Launching the Interplanetary Database (IPDB)

Greg McMullen
Jun 8, 2016 · 5 min read

On June 1, in a Berlin venue complete with crumbling brick and towering graffiti, BlueYard Capital hosted its first Decentralized & Encrypted event. The event brought together the leading minds working toward a safer, more decentralized internet, including a closing keynote by Edward Snowden.

Breakfast before Decentralized & Encrypted, June 1, 2016 in Berlin.

It was the perfect occasion for the launch of IPDB — the Interplanetary Database. IPDB is a blockchain database for the decentralized world computer.

Here’s why we’re making IPDB, and where we’re going next.

The centralized internet

The internet of the mid-1990s promised a utopian world through a decentralized net. Governments and corporations would be dissolved. We would deal with one another directly and on an equal footing, free of censorship and coercion. No one would know you were a dog. We even declared the independence of cyberspace.

Then somewhere along the way, the decentralized vision was lost. Now, we live, work, and play on the centralized internet. Our identity, creative works, financial information, and almost everything else is locked into silos by companies who keep it under lock and key, selling it back to us or trading it to others. They decide what we can and can’t do with our own identity and ideas, but if we want to play on their centralized internet, we have to play by their rules.

A better internet — the decentralized world computer

There is hope for a better, decentralized internet. Decentralizing the internet means that no single entity owns or controls the computing infrastructure. It means that resources are shared amongst participants. And it means that individuals, not third parties, are in control of their personal information and creations.

Over the past few years, the building blocks for a decentralized world computer have emerged. Decentralized processing on platforms like Ethereum has enabled a wide range of platforms across a wide range of applications. Decentralized file storage is being offered by projects like IPFS, Swarm, and Storj.

The decentralized stack — but where is the database?

But what about a database, with the speed and queryability required for internet scale?

IPDB—the blockchain database for the decentralized world computer.

IPDB is two things: 1) a network operating a decentralized database, and 2) a not-for-profit association with the network forming its membership.

IPDB will be based on BigchainDB’s technology. It adds blockchain characteristics to a big data database—decentralized control, immutability, and the creation and transfer of assets. By relying on the big data database, it is able to achieve scale that traditional blockchains can’t. The network will be made up of nodes we call “caretakers.” The caretakers each run a validating node, and validate transactions sent in by users.

So what will those users build on top of IPDB? We see immediate applications in intellectual property, identity, fintech, energy, and logistics, but we also expect to see a world of applications we haven’t imagined yet. As pointed out by USV’s Brad Burnham at Decentralized & Encrypted, we are still in early days for decentralized applications. Trying to define it is a bit like trying to explain use cases for the internet in 1993. We don’t know what is coming, but we know it will be significant.

USV’s Brad Burnham and BlueYard’s Ciaran O’Leary at Decentralized & Encrypted, June 1, 2016.

IPDB Foundation — decentralization without dysfunction.

It’s hard to build a decentralized system that is strong enough to govern itself without falling victim to re-centralization.

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. There are lots of lessons to be learned. We’ve learned from the experiences of ICANN and the DNS, which survived the explosive growth of the internet but seems to have been captured by domain registrars eager to sell new domains like .sucks. We are learning from The DAO, the autonomous organization that broke records in its initial fundraising but now faces a number of governance issues. We are learning from Bitcoin, whose developers are struggling with the future of the network.

With these lessons in mind, we are putting governance first in our work on the IPDB Foundation.

The model we have decided on is a traditional voluntary association. This brings several advantages. It provides a legal personality, meaning the association can legally enter into contracts and act in court. It gives us time to focus on building policies and procedures that can eventually be implemented in code when we do move toward becoming a DAO.

Our “caretaker” organizations are at the heart of the IPDB Foundation. The caretakers carry out the mission of the association by operating the nodes, and are ultimately responsible for its governance. They elect a board of directors and vote on whether caretakers should be added or removed.

What makes a caretaker? There are a few important criteria. To avoid being captured by financial interests, more than half the caretakers must be not-for-profits or public benefit corporations. To avoid falling victim to one country’s bad laws, fewer than half can be from any one country. And most importantly, all of the caretakers are dedicated to building a decentralized internet.

Finally, we were aware that by starting out as a traditional organization, we may get comfortable with that structure. If IPDB is successful, board members may want to hang on to the prestige, and staff members may want to keep their comfortable jobs. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we have built a legal requirement into the IPDB Foundation articles requiring that it move toward dissolving the association and becoming fully decentralized.

Next steps

The coming months will be busy for the IPDB Foundation.

On the technical side, we will be rolling out our test network and working toward a production network. The test network can be reset at any time, so should not be used for production. It will first be used for internal testing, then made available to invited users, then finally to the general public. After that, we will roll out the production network, first for internal testing, then for invited users, and then finally IPDB will open to the general public.

IPDB Foundation technical roadmap.

On the governance side, we will be hosting a workshop with our caretakers later this summer. We will discuss processes and procedures for choosing new caretakers (and removing old ones), electing board members, and handling government requests for information or takedown requests. We will announce more information about the workshop soon.

There is a lot of work left to do, and we are excited to get down to it.

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