A decentralized web would give power back to the people online
There is something not quite right about the internet. It’s not what it seems. On the surface it looks like a great boon to human freedom, where ordinary people who previously would not have had a voice can express themselves freely and form communities with like-minded individuals even if they are spread out all around the world. It looks like tool which allows downtrodden populations to spread the truth regardless of government controls, and to organise themselves against tyranny.
Once upon a time there was some small amount of truth to these naive and idealistic visions of the internet. They were always overstated, but still there was some truth to them. This is increasingly not the case. Governments around the world, including in western countries such as the United States or Europe, are increasingly cracking down on online free speech, and using the internet to spy on their entire populations. As people conduct social relationships in semi-public online forums which they would previously have conducted entirely in private, much more of our lives comes under public and government scrutiny. Meanwhile big business can increasingly analyse the ‘big data’ it controls about all of our lives to control us like Pavolv’s dogs salivating over the gruel they feed us through the media. Far from being a tool to promote freedom, the internet is becoming the primary tool of our oppression.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The internet really can be all of those things which we once dreamed that it was. We just need to decentralize it.
Recently, Google launched a video calling tool (yes, another one). Google Hangouts has been sidelined to Enterprise, and Google Duo is supposed to be the next big thing in video calling.
So now we have Skype from Microsoft, Facetime from Apple, and Google with Duo. Each big company has its own equivalent service, each stuck in its own bubble. These services may be great, but they aren’t exactly what we imagined during the dream years when the internet was being built.
The original purpose of the web and internet, if you recall, was to build a common neutral network which everyone can participate in equally for the betterment of humanity. Fortunately, there is an emerging movement to bring the web back to this vision and it even involves some of the key figures from the birth of the web. It’s called the Decentralised Web or Web 3.0, and it describes an emerging trend to build services on the internet which do not depend on any single “central” organisation to function.
So what happened to the initial dream of the web? Much of the altruism faded during the first dot-com bubble, as people realised that an easy way to create value on top of this neutral fabric was to build centralised services which gather, trap and monetise information.
Search Engines (e.g. Google), Social Networks (e.g. Facebook), Chat Apps (e.g. WhatsApp) have grown huge by providing centralised services on the internet. For example, Facebook’s future vision of the internet is to provide access only to the subset of centralised services it endorses (Internet.org and Free Basics).
Meanwhile, it disables fundamental internet freedoms such as the ability to link to content via a URL (forcing you to share content only within Facebook) or the ability for search engines to index its contents (other than the Facebook search function).
Web 3.0: Decentralized Internet Projects
The Decentralised Web envisions a future world where services such as communication, currency, publishing, social networking, search, archiving etc are provided not by centralised services owned by single organisations, but by technologies which are powered by the people: their own community. Their users.
Creating a new internet infrastructure which is decentralized has a number of benefits. Because there is no central authority, or central computer server, which is ‘in charge’ of running a service or website there is nobody the government can go to if they want to censor information which they don’t like. This makes decentralized technologies heavily censorship resistant. This also means that instead of a company being in charge of your data — and therefore being able to use it for their own nefarious purposes behind your back — your data is encrypted and held across a distributed network in a form only you can access. This means that a decentralized internet is likely to have higher privacy standards than our currency technology allows for. The lack of central servers also makes it harder for hackers to break into the sites you use and steal things.
The economics of a decentralized internet are also interesting, as it opens up the possibility for ordinary users of a network to contribute towards its upkeep, and potentially even earn a profit for doing so. The use of another decentralization technology — cryptocurrency — is usually suggested as a way to do this.
Just as the internet itself triggered a grand re-levelling, taking many disparate unconnected local area networks and providing a new neutral common ground that linked them all, now we see the same pattern happening again as technology emerges to provide a new neutral common ground for higher level services. And much like Web 2.0, the first wave of this Web 3.0 invasion has walked among us for several years already.
Additionally, the enthusiastic presence of Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Brewster himself and many others of the old school of the internet at the summit showed that for the first time the shift to decentralisation had caught the attention and indeed endorsement of the establishment.
Tim Berners-Lee said:
The web was designed to be decentralised so that everybody could participate by having their own domain and having their own webserver and this hasn’t worked out. Instead, we’ve got the situation where individual personal data has been locked up in these silos. […] The proposal is, then, to bring back the idea of a decentralised web.
To bring back power to people. We are thinking we are going to make a social revolution by just tweaking: we’re going to use web technology, but we’re going to use it in such a way that we separate the apps that you use from the data that you use.
As the Decentralised Web attracts the interest and passion of the mainstream developer community, there is no telling what new economies will emerge and what kinds of new technologies and services they will invent. The one certainty is they will intrinsically support their communities and user bases just as much as the interests of their creators.