The web is currently shaped by very large, corporate-controlled platforms. While many of these platforms grew to the giants they are today by providing useful, accessible features and functions, their control can be alarming. It's time to seriously consider the decentralized web.
Company owners, shareholders, or partners of these large platforms can control or heavily influence the public’s access to content, given the fact that the majority of people get their information via these giant sites. While this doesn’t always mean that there is intentional censorship, these companies could be inserting bias into their algorithms that then affects accessible content.
According to “Back to the Future: The Decentralized Web,” a new report from MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative and the Center for Civic Media, “The platforms that host our networked public sphere and inform us about the world are unelected, unaccountable, and often impossible to audit or oversee.”
The Digital Currency Initiative focuses its attention on cryptocurrency and its underlying technologies because these currencies, like bitcoin, help to make digital payments and contracts more trustless and open. The DCI aims to assist the billions of people who use the web by helping to “push the envelope on the development of this technology with fundamental research, while shedding light on the associated benefits, risks, and ethical quandaries.”
In this report, they discuss many new, up-and-coming decentralized systems made to give the power back to the people on the web. Many of these systems have grown in popularity parallel to bitcoin, the cryptocurrency without central control, by also utilizing a peer-to-peer network protocol. These all function via a ledger of transactions known as the blockchain.
Blockchain has been utilized for numerous things on the web today, from cryptocurrencies to cloud storage to a decentralized web. This attempt to “‘re-decentralize’ the Web” takes power from “the hands of a few corporations” to return it “back into the hands of users” who don’t have to depend on any central companies to function.
If we take a look at the web today, particularly in post-net neutrality America, we can imagine that major companies who will be able to pay the extra fees gain even more power while small blogs, web pages, and startups might sputter out without the extra capital.
For another example of a large company controlling too much on the web, we can look at how the amount of power Facebook has gained through their centralized services is helping this company provide Internet access to those who need it.
While wider access to the web is a positive concept, Facebook can choose to “provide access only to the subset of centralized services it endorses (Internet.org and Free Basics)." This type of access isn’t the Internet that was initially envisioned. Instead, it forces you to utilize Facebook, allowing you to only share content on this platform or use Facebook’s search function, for example.
Decentralizing the web by running a peer-to-peer model would help counteract these large, powerful companies from taking the freedom away from the web, and there are already many companies working toward this goal.
One of these is the open-source network Substratum, calling themselves “The foundation of the decentralized web.” Essentially, they allow people around the world to allocate their spare computing resources to others “to make the Internet a free and fair place for the entire world.”
Each person who decides to run a Substratum Node gets paid to serve content by cryptocurrencies. This collection of nodes around the world doesn’t need to use a VPN or Tor to securely send and receive information over the web.
With the Substratum host and node, the end web user is able to view any Substratum-hosted content on their normal browser without any censorship blocks. The details of how it works are pretty simple. Anyone who likes can host their site on the decentralized web by purchasing Substrate using most cryptocurrencies or fiat, including dollars, euros, and more.
Then, when any Substratum Network member who is running a node forwards the hosted site to a visitor, they will receive payment via Substrate. Shoppers can pay using their preferred cryptocurrency and then hosts can receive their preferred currency, using Substrate as an intermediary to convert the currencies, if necessary.
Another example of a company building a decentralized web is Shift. They claim to be building a new web, specifically for users and have more online support. Their website explains that Shift is “combing a blazing fast, dApp-ready, delegated Proof of Stake blockchain with the interplanetary file system” in order to create “a decentralized, resilient and highly extensible web 3.0 platform” to build “the new world wide web. Just better.”
One of the reasons that Shift and the decentralized web can be considered so important right now is the quick rate that the Internet is becoming privatized, “from ICANN to hosting providers, from advertisers to social media.”
However, users can avoid censorship or discrimination on the decentralized, new web. Shift works to make sure their new web can do everything the original web can do while also taking care of two important issues. These are peer-to-peer content storage based on IPFS and “direct monetization of services through the Shift blockchain.”
They do not add any extra charges to use the web and, similar to Substratum, you can earn by hosting content and data.
Beyond moving past the bias of the large corporations, utilizing the decentralized web can help users stay secure from censorship because there is no single point of failure or single provider to censor, trade and exchange freely across borders without excess fees, secure your identity with a unique ID that is permanently embedded in the blockchain and valid across the whole network, and have better peer-to-peer data storage.
With the numerous benefits of blockchain technology to help decentralize the web as well as companies that are already providing these services, the decentralized web seems like a real possibility in the near future to help protect web users from monopolies, unnecessary charges, and censorship.
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