A Plea for Internet Decentralization

Outline

  1. Welcome to the web!
  2. Tomorrow WLANd: Web 3.0
  3. Ethereum’s vision for the future
  4. Conclusion

Welcome to the web!

In the early days of the internet — from the 1980s through the early 2000s — digital infrastructure was predominantly decentralized by nature. Lack of adoption outside of universities and research facilities assigned the governance process to intellectuals and engineers, not special interest groups which served corporations. This period of explosive growth through democratic consensus contributed to the formation of household brands including Yahoo, Google, Amazon, and countless others. Amidst this chapter remained a strict adherence to the internet’s most accepted truths such as net neutrality and open exchange of information. As applications were still primitive enough to coexist with the network’s limited technical capacity, these views remained unchallenged. Allocation of power remained at healthy levels.

Regrettably, the acute user growth experienced towards the end of this period was not as compatible with the internet’s technical capacity. Emerging dot-coms outgrew the very decentralized infrastructure which propelled them into existence in the first place, and decentralized networks failed to keep up with consumer demand. A bottleneck had been discovered, and it didn’t take long for corporate influencers to catch on. Through identifying this weakness as a strategic opportunity to seize control of the decision-making process entirely, a new industry had formed. As user-growth exploded so did the internet’s reliance on a limited number of so-called “internet service providers” such as, and most notably, A.O.L.

The second wave of the internet — from the mid-2000s to the present — has seen the transformation of these previously mentioned household brands into indestructible titans of industry. Each group has maintained their own dominant grasp on the internet’s infrastructure through a shameful history of consequential decisions, which have at-large negatively affected the internet’s socio-economic agnosticism. By producing software and services that heavily promote centralized protocols, these groups have sacrificed well-established internet etiquette in the name of securing their dominance among competition.

Furthermore, we have seen these corporations align themselves with the interests of internet service providers through producing such centralized products to strengthen both of their respective monopolies. Recent years have seen advancements in cloud-based computing, increasing reliance on limited-capacity mobile devices, and a growing dependency on closed-source application development trends. All of which take power away from individuals while concurrently increasing user dependency on Internet Service Providers, as well as large businesses such as Google and Amazon.

Internet service providers, who advocate for such centralized approaches to maintain their control over the free flow of information across the internet, have in return shown these corporations indirect favoritism. This manifests itself through bandwidth subsidies and other forms of monetary incentives favoring centralized businesses. While this sort of favoritism has been limited through FCC oversight, the increasingly imminent repeal of net neutrality would most certainly spawn even more direct favoritism among ISPs.


Let’s pause for a minute to speak candidly. Despite all of this, plenty of good has come from the existence of these centralized internet services and providers. Exponential growth in terms of global accessibility to the internet has granted billions of individuals with access to life-altering information regardless of their social or economic standings. Access to unrestricted knowledge-bases and real-time communication protocols have also quite literally sparked revolutions in emerging nations. Nowhere is this case more noticeable than among many developing nations of the middle east, particularly those seen in the Arab spring.

Despite commendable achievements however, corporations have made it increasingly difficult for startups, creators, and other groups to achieve sustainable influence among popular digital platforms. That is, without being subjected to harsh censorship or swift replication of course. Content creators must increasingly rely on centralized platforms to distribute their message, such as YouTube, Tumblr, Spotify, and more. Often times, these channels confine creators to forms of self-expression deemed non-controversial or simply “advertiser-friendly.”

This, in turn, slows innovation to a grind by disincentivizing creative thinking and limiting personal expression to predetermined parameters. In a world where large corporations can swallow up their competition whole, why bother building anything new or innovative? In a world where art is valued based upon a lack of controversy, why create anything? In a world where your digital identity is increasingly tied to your real-life success and safety, why risk saying anything provocative?

So where’s the good news?

Tomorrow WLANd: Web 3.0

The third wave of the internet — Which currently lacks a unified hypothesis on how best to manifest itself — is commonly referred to as “Web 3.0.” Though this next wave’s future is uncertain, many argue that a return to decentralization is imperative for the preservation of free and open exchange of information around the world. Quite possibly, it may be our last opportunity to ensure a positive future where technology works to empower individual freedoms, not to suppress them. No pressure… right?

To achieve this drastic overhaul in infrastructure some experts have proposed that the increasingly popular technology behind Bitcoin and Ethereum, known as Blockchain, could be used for the foundation of the next web. What makes Blockchain so appealing is that it enables strangers to transfer data between one another without requiring them to inherently trust each other. Rather, participants need only trust the system as a whole.

Understandably, establishing a secure Blockchain which earns the user’s trust proves to be quite the difficult task. Trust, and therefore significant user adoption, can only be successfully earned when a Blockchain combines the right mixture of sensible features. Adoption of secure cryptography algorithms, efficient and distributed storage protocols, unapologetic transparency, and several other fundamental principles which differ across implementations all contribute to earning such public support and momentum. (For more information on how Blockchains promote transparent decentralization check out “Blockchain’s Killer Application?”).

Blockchain implementations have predictably found vast success in the financial sector, as the technology naturally lends itself well to storing and transferring monetary value. However, as the technology itself has improved, a growing number of projects hoping to utilize Blockchains for transmitting other forms of digital value have flourished. The field is no longer explicitly tethered to the financial industry for value, and the possibilities for new applications are endless. Nowhere is this excitement more concentrated than within the Ethereum community.

Ethereum’s vision for the future

Ethereum is one such well-suited Blockchain which might win the battle to serve as the future “back-end” of a decentralized web 3.0. This because by design, Ethereum is intended to be a general-purpose Blockchain. A sort of blank canvas by which developers have the freedom to build whatever they desire upon. Transactions on this Blockchain are abstract and can represent anything such as an entire internet. One where previously existing centralized solutions are replaced with more transparent and decentralized approaches. Where content can flourish without fear of censorship from central points of failure.

Ethereum calls these applications running on top of their Blockchain “decentralized applications” or “dapps” for short. Ideally, such decentralized projects on the network will fully leverage the Ethereum Blockchain to build products that actually run entirely autonomously. Autonomous code that is hosted on the Ethereum Blockchain is commonly referred to as a “smart contract.”

In other words, these smart contracts are immutable sets of rules and conditions which get pushed to the decentralized network. Anyone with a copy of the Blockchain can interact with the contract as long as it follows the declared rules. Smart contracts require no ongoing oversight, cannot be modified once they’re deployed, contain transparent open source code, and can optionally have no owner whatsoever. This new system could provide the internet with an ecosystem of low-overhead products and services that are maintained by enthusiastic developers, and largely owned by the community as a while. Ensuring such conditions in a persistent manner was never fully possible before Blockchains, and as such Ethereum could bring about an entirely new sector for automated businesses. Businesses which might restore the internet to a proper democratic balance.

Conclusion

With such rapid growth in recent decades, it has become easy to forget how digital infrastructure was once predominantly decentralized. Amidst this chapter of the internet’s early history remained a rigorous adherence to net neutrality. An open exchange of information was taken for granted, and balanced democratic oversight was the norm. This internet is the vision which we should aim to return to and uphold. To fortify through what we’ve uncovered about decentralization, and to expand upon with the use of modern technology recently made available. Blockchain technologies such as Ethereum might just pave the way for that vision, but in the process, we must not allow ourselves to easily forget today’s luxuries as we have yesterday’s.