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How Blockchain Could Pave the Way for a Truly Decentralized Internet

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Image credit: kongvector/Depositphotos

The internet as we know it now is dominated by giant tech companies, internet service providers, and big businesses. They’ve become gatekeepers who have allowed the internet to become a global surveillance tool.

Now that blockchain is a mainstream technology, interest has begun to surge. This popularity has meant that decentralization may even be back on the cards. But is a genuinely decentralized internet possible anymore? And what does decentralization even mean?

How the Internet Became Centralized

The internet is a collection of connected computers; a system with no owners. No company owns the internet, and this accounts for its explosive growth over the past two decades. With no proprietary mechanism underpinning it, anyone can get online and create content.

However, according to Mozilla’s Internet Health Report 2018, Google accounts for 90 percent of global searches across all devices. Google’s Android smartphones and Chrome web browser are also among the most popular in the world.

Google’s global dominance means that, for many people, Google is the internet. They interact with Google services, through Google devices, accessing Google’s cloud servers.

While Google is dominant in some areas, others are controlled by equally powerful companies. Amazon Web Services accounts for 34 percent of all cloud storage. Facebook is the dominant social networking company with over 4 billion users across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

Blockchain offers us a way to return to the days when the internet, and our data, truly belonged to the users. The growth of DApps—decentralized apps—has shown there is an appetite for it too.

Activists and developers have started to propose bold and innovative ways to regain collective control of the internet, in what has become known as the Redecentralize movement.

Blockchain’s Role in Decentralizing Surveillance

The domain name system (DNS) is like the phone book of the internet, translating numerical IP addresses into easy-to-remember URLs. But it’s a centralized process that’s vulnerable to surveillance and censorship.

Google operates one of the largest DNS servers. ISPs also maintain many DNS servers. Whenever you enter a website URL into your browser, it’s sent to a DNS server for lookup. Your ISP, or Google, then stores a log of your request, including your IP address and the website you’re visiting.

If the DNS server operator decides that you shouldn’t visit a website, they can block it right then and there. Governments and companies can exploit this centralized system (operated by only a handful of companies) for censorship.

Namecoin is a cryptocurrency that stores data on the blockchain to create an alternative DNS. Instead of URLs that end in commonly used domains like .com or .net, Namecoin uses .bit as the top-level domain. The addresses are stored in the blockchain so that everybody has access to the same set of addresses.

DNS poisoning—changing the IP address of a URL in the DNS—is commonly used by criminals (to divert you to malicious websites) and by governments (to prevent you from accessing specific sites).

However, as the blockchain is both public and permanent, it’s not possible for DNS poisoning to take place. Privacy concerns are also laid to rest as the lookup is done locally on your computer, creating no network logs of your DNS request.

A New Decentralized Internet

Some projects have even higher ambition. Instead of tweaking the current internet, they want to create a whole new one instead. One such project is Zeronet.

The Zeronet network blurs the lines between a blockchain project and BitTorrent-based P2P system. Instead of IP addresses, sites are identified by a public Bitcoin address. The site is then distributed between peers and seeded. The Zeronet application receives the data and allows you to view the site in your regular web browser.

The private Bitcoin key allows the owner of the site to publish changes and will enable them to propagate through the network. Because of the way sites are distributed through the P2P network, there is no way to take down a site that still has seeders. This makes it resistant to censorship, which hasn’t made the Chinese government sympathetic to the cause.

The Great Firewall of China blocked access to the Zeronet website and BitTorrent tracker, effectively censoring it throughout the country. This development highlights the difficulty that will lay ahead in transitioning between centralized and decentralized networks.

Reclaiming Your Online Privacy

Many of the services we’ve come to rely on as part of our everyday lives are operated by one of the tech giants. Whether it’s collaborative office tools, social networking sites, or online streaming, these tools require us to hand over our data in return for the service.

Facebook and Google, in particular, have managed to amass almost unfettered access to our lives. But both companies’ services have reached critical mass; everyone we know is already using these tools, so we have to as well. They’re popular because they work.

However, the blockchain is opening up new possibilities.

Social networking is one of the most popular online activities, so it’s only natural that a decentralized, blockchain-based social network already exists. Steemit, a Reddit alternative based on the Steem blockchain, rewards their users with Steem for getting involved by posting content, commenting, or voting.

One of Google’s most successful, and criticized, platforms is YouTube. DTube ditches the advertising adds Steem cryptocurrency rewards, and its decentralized setup makes it resistant to censorship. The tendency for YouTube to remove videos, geo-block them, or demonetize them has been a significant pain point for the platform, one which DTube aims to overcome.

As we’ve become more connected, living our digital lives in the cloud has become easier too. Cloud storage providers like Dropbox and Google Drive have access to some of our most intimate data. Storj is an open-source, decentralized file storage platform that uses the blockchain and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to store your data.

Files are broken up into shards which are distributed across the network, much like with torrents. The location of the shards is stored on a distributed hash table, which can only be accessed using a private key. Storj is based on the Ethereum network and has its own STORJ token for payments on the platform.

Sustainable Open-Source Software Development

Open-source projects are regarded as among the most secure since anyone can view the code and contribute. However, open-source software is predominately volunteer work. Consistency and quality can be difficult to predict when people are unable to commit to projects full-time.

BugMark, a project supported by Mozilla, is a futures market for bugs. The aim is to find a way to financially reward developers for open-source work and allow for part-completion of work.

A futures contract is a legal agreement to buy or sell something at a predetermined price on a specified date. In the financial world, they are often used in currency trading to lock in a specific exchange rate and minimize risk. Bugmark uses Ethereum-based futures contracts for software issues.

This creates two marketplaces: one between a funder and developer, and one for trading futures contracts.

The market for trading contacts means a developer may choose to only complete part of the work before selling the contract. The developer gets compensated, and the work isn’t lost either. Bugmark aims to make open-source development sustainable.

With much of the internet’s backbone supported by open-source projects, keeping them up-to-date and secure is critical. While Bugmark is still in early-stage development, it may one day support an ecosystem that makes us all safer.

Ready to Redecentralize?

Although the internet is arguably easier and more accessible than ever, with more free-to-use services available to us, it has come at a cost. We have traded our privacy for convenience. Online freedom for simplicity.

The popularity of Bitcoin turned the blockchain into mainstream technology. While we’re still in the early stages, the potential for a decentralized internet is already there. Whether that’s by replacing proprietary, privacy-invading platforms with encrypted, decentralized ones, or building a new internet altogether, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the future.

James Frew
James Frew is a contributor to Blocks Decoded.
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