You and I browse the internet superficially every day. Our day-to-day lives revolve around using tablets for work whilst also spending countless hours answering endless streams of notifications that feed the dopamine hits that keep us glued to our phones. For every day we do not fight against big-data entities, we carry the burden of having our data stored and processed, and used against us. In the kernel of a pandemic, people are looking for new ways to connect, mostly with video calls, but also through emerging apps like Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social networking service for neighborhoods. A multiplicity of social media networks provide extremely worthwhile services, although the countless hours we spend on these devices seamlessly are often the products of a well-thought-out marketing scheme by big data companies to keep us glued to our devices.
When Tim Berners-Lee conceptualized the world wide web in 1989, he had not envisioned an internet that works on an ad-based revenue model that uses screen-time as an incentive for providers to keep users hooked to their devices. His vision is analogous to the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a paper written in 1996 by Poet John Perry Barlow that emphasized the need for the decentralized rule of the internet through “Locking the Web Open”, a code law for a free-roaming internet space. The paper can be best described as a constitution for internet governance: it annihilates any attempt from international entities to impose extra restrictions and command on the internet, attempting to make it the freest place possible within the constraints of the law. This, however, did not occur, and his initial dream was shattered by the centralization of the internet.
A solution to the zombifying nature of this internet model lies in the midst of realization. The “Web 3.0” or “Decentralized Web” initiative is currently being developed and led by the Web 3 Foundation coupled with Protocol Labs. These entities seek to create a veritable free space, where data monopolies are non-existent and users worldwide own their data. Decentralization of the internet makes a strong case against the hoarding of data by Big-Data entities for their own personal and financial gain. Whilst not apparent initially, a deep threat is slowly infecting our society: the combination of Big Data, AI, and data centralization means we are ripe for exploitation in the truest sense of the word. If decentralization does not occur, we might face a world where we are so reliant on our devices for any type of consumer experience that we will be at the mercy of these giants in every corner of life. Choice is freedom, and if our lives centralized around using our phones, we will be forced to engulf this new way of life with all its cons.
In this essay, I would like to give a technical explanation for how decentralization can provide a solution to the current detrimental internet model, by highlighting the current web’s weaknesses and addressing them with a blockchain-based trust model.
The internet architecture of today, formed by the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP), relies heavily on centralized communication protocols. These specify the way data should be packetized, transmitted, routed, and received. These four steps are organized into four abstraction layers: The Link layer; the Internet layer; the Transport layer and the Application layer. The internet’s attempt in routing users to pass through a singular point of inflection before they can communicate throughout the internet poses many faults that can lead to catastrophic consequences if not addressed with caution. This centralization can truly be seen in the Domain Name System (DNS), where it translates IP addresses into human and computer readability, and in Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), where users are forced to establish a connection with an ISP before he/she can surf the internet. This thin-ice model can be subject to DDoS (Distributed Denial of service) attacks (imagine a traffic jam inside a server, that prevents a website from working due to too much internet traffic), data leaks, and data hoarding. Surveillance, censorship, and manipulation are all other likely problems with these methods of centralized data storage. The loss of trust in this centralized internet data model became apparent in 2008 with the massive data breach by Cambridge Analytica, who harvested personal data from over 87 million people to build a psychological model for voting patterns through a character and personality building algorithm. Moreover, one could wonder why healthcare physicians own the information you provide them with on a visit to the doctor. Dentists own your x-rays like banks own your credit information (we pay them for this).
The 2008 Bitcoin white paper reminded us that we can build Peer-to-Peer (P2P) decentralized systems, that is, a system that is reliant on the trust and responsibility of the individual by bypassing every intermediary. A Blockchain-based solution with Peer-to-Peer technology might present a reliable and functioning solution to the misuse of data within the internet. By implementing a shared-data layer, the internet might become a place where users own their data, instead of being exploited by giants who are experts in the field. A blockchain provides a framework for working with decentralization. It is a database for a decentralized network, that uses asymmetric cryptography and distributed consensus algorithms to provide users with security and ledger consistency. But what exactly does this gibberish mean? The basis of blockchain is to be able to interact with a person on the internet (sending money or information) in a secure and decentralized way, without the need for an intermediary (such as a bank, notary, or any type of fee-renting entity) to collect transaction fees. The few gas fees you have seen, although sometimes hefty, are mostly payments made by users to compensate for the computing energy required to process and validate transactions on a blockchain, such as the Ethereum blockchain (EIP-1559).
This short blockchain overview will provide a framework for thinking about how blockchain-related projects will be used for constructing a decentralized internet. A blockchain provides a ledger, a collection of transactions. When a transaction is sent from one user to the other, the transaction awaits in a transaction pool before being added to the blockchain by a mining node, who has the responsibility of maintaining the blockchain by publishing new blocks (blocks made of transactions) to the ledger. These nodes also verify the transactions being appended by checking that the private key was used to sign the transaction (a secure way of checking user identity). Once all the nodes have been updated with the new transaction and completed the distributed consensus method, the transaction will be hashed and then coupled with every other verified transaction to create a Merkle Tree Root Hash (a hash of a hash…), which will be added to the block header. This makes it easy to verify a faulty transaction, as any change in a transaction results in a completely different hash. This picture gives a beautiful representation of blockchain blocks and a Merkle tree : (1)
A couple of decentralized internets already exist, like The Onion Router (TOR), Zeronet, and The Invisible Internet Project (I2P). The aim of these projects is for users to be able to surf the internet completely anonymously, whilst still being able to “trust” users on the internet when dealing with transactions or other exchanges of data. However, these websites are largely unregulated, resulting in swarms of malicious users and websites looking to do you harm. Furthermore, it is still possible to buy many illegal items on these sites, something the new web is trying to prevent, as this is not the goal of decentralization. A scaled blockchain-based internet will provide the solution we need to browse the internet owning our data securely and stably.
Our current model of the application layer supports the HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) protocol, a method of secure communication over a computer network. By using HTTPS, the communication protocol is encrypted using Transport Layer Security (TLS), however, these are well-known to be reliant on the highly centralized client-server networking model. Blockchain aims to decentralize this HTTPS, by using a cross-referencing method for security measures rather than the multi-handshake protocol used by HTTPS. A prime example of a leading project for this protocol layer is the IPFS (InterPlanetary File system). Instead of collecting data from a single server (and thus a single location - an IP address), IPFS relocates the user’s search to the closest content tag. This means that the requested link does not get requested from a centralized server, but from the closest user that has that content downloaded on their computer. This means we are essentially using our computers as nodes until the information gets requested from us. This brings many advantages for users to own their data, rather than having to request it through a centralized server. IPFS’s use was crucial to the Catalonian population during the Spanish referendum. When the Government blocked all websites on the vote against Spanish legislation, IPFS curtailed this by providing mirror websites that were retrieved from many different nodes, rather than the centralized website. Without this, a 90% vote for independence would not have been possible.
Yet another blockchain use case for an internet remodeling was proposed by Filecoin a new way of thinking about data centralization and data storage. Running on the Filecoin blockchain, file coin provides storage space on different computers, essentially letting people rent out computer space in a secure and decentralized way. If you don’t see the advantage in this, think of the centralized storage providers like iCloud and dropbox having been repeatedly hacked, resulting in millions of user passwords being leaked.
With the endless stream of possibilities presented by the blockchain infrastructure, we are at the brink of a healthy Internet revolution. A myriad of decentralized projects, including Libp2p, IPDL, Coin list, SAFT, and Solid (by Tim Berners-Lee himself) will help remodel the new web, dismantling our current centralized approach to the internet, and helping free its users so that they too may be able to interact in the absence of control and manipulation. The cryptocurrency boom has already provided a framework for this transition, allowing for people to understand that transactions can occur directly between people and without a need for poisoned governance. This proposed internet decentralization will prevent Big-Data entities from gathering information about us.
By: P.E.O. BUNFORD