A Comprehensive Introduction to Decentralised Internet
The internet is not centralised in a stringent literal sense but it is not completely decentralised either. Decentralised internet is a worldwide digital or virtual network that is not controlled by any particular person or organisation but powered by the masses and the devices they own. You could call decentralised internet a peer to peer network. Presently, what we know as internet is predominantly hosted by servers owned by a handful of major corporations. We are not talking about individual websites hosted by private servers. The internet comprising the search engines, encyclopedias, social networks and social media, public blogs and forums, the access to all government sites and the essential availability of information is mostly facilitated by a few companies. This makes the internet largely centralised as some people exert more control than they should.
The Problems with Centralised Internet
It would be difficult to fully understand the concept and promise of decentralised internet without factoring in the pros and cons of centralised internet or what we have right now. If you think of everything that you do online, then most of your activities are confined to websites that are owned by a few companies in the world. There are a few massive physical servers that host most of what is found online and these are owned by a fewer number of companies. Email, social networks and social media, the kinds of webhosting you use and the cloud services are mostly in control of up to a dozen corporations. These corporations can determine the policies that would affect how you would access everything they offer. Since that is what most of the internet is for ordinary people, the whole premise becomes centralised. It is not really a free platform since there is a way to control what you see, get and do online.
• There are many problems with centralised internet. One perennial risk is servers crashing at the same time. It is extremely unlikely that all servers of major corporations will be down simultaneously but there is a possibility. In 1998, a satellite failure made nine out of ten websites unavailable in the United States. If major servers do go down at the same time, millions of people would be adversely affected. People will be unable to work, stock markets will nosedive, public services that are delivered digitally will be unavailable and there can be unthinkable ripple effects across the world. It is fair to assume that the world will lose billions every hour. If the servers do not get restored soon enough, there could be a recession and it would not be confined to any one developed or developing country as the ramifications will be global.
• Servers can crash for many reasons. They may be targeted by hackers. Since major corporations operate most of the internet accessed by common people, their servers become easy targets for unethical hackers. There can be bad actors working independently and there can be state sponsored actors. It is not uncommon for hostile nations to sponsor cyber terrorism for a myriad of reasons. Recent action by North Korea and Russia come to mind. The large corporations are in a too big to fail mode. It is presumed that these companies have state of the art security and that they are always proactive to keep their servers safe. The truth is no one is completely invulnerable to cyber attacks. The worse part of this reality is that these same companies may hide data breaches or security threats from the users. The brands that are trusted by millions, in some cases billions, may keep the truth from the masses and even from investing agencies so one would not even know their digital presence has been compromised.
• Corporations controlling the internet can always impose some forms of censorship. This is a particularly hot issue right now. Twitter is being lambasted by many for imposing its ideological preferences. It has been accused of shadow banning users, moderating the types of content they want to promote on the micro blogging site, accounts are being suspended or taken down owing to reasons that the company thinks is legitimate grounds for blocking access and many other contentious actions are being taken. Facebook, YouTube, search engine giant Google and Twitter among others can always decide what they would want to host and make available to their users. They can effectively control free speech even when people think they have the right to exercise their freedom of expression. Look no further than the most recent US elections. In any scenario, these corporations can throttle data, limit the speed of a connection or determine access to the internet at specific points in time. They could very well curate the entire internet and people would have no resort.
• Corporations are monetising the data of all users. This is no secret. Some companies are doing it in a much more subtle and nuanced manner, such as Google. Some companies are more blatant, such as Facebook. From YouTube to Twitter, Instagram to any other major website you choose, every corporation is using your data and monetising it in some way. Most are simply using your data for advertising. The internet users are basically a database of consumers for them. A few companies are more aggressive and specific with the ways they use their databases. Companies have been known to carry out psychological profiling, demographic profiling is common, targeted propaganda is already happening and some operations involve outright selling of your data, from where you are to what you are doing.
What is Decentralised Internet?
Decentralised internet would not rely on servers. It would be powered by a community of users and their devices. Any device that can be connected to the internet will become a part of the hosting network. It would not be a few corporations with several state of the art servers hosting most of the internet but ordinary people with their relatively midgrade devices and limited bandwidth hosting the entire network by contributing bits and pieces. Imagine trillions of nodes in a few servers as centralised internet and hundreds of nodes on every device owned by a user and then making up those trillions of nodes as a group as decentralised internet.
There are many advantages of decentralised internet, especially when you consider the lack of privacy and prevailing threats in case of centralised internet. Decentralised internet will not be dependent on one or a few servers and hence the internet in its entirety cannot be unavailable. There is no way any bad actor can target one server, take it down and hope to make the internet inaccessible. There is no such server to be attacked. It is practically impossible to target a billion or more devices at the same time if they do not use the same hosting platform. A denial of service or distributed denial of service attack becomes extremely unlikely in decentralised internet.
Decentralised internet will actually uphold freedom of expression. It would be beyond the regulation of governments. There cannot be any overreach of governments or by the corporations that own the omnipotent servers right now. Decentralised internet would be particularly useful in countries that have authoritarian regimes. People being ruled by dictators can have access to a network that is not regulated or banned by the authorities. They can share information. They can have access to a virtual world that is free from the clutches of the authoritarian government. This may pave the way for democracy.
The Challenges of Decentralised Internet
Decentralised internet sounds amazing in theory but it is quite complicated and there are several real world challenges. Internet was once open and free. Today, it is not completely free as most of what we see can be regulated and is being controlled in subtle ways. The first major challenge of decentralised internet is adaptation by the masses. Some people may create a small group and hence a network but this is not going to matter if everyone does not join in and create a truly global network. People may decide that they would start making their devices a part of this evolving decentralised internet only when others start doing so. Everyone may look for someone else to take the initiative and no one may actually take that first step. A collective step becomes elusive unless the internet as we know it becomes inaccessible or something serious goes wrong with it and people reject it.
It is unlikely people will voluntarily contribute to a decentralised internet unless they have a strong motivating factor. If there is no mass participation at a global level, decentralised internet is a nonstarter and no one can do anything about it. Unless everyone truly becomes a part of decentralised internet, the network itself would be unviable. Latency is one technical glitch that decentralised internet simply cannot solve right now. Even the most state of the art servers available today are at times unable to address latency. There are websites that are too slow to load, some pages are non-responsive and some people do not have sufficient speed to access something they want. Decentralised internet will make this worse as people do not have the same devices. The specs of the devices facilitating the transmission of data will determine if someone can access the internet as conveniently as one can today.
Decentralised internet may be much slower than centralised internet and people would not find that rewarding in any way. Users would also have to shoulder the responsibility of hosting the peer to peer network. A pertinent question looms large over the fate of decentralised internet simply because of this additional responsibility. Every user will have to contribute to the availability, functioning and maintenance of the peer to peer network. Some people may not have any motivation to keep powering the network. A freer virtual space or deregulation may seem desirable to all but the troubles everyone must endure to accomplish such a quest would discourage many.
It is also not completely lucid if privacy issues, security and other serious concerns will get addressed by decentralised internet. A peer to peer network is still a digital infrastructure. There will be transmission of data. Devices will get interlinked and there can be new avenues that allow some people with know-how and resources to gain unauthorised access to the devices of fellow users. With no one to regulate this, the ordinary user may be a sitting duck and there may not be any help or mechanism to effectively protect the ordinary folks.
The Status of Decentralised Internet
Decentralised internet is already here, albeit in a much smaller capacity. There are decentralised apps in the making that aspire to disrupt the status quo. Decentralised applications are known as dapps. The entire blockchain premise is decentralised. Bitcoin was perhaps the first product in the realm of decentralised internet. Many such cryptocurrencies have emerged in recent years. The blockchain technology is going to power many more apps than what we may imagine at this stage.
There is a Vevue project in the making that enables people to shoot thirty second videos of hotels, restaurants, places and events among others that would be shared with a global audience. The project aims to enrich the web and bring something like the street view of Google to life. Of course one may also take pictures. People would get to check out these photos and videos when they search for the specific places or things online.
There are many other decentralised apps at various stages of development and some are being tested right now. A game called Etheria is in development. It is a virtual world building game. KYC-Chain is a decentralised application aimed at enhancing privacy and securing online identity of users. 4G Capital is a dapp with the objective of helping businesses raise money or access credit. Eth-Tweet is a dapp version of Twitter. The dapp aims to free micro blogging from the clutches of regulation and shadow banning, paving the way for a truly open platform that celebrates free speech. Other examples include Ampliative Art and WeiFund, respectively for artists and crowdfunding.