The internet was born from an ideal for information to be shared by all, with all, and was seen as the archetypal decentralized system. Today, however, commercialization by monopolistic and powerful actors has created a system in which we are shown information paid for by the highest bidders, and can only access what the wealthy and powerful permit. Giant tech companies, big businesses, and even governments now act as sentries who not only control what we can do, but have unprecedented capabilities to watch us do it.
This is not how it should be, and it doesn’t have to remain this way. Blockchain and crypto technologies, built on a commitment to achieve democratization and decentralization, offer a solution that could bring down the concentrations of power that currently govern the internet.
A Tarnished Ideal
In its genesis, the internet was a system owned by no one and everyone at the same time. This was a key reason behind its exponential growth — anyone, from anywhere, could create content and share it with the world. In that “Wild West,” neither governmental nor business forces were able to control or restrict the web, its users, or the information on it.
However, while the internet remains physically decentralized, it now depends on large, centralized services to support its critical components, such as web hosting, cloud computing, DNS services, social media, search engines and email services.
Arguably, Google Chrome is among the most popular web browsers in the world — Android smartphones, coupled with the ubiquitous Google Suite, all combine to give Google hegemony over the internet. Indeed, Mozilla’s Internet Health Report 2018 shows that more than 90 percent of internet users use Google Search. Other large companies have a similar presence in other areas, with Amazon dominating cloud storage and Facebook grasping hold of social networking. Part of the reason why these global giants are in this position is their unprecedented ability to observe what people do on the internet, and exploit that information for their own commercial and financial gain.
More sinister is the ability to determine and restrict what consumers can see and consume — search results are prioritized by advertising revenue and filtered by location and government, subtly concealing advertising based on consumer behaviors and demographics. Accuracy, fairness and relevance of information are abandoned in favor of popularity, price and commercial value.
By all means, this betrays the ideals upon which the internet was built. Everything we do is only by the permission of some central entity. Want to buy something online? You can, but only if your bank or payment processor pays the merchant on your behalf. Want to say hello to a friend halfway across the world? Sure, but only if Facebook relays the message for you.
Taking Back Control
First, we must make an important distinction between architectural and political decentralization. The former refers to the number of computers that make up a system, while the latter concerns how many individuals or organizations ultimately control that system. Blockchain and crypto technologies employ both to take control of information away from giant, despotic tech companies and put it back in the hands of users.
In a decentralized system, the internet is a community of users and a network of independent machines that power and host information. This not only removes central hands from the levers of control, but also makes systems more resilient to failures and hacks, while ensuring that there is no element of vulnerability.
Crypto tools already decentralize money transactions, among other things, and will be vital in the creation of a sustainable decentralized internet. They enable decentralized web hosting, while protecting against DDoS attacks by replacing centralized servers with thousands of nodes, each of which constitutes a small part of the website. This is the basis of architectural decentralization, and is a change that must occur, especially given recent notable data breaches.
This in turn enables political decentralization — handing back control of information to users. Distributed ledgers at the heart of blockchain not only protect against data breaches, but prevent companies that store information from using it for their commercial benefit, sharing it with governments, or selling it to third parties without user consent. By storing data across a distributed network, blockchain makes sure that individuals retain ownership of their information. Individuals have a right to own and, if they see fit, keep their information private and determine how it can be used.
A Challenging but Achievable Reality
Decentralization is the way forward, but there are undoubtedly several challenges facing the development of crypto-tech that must be solved if its transformative potential is to be realized.
Scalability is the most significant issue currently facing blockchain systems, and it is limiting mainstream adoption of the technology. Increasing privacy is also vital if user data and information are to be properly protected, given that crypto systems currently rely on pseudonymity, rather than anonymity.
Meanwhile, the biggest hurdle to be overcome is the sluggish adoption of, and familiarity with, the underlying technology. For a decentralized internet to re-emerge, users beyond the blockchain and crypto communities must engage with and support it, without being held back by a misconceived and cynical perception of blockchain.
Nevertheless, centralization cannot sustain society, and the decentralization revolution that has been quietly underway — for longer than you might think — is about to be turbocharged by decentralized technologies. The cryptosphere is bound by its unique ability for communitarian development and a common belief in using technology for the improvement of society. If anyone can make the decentralized ideal a reality, the crypto community can.