Blockchain is pitched as a technology to power the next iteration of the internet – the decentralized web, or web3.

Defining centralization

Before considering the decentralized internet, it’s important to understand how the internet is currently “centralized” and problems this creates. “Centralization” as the opposite to “decentralization” in today’s tech-speak refers to one or a small number of entities holding sway over a network.

Though no one entity controls the internet entirely, a small handful of very powerful technology companies exert the most control. Smaller entities follow the path of the larger technology companies, using similar methods of operation. All of these entities can be influenced by global regulators.

In this way, the current internet is centralized.

The problem with today’s internet

Since the industrial revolution, machines have been constantly developed and improved upon. This is an accelerating process as new technologies – such as computers and smart phones – and their use cases are created and implemented into our ever expanding society.

Given this acceleration, a new iteration of the internet, in the same way as we are moving from a digital era into one of artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain, is not a revelation per se. A move from centralization to decentralization would be, however, a marked change.  

For example, the internet’s creator Tim Berners-Lee was “devastated” over news of Facebook data breaches impacting over 80 million users and that Russian hackers had been able to influence the 2016 presidential election. The former issue may have been prevented had the internet been fully decentralized.

Berners-Lee told Vanity Fair the web had “failed instead of served humanity,” and ended up producing “a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

The internet today is dominated by a few large companies, known as the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google, with other companies like Microsoft and Twitter rounding out the oligopoly). The billions of snippets of personal data shared daily are stored on giant data servers in just a few locations across the globe.

Our personal data is incredibly valuable both to advertisers and less credible actors, and both are able to gain access to this information and influence our lives. Centralized data storage and control also leaves the internet more exposed to direct attacks like hacking.

“Just a few large platforms drive most traffic to online news sources,” explained a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Digital Currency Initiative and Center for Civic Media report, adding that these platforms “thus have enormous influence over what sources of information the public consumes on a daily basis.”

What is the decentralized web?

The decentralized internet has no need for central servers, reducing the issue of data being stored in few locations. In this model, the internet would rely on a network of many hosting computers, also connected by the internet, and widely distributing all its valuable data.

Each participating computer provides a “node,” contributing power and memory to a distributed storage network system for the internet. This model of a peer-to-peer infrastructure of nodes is used by a blockchain’s distributed ledger and offers the reason why blockchain could be the perfect solution to the challenge of how to create a decentralized web.

How could blockchain become the foundation for the decentralized web?

Blockchain has a peer-to-peer network protocol where stored data is shared across the nodes of the blockchain. Blockchain adds a ledger of transactions and even smart contracts, encrypted using the principles of cryptography. Though not necessarily essential in this use case, a blockchain also usually has a native coin or token which helps to verify transactions and data onto the chain and afford voting or governance rights to network participants.

“These types of code-based, structural interventions are appealing because in theory, they are less corruptible and resistant to corporate or political regulation,” said the MIT report.

Exploring the alternatives

“Today’s mega-platforms are built on top of the Web’s already distributed and open protocols,” explained the MIT report. “The real issue to address is this natural tendency towards market consolidation.”

Internet creator Berners-Lee has been working on a solution to today’s centralized internet himself. He has created the “Solid” platform which uses existing web protocols but where users can control their own data, storing it on a platform of their choice in a single “data pod” which is then used to integrate with every application or platform they use.

For example, a user moving from a web search engine to a social media platform would use their single, self-stored Solid data pod. In this instance, the user would only reveal the data they need to in order to perform the activity they were pursuing.

“Specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use,” said Berners-Lee, speaking of Solid in a recent blog post. “It allows you, your family and colleagues, to link and share data with anyone. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time.”

Blockchain decentralized web on the horizon

Blockchain faces challenges which could impact its use as a foundational technology for the internet, pushing its timeline out further for a truly decentralized web.

Currently, different blockchains struggle to communicate with each other and share data. Since no single blockchain is powerful enough, nor independent enough, to be a base for the entire internet, it creates an issue. If blockchains answer the question of interoperability then many connected blockchains could pose a solution viable for Web3.

Still, scalability is an issue. Even the most advanced blockchains, like Ethereum, can only process so many transactions per second. For Ethereum its 10-15 per second. Visa, by comparison, is hundreds of times more than that.

For a decentralized web, each search engine query or social media post would create a blockchain record. This would multiply the number of blockchain-based “transactions” by a huge amount. We can see from this how far blockchain has yet to go to power the web.

On top of interoperability and scalability challenges, any alternative to today’s internet faces the issue of adoption. Creators will need to address the question of how to convince internet consumers to change habits and move to new technology or platforms.

There is the question too of how to persuade companies to change how they build and operate their software and platforms since much of which is earned from the accumulation, analyses, and use, of billions of instances of personal data.

 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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