The internet is a shadow of its former self, and it sucks because it’s too centralized, Pirate Bay cofounder Peter Sunde said at the Brain Bar Budapest tech festival a few months ago. And he’s not alone. An increasing number of thought leaders, visionaries and technologists are worried about the centralized state of the internet and are exploring ways to bring it back to its days of glory, when it was decentralized.
Among them are Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, an army of blockchain experts and startups, and Richard Henricks, the fictional protagonist of HBO’s Silicon Valley.
But isn’t the internet decentralized already, and if it isn’t what’s wrong with it?
How the internet became centralized
There was a time where the internet was truly decentralized. Anyone could publish content on the web without having to rely on a specific company or service provider. There were many different options and tools, and they were on equal footing. The playing field was fair.
Theoretically, the internet is still decentralized. No one owns all or a considerable portion of the network or infrastructure that connects the world wide web. The same publishing and communication tools still exist and have evolved to become better and faster.
But the balance of power has been broken and they no longer have the same level of efficiency. Over the years, companies such as Facebook and Google have come to dominate the services that support the internet. These companies have a large share of users’ attention and data, and other companies pay them huge sums to improve their presence and have their content discovered on their networks.
In all fairness, they came up with innovative ideas and provided easy-to-use and efficient platforms for users to communicate, publish and discover content, which encouraged more users to sign up for their services. However, as they grew in size and power, they made it harder for others to compete in the space and acquired a near-exclusive share of their respective markets.
What’s wrong with the centralized internet?
Many things, on many fronts.
For instance, 20 years ago, the few people who would read news online would directly go to the websites and blogs of their choice. They were in control of the content they read. But now, according to a report by Pew Research Center, for most adults in the U.S., social media platforms such as Facebook dictate what news they should read.
Facebook now has more than 2 billion monthly active users. This makes Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, the unelected president of the largest country in the world.
Another example is Google, the undisputed ruler of web search, which processes more than 5 billion queries per day. Its name has literally become a verb. People trust it to answer their questions about everything.
This huge amount of power has turned these companies into gatekeepers of information and we have to trust them to use their power fairly and responsibly. For example, should Zuckerberg decide to turn evil and abuse his power to give fake and misleading content to the users, there’s virtually nothing stopping him. Or should Google decide to manipulate search results to favor its own bottom line to the detriment of its competitors, there’s little others can do.
That’s not all. There was a time where startups had the power to disrupt the tech landscape and push new ideas into the space. In fact, Google, Facebook and Amazon, still very young companies, all rose to power through by this same principle and are now among the five biggest tech companies and most valuable companies in the world. However, their growth has made it harder to recreate their success. For other startups that dare walk in the footsteps of Facebook, they either have to accept being acquired or suffer a slow and painful death as the giant exploits its user base and virtually unlimited supply of cash to copy their features and steal their audience.
What’s wrong with centralized architectures?
Another problem with current centralized systems is that they run on centralized architectures. Every internet company has its own data centers, where it stores user data and runs its applications. This entails some serious security and privacy concerns.
The recent data breach at Equifax showed how bad things can get when too much of your data is stored in one location. The security incident led to the financial and personal data of 145 million people finding its way into the hands of malicious actors. The credit reporting agency hadn’t even taken proper care to patch its systems and properly encrypt customer data. Another notable incident was the breach at Yahoo, which resulted in the loss of data belonging to three billion user accounts. Plenty of similar incidents take place every year.
Meanwhile, centralized architectures suffer from single points of failure. When the servers of centralized services such as Google Drive or Amazon Web Services fail, all the websites and applications that depend on them stop working.
Centralized architectures are also vulnerable to Denial of Service and Distributed Denial of Service (DoS/DDoS) attacks, because they provide attackers with a single target to hit. An example was the huge DDoS attack against DNS provider Dyn, which caused a massive outage of major internet service across the U.S. and Europe.
What’s wrong with centralized data stores?
Centralized architectures also give rise to serious privacy concerns. Users have little or no idea about what goes on behind the walled gardens of centralized services. Therefore, they don’t precisely know how much data these services collect about them and what they use them for.
Facebook often knows more about users than they do themselves. In one of the many creepy stories that have surfaced in recent years, a Facebook user found out that the social network knew about family relations that she had no clue of. In another case, a Tinder user found out the service has 800 pages’ worth of her darkest secrets.
There’s also the issue of who these services share their user data with. All major internet companies have record of giving away user information to government agencies without acquiring their consent, or selling them to third parties.
What happens when these troves of information fall into the wrong hands? Users of Ashley Madison learned the hard way when cyber attackers hacked the service and leaked the most intimate information of 40 million of its users online. The incident allegedly led to several cases of suicide.
More precisely, the problem is that users don’t own their own data and they surrender it to the applications and services they use. They’re effectively locked into these services and have no choice but to stick with them or else risk losing access to their data and profiles.
And let’s not forget that in centralized architectures, users become cogs in the wheels of a multi-billion dollar business. They’re only generating data for the profit of the service they’re using, and they earn no share of the revenue.
Where do we go from here?
A decentralized version of the internet would solve many of the problems that the current internet faces. It would prove resilience against cyberattacks by removing single points of failure. It would prevent data breaches by avoiding to store information in single data stores. It would improve competition by preventing lock-ins and giving users control and ownership of their data, thus giving them the power to choose and change services at will.
But how can internet decentralization be achieved and what are the new challenges it will introduce? That’s a long story best left for another post. Stay tuned.