The Web was Never Decentralized

Design Warp
Published in
14 min readJul 31, 2020

There are so many people today focused on “re-decentralizing the web.” They have a popular belief that when the web was invented it was a wonderfully optimistic vision of decentralization, governed by democratic principles and full of free information available through open access that all of humanity benefited from. They assume that originally all users of the web were well behaved and companies only wanted to help make the world better. Also, they think that somewhere along the line the web fell under the control of irresponsible corporations and governments and was contorted into the “broken and centralized” system that it is today.

The only problem with this narrative is that none of it is true. Zero. Zilch. Goose-egg. Nichts. Nada, なし。The web was never decentralized and the for-profit centralization and surveillance of the web started almost immediately after it was created because it was baked into the design. The web we have today is the logical manifestation of continually improving the original design. With almost no decentralized solutions for any of the nine problems of distributed systems, the global surveillance capitalism system was absolutely inevitable from the very first day that Tim Berners-Lee started writing code.

The web cannot be fixed. It cannot be “re-decentralized”. There’s not enough tweaking that can be done to make it more decentralized. The entire stack needs to be reinvented using fully decentralized solutions designed around the principles of user sovereignty to have any hope of making things better and if we did reinvent the stack, what would we have? I don’t think it would look like the web we know, but it would be better in every way.

If you’re curious to refresh your memory before the analysis begins, here is
the original proposal for the world wide web.

Diagram from the original World Wide Web proposal

Getting the Story Straight

I spent the day today grep’ing the internet for stories about the “re-decentralize the web” movement. There are many of them and nearly all of them repeat the popular lie about the original nature of the web. I found two exemplary articles to illustrate my point.

The first article is Brewster Kahle’s Decentralization: the next big step for the world wide web. Right away the author gets…