulates the best aspects of the centralized tools we already have. Keep the UX, ditch the backdoors and sloppy security. Is it too much to ask?
Decentralized open source software can be vetted by anyone and used by anyone. It comes with no hidden surprises or privileged access. By encrypting and storing data on the blockchain, the reliance on a single point of failure — centralized databases under the control of one entity — is removed. Once we embrace decentralization, and start working together to make this model our default web setting, the rest will follow: the user-friendly OS, the users themselves, and with it the heightened privacy and security.
Ethereum is the obvious success story to date in decentralized computing, but it’s just the beginning, Web 3.0. The technical details will get ironed out over time, and each subsequent iteration will bring a series of competing and ever-improving platforms, each clamoring to achieve the same objective — to make the web safer for you.
Everyone has their own concept of privacy. Mine involves a web where I get to decide what information I share with whom. One where I control my data and my own sense of identity. A place where I can be sure my conversations are private and my email secure. Your own idea of private may differ, but I’ll wager the fundamentals remain the same.
The transition to decentralization won’t happen overnight. It will take time, technology and education. To become free, first we must want to be free, and to yearn for a better way of your decentralize life. Web 2.0 might be broken, but the next iteration doesn’t have to be. There will be false starts and setbacks, but what there won’t be — can’t be — is any going back. The decentralized computing era has already started.
Join it and together let’s make the web a better place.
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