On Jan. 6, 2021 (or what seems like the 739th day of 2020), a riotous mob stormed the United States Capitol. It has been over 200 years since the last storming of the Capitol during the War of 1812. This time, the building remained under occupation for several hours before the insurrection was suppressed. At least five people died.
This event was incited on Twitter, organized on Facebook and magnified on YouTube.
It will undoubtedly lead to calls for change in social media company policies, government regulations and maybe even court-ordered breakups. The incident is a scathing indictment of a centralized system that allows a handful of social media oligarchs to manufacture and monetize madness at scale. These companies have, effectively, replaced the free and open internet with algorithmic walled gardens built atop the economics of exploitation.
This toxic stew has been simmering for a long time. Cries for change have been sustained, loud and clear with even Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, sounding the alarm for the need to “decentralize the web and take back power from the forces that have profited from centralizing it.”
Surely, we can’t expect these companies to police themselves. They are making too much money with the status quo. And, despite the best intentions of government regulators, passing laws to curb these companies' predatory behavior is akin to politely asking a great white shark to stop eating in the midst of a feeding frenzy.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), soon-to-be chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, has said she’d make tackling the outsized power of tech giants one of her top priorities in the new Congress. But government action, however bold, will only get us so far. We also need to re-engineer the internet ourselves, rather than just relying on top-down help.
See also: Internet 2030 series
Just as bitcoin redistributed power from the legacy financial system in favor of peer-to-peer electronic cash, the next-generation internet aims to redistribute power from corporate giants like Google and Facebook to sovereign individuals who own and control their own data.
To achieve this monumental goal, changes must be made to the internet’s underlying architecture. Thankfully, the pace of progress is dramatically accelerating in three foundational components: storage, naming and database.
Updates across the decentralized storage community have come fast and furious. Among the many recent developments: First-gen projects Storj and MaidSafe continue building on their long-standing efforts with the respective Tardigrade and Fleming releases.
See also: Juan Benet: From Idea to Action
Also, libtorrent released an update to the world’s largest peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol invented by Bram Cohen nearly 20 years ago. My own project, POP Network, has built upon the same underlying protocol and released the POP Masternode, which lets you easily provide storage for decentralized web streaming.
The flagship headline in decentralized storage last year was the launch of Filecoin. Created by Juan Benet and Protocol Labs, it is a peer-to-peer network that stores files, with built-in economic incentives to ensure files are stored reliably over time. Protocol Labs is also responsible for breakthrough decentralization technologies IPFS and libp2p.
Since its 2017 initial coin offering, which raised $257 million, the buzz around Filecoin has bordered on feverish. Despite some early hiccups with Filecoin miners and a bug that temporarily disabled the network, the project remains the undisputed leader in the quest to bring decentralized storage solutions to mainstream users.
As a sign of the growing importance of the decentralized storage movement, CoinMarketCap debuted a new ranking list specifically for storage tokens alongside its popular lists of cryptocurrencies and decentralized finance (DeFi) tokens.
Less known but no less important for the evolution of the decentralized web is a change in how the Domain Name System (DNS) works.
DNS converts human readable domain names into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. This lets us type “google.com” or “email@example.com” instead of an unintelligible string of numbers and characters to communicate on the web. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) maintains the central repository and helps coordinate the supply of IP addresses. It also manages the Domain Name System and root servers.
Relying on single centralized authorities to make internet access decisions is an invitation for censorship and abuse. We’ve seen the dark side of this structure with authoritarian responses to freedom uprisings around the world. Within the current system, the bottom line is you can be erased from the Internet at any moment, for any reason, by anyone with enough power.
Decentralized DNS makes it virtually impossible for authorities to shut down access to the web and gives individuals real ownership over their digital identities, communication channels and means of commerce.
This area has seen massive improvements as RSK updated its RIF Name Service and “.rsk” top-level domain (TLD), Unstoppable Domains launched its own browser and “.crypto” TLD, Ethereum Name System continued to push forward with the ubiquitous “.eth” TLD, and Blockstack advanced its Blockchain Naming System with the looming Stacks 2.0 upgrade.
But, it was the launch of the Handshake public blockchain that pushed the decentralized naming sector above and beyond.
Handshake is a decentralized protocol to manage the root DNS naming zone and provide an alternative to certificate authorities. Its core software is a bitcoin fork and its blockchain is protected by proof-of-work, which means authorities don’t have a single organization to target if they want to shut down or censor communications.
Also, by decentralizing certificate authority, Handshake removes the middlemen between you and the website you are visiting. With HNS, the naming system itself can provide the guarantee that the site you are connected to is encrypted and authentic, not a fake one designed by criminals trying to con you.
Perhaps most important, Handshake is compatible with traditional DNS. If you enter a domain name and the owner hasn’t yet registered with Handshake, the software will simply redirect your request to regular DNS servers. As Steven McKie, developer for and investor in Handshake, says, “If the domain doesn’t exist on Handshake, it’s just going to fall back, redundantly, to the normal web.”
Features like these are critical to mainstream adoption as it gives people the benefits of decentralization without them even knowing about it. If decentralized naming services like Handshake and others can do that, then this crucial element becomes inevitable.
The most obscure component underpinning the decentralized web, which also needs the most work before becoming universal, is the decentralized database.
A database is an organized collection of data, generally stored and accessed electronically from a computer system. It is possible to think of the Bitcoin blockchain as a decentralized database storing a set of spent and unspent transactions. With that simple observation, you see the mountainous challenge facing the evolution of decentralized databases.
Bitcoin is, by computing standards, extremely slow. Databases need to be extremely fast.
Retrieving data from emails, bank accounts, video streaming and all the things we expect from the modern web is measured in milliseconds. If that data cannot be secured and controlled by the individual then we’re back to square one, turning everything over to the data oligarchs currently running the show. Without speedy decentralized databases the vision for a "New Internet" is fatally flawed.
Last year saw meaningful inroads with the release of Solid and PODS (personal online data stores), Bluzelle brought its decentralized data layer to Polkadot, both OrbitDB and ThreadDB continued building on IPFS and BigchainDB worked on Ocean Protocol to expand its vision of an open data economy.
With the launch of SkyNet by Sia came the introduction of SkyDB, a mutable database for the decentralized web. SkyDB is a framework that allows users to create decentralized accounts, store and retrieve files, and access their data from any device.
In short, developers can now build decentralized applications that mirror the functionality of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and all the other modern social apps while still giving users the power and control over their own data.
The system even allows for the cross-publication of data between applications. With this open infrastructure you could have an app that has access to your Facebook social graph, native Twitter feed and YouTube watch profile, with you owning the data, not those companies.
For context, in the third quarter of 2020, Facebook made over $21 billion selling your data.
Imagine if that revenue went directly to users who actually create the value within social networks. That’s the ultimate end for the decentralized web – to share value with the people who create it.
On to the next one
Obviously 2020 will be remembered for the immense amount of pain and suffering endured by millions around the globe. However, throughout history, moments like these are often accompanied by great periods of innovation and creativity. It is through this hopeful lens that we see a world where the decentralized web eventually becomes “the” web with fairness, freedom and individual sovereignty at its core. And, as the past year has shown, many brilliant people are laboring tirelessly to make this dream a reality.