Radical shake-up proposed for the internet

The web might be on track for a return to the retro decentralized 1990s if momentum for a blockchain-like protocol gets into gear.

Radical shake-up proposed for the internet
Vladimir Timofeev / Getty Images

Changes may be in the cards for the internet. Primarily, the global information system that we know as the World Wide Web could be up for some radical blockchain-concept re-thinking. It could take us back in time, but in a good way, according to some experts.

Mass decentralization, which includes the shifting the control of data from corporations to individuals, is what they propose.

“If you think of our existing web, it was originally designed to be decentralized, but over the years, we've come to see 90 percent of the traffic going through three or four different companies,” says Mitra Ardron, Technical Lead for Decentralization, at Internet Archive, which hosted the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco this summer. He was quoted on the conference’s website.

Ardron and his fellow Decentralized Web (DWeb) proponents, which include Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989, think that’s bad and want to wrest what they perceive of as control from the Alphabets and Facebooks of the world and transfer authority. Among the DWeb plans: use peer-to-peer technologies for the web a la bit-torrenting and replace HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) with a blockchain-like InterPlanetary File System (IPFS).

HTTP is the protocol that, among other things, organizes how file-holding servers and web browsers react to commands. IPFS, also a protocol, would shift the media files off of individual servers and over to a peer-to-peer distributed system. In other words, a website’s files won’t just reside on one server waiting to be browsed, but they would be distributed at bit level throughout the internet. Theoretically, all files could be stored on all servers — somewhat like distributed-ledger blockchain. And as with that collectively managed database system, DWeb media, too, should be very difficult for hackers to alter.

Another advantage: It would be harder for governments to perform surveillance and to censor individuals. End users would be able, in fact, to control their web experience without using any data-collecting marketer middlemen. Users could “buy and sell directly,” the summit materials say.

“Decentralized databases could allow information to ‘live’ in many different places, so information can’t easily be blocked or erased,” the Decentralized Web Summit explains on its website.

A decentralized public key login system and a peer-to-peer payment system have yet to be worked out fully, but the group says “centralized usernames and passwords” will become redundant.

Shifting power away from big internet companies

“The web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet,” Berners-Lee says on a product page for a related project called Solid. It’s a platform he has developed, along with MIT, for startup Inrupt. Its concept has strong similarities to DWeb in that it, too, theoretically shifts power away from big internet companies and also back in time to a pre-corporate web.

Open-source web platform Solid is supposed to allow users to manage and secure a Personal Online Data store, or POD. The idea is that instead of entrusting all personal data blindly with one of the big players in its data center, a web-based dashboard lets individuals (and presumably enterprises, ultimately, if it gets that far) link and grant all data permissions across approved decentralized chat, media, storage, or other apps through a drag-and-drop interface.

Images, for example, would reside in the POD on your own server or through a third-party provider. The data can then be shared with whomever one chooses. Ironically, the locating of the data in a big business-derived Solid POD provider’s data center might defeat the object, though, a Reddit user pointed out.

“PODs are like secure USB sticks for the web that you can access from anywhere,” Solid says. “Solid realizes the web as it was originally envisioned.”

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