My internet connection behaves erratically: most of the time it works good and fast enough, but sometimes it stops working for a while. It’s very annoying. Yesterday I was thinking to call my telco, but on second thought I didn’t bother.
Calling, I would wait forever to talk to an overworked and underpaid call center operator who doesn’t give a damn and probably hates his employer and their customers. The operator would pretend to understand the problem and promise to look into it. Of course, they wouldn’t do anything – which is good, because if they did something things would probably become even worse.
The thing is, the telco doesn’t give a damn because they know I have no real alternatives, besides two or three other telcos that offer exactly the same service and don’t give a damn either. Today, we internet users have learned not to expect any support. If things work, good, if they don’t, tough.
Compare this with the good old times. Flashback to the early nineties:
Big Business didn’t know and didn’t want to know about this new thing called the internet. We went online via a modem (remember those?), through a local “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. The speed was poor compared to later standards, but the customer service was superb.
A garage industry called “web hosting” was born, and we started building websites.
OK, you say, but those websites lived in central servers, which is not what decentralized means. You are right, but read on. I’ll come to strict decentralization.
The early web was decentralized in an important sense: Instead of a handful of mega-providers, all large corporations, there was a myriad of small providers. If you weren’t happy with your ISP or hosting provider, you could easily switch. The early web was a de-facto decentralized collection of small, portable websites.
Ah, and there was this thing called “Cyberspace, Home of Mind” – a sovereign state of mind free from the annoying interference of Big Business and Big Government. You know what happened to that.
One thing was missing: the possibility for website producers to be paid for the long hours they spent producing quality content.
Early web users would pay for good. content, but there were no easy ways to ask for and collect payment. Tim Berners-Lee and other pioneers wanted a micropayment system built in the internet infrastructure, but that wasn’t easily feasible with the technology of the early nineties. When lots of new people came online, it was evident that they wouldn’t pay for content, so Google and other companies came up with Adsense and similar.
Fast-forward to today’s online world.
The speed of your average internet connections is orders of magnitude higher than 25 years ago, but you wouldn’t know that browsing a top website: there are so many ads, cookies, trackers and similar overhead that many websites don’t load faster than 25 years ago. Often slower: I miss our modems and our hand-crafted optimized websites.
The online world is entirely dominated by Big Business – Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and their likes – and Big Government. Of course, Big Business and Big Brother support each other behind the scenes, like they have always done.
OK, this was the history lesson. Now: what can we DO to change that?
We need a new decentralized web that works like BitTorrent
When you download a file via BitTorrent, the file is not sent by a central server – it comes in bits and pieces sent by all users who have a copy of the file. A popular file, like the last episode of a top TV show, is served by many users and comes much faster. We are all familiar with movies that take a minute to download, and modern BitTorrent tech supports also streaming.
Of course, while BitTorrent works perfectly well (actually better than Netflix) for static files, generalizing it to dynamic and interactive websites is a challenge. There has been good work in that direction, including BitTorrent’s own Project Maelstrom, but progress has been slow.
A new web that works like BitTorrent wouldn’t really work without a built-in payment infrastructure that allows consumers to easily pay for content with one click, and producers to be compensated for their hard work. Internet pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee tried to include micropayments in Web protocols, but the idea wasn’t implemented.
“In the late 1990s Berners-Lee tried to develop a micropayments system for the Web through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),” says Walter Isaacson in his book “The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” published in 2014. “It was never implemented, partly because of the changing complexity of banking regulations.”
But now is the time to implement micropayments as part of a new decentralized web infrastructure, because one is needed to break the monopoly of Big Business and Big Government. So, let me correct the previous header.
We need a new decentralized web that works like BitTorrent and Bitcoin
Bitcoin and other blockchain-based crypto-currencies can be the internet-native micropayment systems for a decentralized web. Furthermore, the underlying blockchain technology itself can support efficient decentralization with timestamps, proofs of ownership, authentication, tamper-proof distributed storage, and record-keeping.
The first Decentralized Web Summit in June 2016, led by Berners-Lee and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, wanted to kickstart “a new phase for the web” based on next-generation decentralized systems inspired by the P2P technology that powers file-sharing networks, and the blockchain technology that powers crypto-currencies.
The Decentralized Web Summit website has the videos of all 2016 talks. Unfortunately, no second summit has been announced yet. Many projects seem dead, but some, like ZeroNet, are still under active development and seem promising. Stay tuned for further coverage.
Recent progress toward a decentralized web that works like BitTorrent and Bitcoin include Blockstack, a browser that loads websites from peers instead of from servers, relying on blockchain technology. Yesterday, Crypto Insider published an exclusive interview with Ryan Shea, co-founder of Blockstack.
Image from Pixabay.