We are living in an increasingly interconnected world. Today, 4.1 billion people have access to the internet. And with every passing year, millions more are born into the world as “digital natives” with digital technology and the World Wide Web at their fingertips from early childhood.
But as the internet becomes more and more intertwined with our everyday lives, we must remember that it’s up to us to set the right course for the web’s future and to continue improving it. Today, control over the internet is increasingly centralized in the hands of just a few big tech companies.
Decentralizing the web through new technologies like blockchain and decentralized protocols can ensure that the web remains community-focused and user-oriented, just like it was originally intended to be. To see why, and to help envision how decentralization will build a better future for the internet, we have to understand how the internet first came to be and what makes it work.
So, let’s take a step back in time…
On October 29, 1969, Charley Kline at UCLA sent a simple message to a fellow researcher at Stanford University. It said “LO.” It was the very first message ever sent over ARPAnet, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network.
ARPAnet was an information and communication system funded by the United States military during the Cold War. And though no one knew it at the time, ARPAnet was the earliest precursor to the internet we have today.
ARPAnet, of course, was not without its flaws. Charley Kline’s first attempt at internet communication was only a partial success. His message was supposed to say “LOGIN,” but the system crashed before it completed the delivery.
But with time, the ARPAnet system was quickly surpassed by a faster, more efficient, and more reliable information network: the World Wide Web. Invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, otherwise known as CERN his invention gave the world some of the core information systems that power web connectivity today: HTML, HTTP and URLs.
The early internet built by these and other tech pioneers was decentralized, peer-to-peer, and mostly open source. And though most of the technologies that defined the internet were created over 30 years ago, they are still in use by everyone who accesses the internet today.
There’s just one problem: On today’s internet, we’ve lost the original vision of a decentralized and peer-to-peer information system. Instead, we’ve built a highly centralized web that obscures the internet’s original promise.
So, what’s wrong with centralization on the internet today?
The biggest problem with centralization is that it takes control and power out of the hands of ordinary internet users.
On the early internet, ordinary web users had almost complete control over the data they shared online. But on today’s internet, big data giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google are responsible for collecting, packaging, sharing and moderating almost all of the data circulating on the web. Data, the internet’s most precious resource, is concentrated in the hands of just a few power players.
The centralized web was more efficient and easily scalable than the earliest internet. But our current overreliance on a few big companies is incompatible with a truly free and competitive web space. Imagine going to the supermarket or shopping for clothes online and finding that every product was from the same brand. It wouldn’t matter whether you liked that brand or not; you would have to buy its products!
That’s what it’s like on the internet today. A few tech giants set the rules of engagement on the internet and everyone else has to play along. They determine the cost of entry for innovators, lock end-users into proprietary platforms, and control who sees, or doesn’t see, information on the web.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can build a less centralized internet, one that puts power back into the hands of every netizen.
How can we decentralize the internet?
The key to decentralization is new and emergent technology. To decentralize the web, we need to build new information systems that don’t rely on any central authorities and data middlemen. That’s no easy task, but already there are quite a few technologies under development that could power a revolution in decentralized information processing. A few of the most important are blockchains, decentralized protocols, and peer-to-peer technologies.
Blockchains, for instance, allow for continuous data addition by anyone in the network, all while simultaneously empowering the network itself to verify information stored on it in a fully decentralized way. Using blockchain technology, we can operate decentralized marketplaces powered by cryptocurrencies, develop new copyright- and notary-like services run on secure smart contracts, and build trustless programs called DApps that cut out big data middlemen.
However, blockchains aren’t enough to bring decentralization to its highest potential. That’s where new Web 3.0 protocols come in.
These protocols change the way we store and exchange data on the internet. Today, if you want to access a file, website, or any other piece of data, you have to connect to a centralized server, usually operated by a big data company like Amazon Web Services or Alphabet.
But these Web 3.0 protocols allow individual internet users around the world to host, share, and access data directly in a peer-to-peer fashion by distributing data ownership across the internet community. While blockchain allows for transactions of all kinds to be published and verified in a transparent manner, these protocols allow for information transfer in a decentralized way.
These new technologies, if used together, have the potential to improve the web on key issues like data privacy, censorship, innovation and network security. And once properly scaled and fully developed, the decentralized web could deliver free, universal internet access—and this is just a drop in the ocean of all the decentralized technologies that are coming to life.
Decentralization isn’t just an ideal—it’s a vision for the future of information technology and internet functionality. By decentralizing the web, we can create a freer, more innovative, and more democratic internet experience. It’s time to take the internet to the next level.
Henrique Dias is interested in powering the web through decentralized and blockchain technologies. He is a Software Engineer at Protocol Labs, working on Web 3.0 protocols including Hypercore and IPFS. His views are his own. You can follow him on Twitter.