The Decentralized Web Is Coming


Google and Facebook topping the global
digital advertising market last year. You’re seeing this incredibly large company getting involved in almost every area of commerce. The big tech media companies they’re
actively silencing conservatives. What I’m saying is we gotta break these guys apart. You want to run a platform? That’s fine. You don’t get to run a whole bunch of the businesses as well. Google handles 88% of search traffic in America. Facebook has more than 2.4 billion active monthly users, and it’s projected that half of U.S. online retail will go through Amazon by 2020. There are calls from both sides of the aisle to break up the tech giants, to strip them of liability protections for what others say on their platforms, and to impose new regulations that would stop them from misusing the personal information of their customers. But there’s also a growing movement among some of the web’s pioneering thinkers and software developers to come up with technological solutions to countering the growing power of Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google. The goal is to build a new decentralized web. There are so many different possible ways of decentralizing the internet and what’s lacking is the legal right to interoperate, and the legal support to stop dirty tricks from preventing you from exercising that legal right. Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author and tech journalist at Boing Boing, who’s been thinking and writing about the web since it was introduced by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s. Berners-Lee and other web pioneers, Doctorow points out, intended for their creation to be decentralized, and open source. The cyber utopian view was not merely that seizing the means of information would make you free, but that failing to do so would put you in perpetual chains. Well there are a lot of reasons to want a more decentralized, diffused, pluralistic, Internet. It’s hard to imagine that anyone is competent to make great decisions for two and a half billion people. Is there any reason to seriously doubt that this will just take care of itself? That more people will do what you have done and log off Facebook? The collective-action problem of everyone deciding that it’s time to leave Facebook, is a really hard one, and as we see it’s not getting easier because even when you do leave Facebook, by and large, you end up on a service that’s owned by Facebook. There are many theories about why the web became centralized. Doctorow largely blames the abuse of intellectual property law to defeat the decentralized free software movement, which was championed by the activist and programmer Richard Stallman, who helped create the popular open-source operating system Linux. But today hackers are divided between the old values and the new. Imagine if you bought a house, and the basement was locked and only the original building contractor had the key. If you needed to make any change, repair, anything, you have to go to him. And if he was too busy doing something else, he’d tell you to get lost and you’d be stuck. When Richard Stallman walked into a lab at MIT and found that someone had put a lock on the drawer where they kept the paper tapes for the computer and he was like what do you mean, I can’t take that paper tape out and change the holes punched in it? I’m a computer scientist, I’m gonna recreate all of the holes in that paper tape and make a clone of Unix. Passed in 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act became an impediment to the open and permissionless approach to software development. The law was intended to prevent duplication of Hollywood movies but it was eventually applied to all software. Breaking digital locks to learn from and approve upon the code of dominant web platforms became a federal crime. Today’s tech companies use IP to shield their proprietary code from would-be competitors. And so this thicket of exclusive rights around products that can be invoked to prevent new entrants from making add-ons, compatible products, or even competing products, has made it very hard for new entrants to emerge and I think is in large part responsible for the concentration in the industry and all of that thicket exists today because people who made their money as insurgents, spent that money to keep their newfound power. Despite the legal and political challenges, Doctorow outlines, there are innovators attempting to create new decentralized ecosystems of web services. This former Christian Science church in
San Francisco houses the Internet Archive, a digital repository of more than 50 petabytes of images movies and texts. The organization has also archived more than 330 billion web pages. The archives mission is to make all of mankind’s knowledge available online forever, to everyone, for free. Which is a pretty big vision, right? Mitra Arden, who’s the internet archives head of decentralization, says the history of the web is too important to be held in custody by a single organization. He’s overseeing a plan to migrate the internet archives more than 50 million gigabytes of data to a distributed network in which the information is spread out among a storage network maintained by users. The decentralized web now is in the state that the early web was back in the early 90s, right so, there’s a lot of things that work on a small scale don’t walk on a large scale. We’re a large-scale site but we’re also
cite that if we put up decentralized web and it breaks, we don’t have our whole business model contingent upon it. A beta version of this peer-to-peer network is already operating and publicly accessible. I think what it would look like is a world where servers were everywhere. That your internet router at home would also be a server, and those servers would talk to each other, and the interface may look very similar to what it is now except you wouldn’t be controlled by the branding, so the user interface and the data would be separate, now the user interface and the data are inextricably tied together. But Cory Doctorow doesn’t think the decentralized web can take off without government intervention. He agrees with Elizabeth Warren that the Federal Trade Commission should break up the tech giants. If you had your way, Facebook would have to sell off Instagram, Amazon would have to sell off all those little businesses that they’re running, competing businesses, yep. Who is federal government to tell these companies they have to do that? Uh, there’s antitrust law, it’s been around for more than a hundred years. If you have a bunch of tech companies that got giant by doing exactly the same things that all the other companies through history that got giant doing, that we used to ban, and that we stop banning right when the tech industry started, maybe we could just try enforcing those rules again. Why would the focus be on antitrust and not on, you know, reforming intellectual property laws? So I think you’ve got a logical or, or you want a logical and. We do need structural separation, we do need to break Facebook up so that it can no longer engage in this anti-competitive behavior, but that’s just part of a set of reasons to do both. I guess the part that I am a little bit confused about is the sense in which these companies are monopolies. Because yes Google dominates search, Amazon dominates online shopping, but of course, there are competitors they’re buying up potential competitors all the time, and adding new technologies to their portfolio, but what sense does that make them a monopoly? It may not make them a monopoly but it makes them monopolistic. Okay. Right in the history of antitrust, a monopoly is not the only game in town, a monopoly exerts so much gravity that it distorts the market. Are there any promising technological solutions to this decentralizing the web? I think we have all the tech, I mean it’ll need constant evolution and maintenance but like it’s all out there. Web 3.0 has this wonderful set of trust baked into the internet itself. Molly McKinley is a former Google programmer and current project lead of IPFS, the Interplanetary File system. A communications protocol that’s meant to replace the system by which most of us access the web now, through Hypertext Transfer Protocol, that is, the HTTP you see in your web browser. While HTTP connects your computer to a particular server, IPFS scours the network for a piece of content and connects you to whomever happens to be hosting it. The video you want to watch, the document you want to load, the website you want to go to, by what it is that you’re trying to view, not who you’re trying to get it from. And that that change, that, kind of, simple seeming switch in how you organize things makes huge ripple effects and differences in what sort of tools you’re empowered to build. Think of natural disasters, or censorship, or other cases like that where people lose access to content on the internet today, you want them to continue being able to collaborate and organize with each other, and communicate and rely on these sorts of technologies and tools. Why would people host contents? Right now obviously the answer is you make money by having the computer that hosts the content and serves it to people. Many people will join that cause because they believe in that cause and help make sure that Wikipedia, or other data sets like that that we really care about, continue to be backed up purely altruistically, but you can also end up in models tit for tat for lack of a better word, where like okay, you host my photo content and I’ll host yours, and this way both of us have backup, so if either one of our machines goes down there’s a backup of content and we can, you know, do that with a whole group of friends and you are providing me a really useful service, and I’m participating in that Network. And then finally you can end up in models of like storage for hire. So file point which is in development is an incentivized storage network, by serving data, by storing people’s data you can earn a cryptographic token. McKinley sees the decentralized web as a way to sidestep the dangers of government regulation and even authoritarian control. A decentralized framework where there isn’t that middleman, that can be manipulated or coerced or regulated into exposing your data that’s a better, safer, more resilient world which doesn’t end up in this case where it’s susceptible to an authoritarian manipulation control. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities and that was a big mistake, and it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. These two almost contradictory narratives that I see and one is that the web is too centralized, there are these big companies controlling everything, and then especially out of Congress you hear that it’s too anarchic too decentralized, trolls, hateful people, disinformation, and we need to be able to control it, and there’s a certain convenience to being able to call Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress. Absolutely. So we get a choice now whether we’re gonna fix big tech or fix the internet, but we don’t get to do both. If we decide that we’re going to give Big Tech state-like duties to prevent bad action on their platforms, we require them to be
big enough to do so. And we put a floor under how small we can allow them to become. If you make tech smaller, it’s harder to suborn them to act as arms of the state. I think that’s a feature, not a bug. We don’t want to allow one person’s judgment to be the be-all and end-all of how the rest of us have to conduct our lives. We want to have checks on their authority and one of the ways that you get checks on someone’s authority is by allowing the people who live under that authority to go somewhere else.

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