Matthew Hodgson Crunch Network Contributor
Matthew Hodgson is technical co-founder of Matrix.org , a not-for-profit open source project unifying Chat, VoIP and IoT technologies.
How to join the network Recently, Google launched a video calling tool (yes, another one). Google Hangouts has been sidelined to Enterprise, and Google Duo is supposed to be the next big thing in video calling.
So now we have Skype from Microsoft, Facetime from Apple, and Google with Duo. Each big company has its own equivalent service, each stuck in its own bubble. These services may be great, but they aren’t exactly what we imagined during the dream years when the internet was being built.
The original purpose of the web and internet, if you recall, was to build a common neutral network which everyone can participate in equally for the betterment of humanity. Fortunately, there is an emerging movement to bring the web back to this vision and it even involves some of the key figures from the birth of the web. It’s called the Decentralised Web or Web 3.0, and it describes an emerging trend to build services on the internet which do not depend on any single “central” organisation to function.
So what happened to the initial dream of the web? Much of the altruism faded during the first dot-com bubble, as people realised that an easy way to create value on top of this neutral fabric was to build centralised services which gather, trap and monetise information.
Search Engines (e.g. Google), Social Networks (e.g. Facebook), Chat Apps (e.g. WhatsApp) have grown huge by providing centralised services on the internet. For example, Facebook’s future vision of the internet is to provide access only to the subset of centralised services it endorses (Internet.org and Free Basics).
Meanwhile, it disables fundamental internet freedoms such as the ability to link to content via a URL (forcing you to share content only within Facebook) or the ability for search engines to index its contents (other than the Facebook search function).
The Decentralised Web envisions a future world where services such as communication, currency, publishing, social networking, search, archiving etc are provided not by centralised services owned by single organisations, but by technologies which are powered by the people: their own community. Their users.
The core idea of decentralisation is that the operation of a service is not blindly trusted to any single omnipotent company. Instead, responsibility for the service is shared: perhaps by running across multiple federated servers, or perhaps running across client side apps in an entirely “distributed” peer-to-peer model.
Even though the community may be “byzantine” and not have any reason to trust or depend on each other, the rules that describe the decentralised service’s behaviour are designed to force participants to act fairly in order to participate at all, relying heavily on cryptographic techniques such as Merkle trees and digital signatures to allow participants to hold each other accountable.
There are three fundamental areas that the Decentralised Web necessarily champions:privacy, data portability and security.
Privacy: Decentralisation forces an increased focus on data privacy. Data is distributed across the network and end-to-end encryption technologies are critical for ensuring that only authorized users can read and write. Access to the data itself is entirely controlled algorithmically by the network as opposed to more centralized networks where typically the owner of that network has full access to data, facilitating customer profiling and ad targeting.
Data Portability: In a decentralized environment, users own their data and choose with whom they share this data. Moreover they retain control of it when they leave a given service provider (assuming the service even has the concept of service providers). This is important. If I want to move from General Motors to BMW today, why should I not be able to take my driving records with me? The same applies to chat platform history or health records.
Security: Finally, we live in a world of increased security threats. In a centralized environment, the bigger the silo, the bigger the honeypot is to attract bad actors. Decentralized environments are safer by their general nature against being hacked, infiltrated, acquired, bankrupted or otherwise compromised as they have been built to exist under public scrutiny from the outset.
Just as the internet itself triggered a grand re-levelling, taking many disparate unconnected local area networks and providing a new neutral common ground that linked them all, now we see the same pattern happening again as technology emerges to provide a new neutral common ground for higher level services. And much like Web 2.0, the first wave of this Web 3.0 invasion has walked among us for several years already.
Git is wildly successful as an entirely decentralised version control system – almost entirely replacing centralised systems such as Subversion. Bitcoin famously demonstrates how a currency can exist without any central authority, contrasting with a centralised incumbent such as Paypal. Diaspora aims to provide a decentralised alternative to Facebook. Freenet paved the way for decentralised websites, email and file sharing.
Less famously, StatusNet (now called GNU Social) provides a decentralised alternative to Twitter. XMPP was built to provide a decentralised alternative to the messaging silos of AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN, and others.