Will there ever be a decentralized web?

August 29, 2016

No. Yes. Don’t know.

A decentralized web

I’ve recently read an article at [email protected] For lack of a better term on my part, pundits opining about the decentralized web.

It is an interesting read. Going through the opinions there, you can divide the crowd into 3 factions:

  1. We want privacy. Also we hate governments and monopolies. This is the largest group
  2. There’s this great tech we can put in place to make the internet more robust
  3. We actually don’t know

I am… somewhat split across all of these three groups.

#1 – Privacy, Gatekeepers and Monopolies

Like any other person, I want privacy. On the other hand, I want security, which in many cases (and especially today) comes at the price of privacy. I also want convenience, and at the age of artificial intelligence and chat bots – this can easily mean less privacy.

As for governments and monopolies – I don’t think these will change due to a new protocol or a decentralized web. The web started as something decentralized and utopian to some extent. It degraded to what it is today because governments caught on and because companies grew inside the internet to become monopolies. Can we redesign it all in a way that will not allow for governments to rule over the data going into them or for monopolies to not exist? I doubt it.

I am taking part now in a few projects where location matters. Where you position your servers, how you architect your network, and even how you communicate your intent with governments – all these can make or break your service. I just can’t envision how protocols can change that in a global scale – and how the forces that be that need to promote and push these things will actively do so.

I think it is a good thing to strive for, but something that is going very challenging to achieve:

  • Most powerful services today rely on big data = no real privacy (at least not in front of the service you end up using). This will always cause tension between our design for privacy versus our desire for personalization and automation
  • Most governments can enforce rules in the long run in ways that catch up with protocols – or simply abuse weaknesses in products
  • Popular services bubble to the top, in the long run making them into monopolies and gatekeepers by choice – no one forces us to use Google for search, and yet most of us view search on the web and Google as synonymous

#2 – Tech

Yes. Our web is client-server for the most part, with browsers getting their data fix from backend servers.

We now have technologies that can work differently (WebRTC’s data channel is one of them, and there are others still).

We can and should work on making our infrastrucuture more robust. More impregnable to malicious attackers and prone to errors. We should make it scale better. And yes. Decentralization is usually a good design pattern to achieve these goals.

But if at the end of the day, the decentralized web is only about maintaining the same user experience, then this is just a slow evolution of what we’re already doing.

Tech is great. I love tech. Most people don’t really care.

#3 – We just don’t know

As with many other definitions out there, there’s no clear definition of what the decentralized web is or should be. Just a set of opinions by different pundits – most with an agenda for putting out that specific definition.

I really don’t know what that is or what it should be. I just know that our web today is centralized in many ways, but in other ways it is already rather decentralized. The idea that I have this website hosted somewhere (I am clueless as to where), while I write these words from my home in Israel, it is being served either directly or from a CDN to different locations around the globe – all done through a set of intermediaries – some of which I specifically selected (and pay for or use for free) – to me that’s rather decentralized.

At the end of the day, the work being done by researchers for finding ways to utilize our existing protocols to offer decentralized, robust services or to define and develop new protocols that are inherently decentralized is fascinating. I’ve had my share of it in my university days. This field is a great place to research and learn about networks and communications. I can’t wait to see how these will evolve our every day networks.

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  1. I have been working on a project, subsect.net , that uses WebRTC and attempts to address some of these issues. The product is a bit rough now but you may be interested in taking a look.

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