You’ve heard a lot about decentralization lately, but what exactly is decentralized internet? And what do people want when they seek it?
The internet comprises a network of networks, and if one piece fails, the internet as a whole still continues to function. You may have experienced times when you could not log into your internet account, for example. Perhaps a server crashed. Or maybe a cable disconnected. But when you logged in again you saw the internet continued to function without you. And so the world turns. The internet exists as a decentralized structure, to begin with.
Some aspects of the internet operate under a centralized authority, however. If you want to publish a new website, for example, you have to purchase a domain name from a provider because a central authority controls domain names.
But do people clamor for the peer-to-peer administration of domain names? Do people even think about domain name administration? Let’s take a closer look.
The internet defines an infrastructure, similar to plumbing or an electric grid. A plumbing system maintains a reservoir of potable water and a network of pipes and controls. If a new house desires running water, a protocol exists to bring that house water. Thus it is with the internet.
Are users demanding new plumbing, though? When people turn their computers on, the internet connects, business transacts, everything functions normally, and that appears to be sufficient for most of the population.
The World Wide Web
When people talk about a decentralized internet, sometimes it sounds more like they’re referring to the world wide web. Tim Berners-Lee created the web in 1989, and it operates as a layer on top of the internet. It functions primarily as a user interface and provides browsers and links so people can navigate to websites.
You may be thinking that a decentralized internet could bring a better user interface then. But anyone experiencing the user interface of typical cryptocurrency wallets and blockchain sites might well be skeptical.
The web implemented a number of design choices reasonable people might well argue against. But centralization hardly ranks as an issue. Users freely choose their own browser. They decide if they want a browser from a large centralized corporation like Microsoft or Google or from a smaller product like Tor.
The Tor Project
People who ask for a decentralized internet look for privacy and control of their own data.
Computer scientists founded the Tor Project in December of 2006 with the mission of enabling anonymous communication. Obviously, anonymous communication enforces privacy. Tor, an acronym for “the onion router,” protects against network surveillance and traffic analysis.
The onion router provides anonymity with an algorithm of layers along the route of communication. Each layer only knows about the layer before it and the layer after it. The origin and final destination remain unknown to the intervening layers. In cryptocurrency, some privacy coins such as Monero implement a similar algorithm.
Tor publishes many products, including the Tor browser. The Tor browser builds on the same foundation Firefox uses, and Tor provides it as free and open source software. But nothing ever really comes for free.
Users of corporate browsers pay by allowing those corporations to harvest user data. Users of the Tor browser pay primarily with slower response times and a generally more cumbersome user experience. Besides, some websites require user login accounts, so you provide your identity to them anyway.
Targeted advertising arises as one of the more annoying aspects of providing your personal information on the internet. Every purchase you make defines an exploitable aspect of your personality, and advertisers hound you ever after.
OpenBazaar provides an online peer-to-peer marketplace with no middlemen and no fees for using the platform. You buy and sell on OpenBazaar by downloading their app. This makes you a node on the network, and unlike traditional e-commerce sites, no central authority rules.
You can make payments with over fifty different cryptocurrencies. And your transactions are secure and anonymous.
To avoid scams and ensure customer satisfaction, OpenBazaar utilizes a feature of Bitcoin known as multi-signature escrow. The buyer and seller agree to a mutually trusted third party before transacting business. The payment goes to an escrow account. If the transaction satisfies both buyer and seller, the funds are released. In the case of a dispute, the trusted third party settles the matter.
Floating Above the Cloud
The internet reigns as a platform for conducting business, and consequently businesses move to decentralization through cloud computing. The cloud services organizations by providing virtual, configurable computing resources. This means companies don’t need to own their own servers and mainframes (known in the industry as “big iron”), and they do not need to purchase resources from a physical data center.
Cloud providers allow users to create and configure virtual computers in software. Users thereby create servers as powerful or modest as their needs dictate.
But the cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure own the massive amount of equipment required for this task. And although the cloud frees businesses of the need to purchase and maintain their own big iron and servers, cloud services are expensive.
Can Decentralized Blockchain Computing Replace the Cloud?
The simplest service provided by cloud computing has to be disk space for file storage. Put a file on a system on the cloud, then retrieve it later.
In a blockchain file storage scenario, a peer-to-peer network exists. Nodes with excess disk capacity lease disk space to customers. Customers then upload, store, and download files as needed. Users pay with cryptocurrency on a blockchain. Customer files are encrypted, preventing the host or anyone else from reading private data. The files are also broken into multiple parts and distributed across multiple nodes. This distribution also enforces privacy since a host only has a fragment of the user’s information.
Note that in this process, no centralized authority controls or sells the disk space. Peers sell available disk space to other peers.
Multiple companies now provide platforms for storage using decentralized blockchains. The Sia Storage Platform launched in 2015, and Siacoin powers commerce on their network. Similarly, Storj also provides decentralized storage and uses Storj coin. Finally, the Filecoin project developed by Protocol Labs represents another popular choice.
Decentralized Internet – Concluding Thoughts
To some extent, decentralization resides in the eye of the beholder.
The blockchain network for Bitcoin is decentralized in terms of the consensus algorithm. But given the cost of hardware resources and electricity, wealth is required to mine it. And simple common sense tells us the majority of Bitcoin wealth is centralized in a relatively few affluent early adopters.
When people speak of a decentralized internet, the gist of the matter seems to be the lack of privacy on the web, the lack of control over our personal data, and the desire for affordable resources.
No one product defines the decentralized internet, but blockchain technology provides at least some capabilities to achieve these goals in a variety of functional areas. Time will tell if the products on offer meet user expectations or not.