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The revolution to re-decentralize the web with blockchain, and why it matters

After years of ignoring the issue of centrality on the web, are privacy concerns awakening internet users? Jan Vermeulen explores how blockchain technology could be used to decentralize the web.

Written by Jan Vermeulen Published on

Once upon a time, there was a magical global network.

Anyone on the network could write about any topic they found interesting. There was no-one trying to show the people using the network advertisements all the time, and no-one following you from place to place trying to learn private details about you.

Read: What are the three generations of blockchain, and how are they similar to the web?

For the longest time, everyone in the network was happy and excited about what the future would bring for the magnificent place they were building.

But soon the outside world learned of the network, and although its valiant warriors believed they were prepared, the could not protect their magical kingdom from the dark influence of the real world…

Telling ourselves fairytales

If you are old enough to remember a time before social media, like me, you might like to tell yourself this fairytale. That the World Wide Web and the Internet underpinning it were once a magical bazaar where ideas were freely exchanged and constructive discourse was the order of the day.

Like many fairytales, there might be a grain of truth at the heart of the story, and perhaps even a life lesson to be taken away, but the details have been elaborated for effect.

The part of the story we hide from ourselves was that there were many problems with the web in the beginning, and, like so many human endeavors where we build-as-we-go, every solution either introduced or exposed a new issue.

That said, there is one set of problems which hackers and other champions have been warning about for over a decade, and which has largely gone ignored. Humans—being the creatures of comfort that we are—were happy to trade some privacy and freedoms in exchange for the convenience of centralized online services.

After years of ignoring the problem, the camel’s back is finally breaking. The last straw? A company called Cambridge Analytica which allegedly used Facebook user data to help Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential election. (Cambridge Analytica denied this allegation until declaring insolvency on 1 May 2018. It did acknowledge obtaining Facebook data, but maintained that it was deleted at Facebook’s request before its work on the Trump campaign.)

To illustrate how old the privacy concerns surrounding Facebook are, here is a note I published on the platform on 28 May 2007, not even a year after the platform launched to the general public. This was a “chain letter” kind of message being shared on the platform. I’ve left in my decade-old annotations {in curly brackets}, for posterity:

Apparently Facebook has started letting other websites access user information (surprise, surprise!) to third parties. They call it the “Facebook Development Platform.”

To restrict use of your information, do the following: Click “Privacy” on top right.

Under the “Facebook Platform” section {you can find this in the “Applications” section under “Other Applications” /Jan} click “Edit Settings”.

Scroll down to the bottom and uncheck all of the items under Facebook platform.

Most creepy is the inclusion of photographs! {I dunno, the inclusion of all my personal data by default is more scary /Jan}

(Do your friends a favour and repost this as your own note.)

The early web

While it is accurate to say that the early web was not dominated by a few massive corporations like it is today, it was also extremely difficult to find anything.

Links to your new creations or discoveries were shared via word of mouth through various online forums, chat rooms, mailing lists, or by simply telling people where to find it.

Early search engines which automatically crawled the web and allowed you to perform a keyword search to find pages, such as Webcrawler and AltaVista, were not the great.

Human curation continued to play a big role back then, with web directories providing links to sites that contained information on a specific topic, or which provided a specific service.

I probably still have college textbooks which recommend searching the web with several engines, including Google and Yahoo!, to ensure you find the best results. It also recommended that we use Ananzi.co.za to find results specific to South Africa.

The launch of Wikipedia in the early 2000s was a revelation, simultaneously providing a place where information could be aggregated and easily discovered.

Of course, the university warned us never to cite Wikipedia as a reference in any work we submitted, but it remains a great starting-off point when you want to learn about something or quickly look up a fact.

Blogging and bookmarking

One of the first social networking services I used, besides Blogger and Live Journal, was a bookmarking service called Del.icio.us.

Nowadays a bookmark is really just a shortcut so you don’t have to type out your favourite site’s URL. In the early web, bookmarks were an essential tool to help you remember all the great sites you’ve discovered.

Del.icio.us aimed to build on this idea by allowing users to share bookmarks with one another. Sites like Digg and Reddit ultimately overshadowed Del.icio.us. After changing hands several times, the social bookmarking platform was shut down after being acquired by Pinboard last year.

Blogger and Live Journal were launched in 1999, and helped drive an explosion in online writing. People from all spheres, whether wedding photographers or political activists, started weblogs and published their thoughts and other works online. Everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to George R.R. Martin had a Live Journal.

The world has moved on from the relative diversity in platforms from the bygone age of blogging. Facebook became available to anyone with an e-mail address in 2006, and Twitter launched in the same year. Together the two services have all but rendered the personal blog obsolete, and have even become the gateways through which people access mainstream news media.

This massive shift was poignantly expressed by Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who wrote in 2015 that The Web has been replaced by The Stream.

Where once the hyperlink was the power behind the web, as intended by its creator Tim Berners-Lee, Facebook and Twitter had replaced it with their constant streams of posts designed to only emphasise one outbound link, and favour content like images and videos posted natively to the service.

Derakhshan was arrested in 2008 for his political writing, as well as visiting Israel. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail, but was abruptly pardoned in 2014 and emerged from prison to find the world changed—both online and off.

“The rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?” he asked.

This sentiment is shared by none other than the very creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who argued back in 2014 that the web needs to be brought back to its decentralized roots.

At the time, he said that although for-profit internet monopolies such as search engines and social networks were a concern, the greater danger is the emergence of what he called “a balkanized web.” He was responding to a fear that countries were increasingly looking to isolate themselves and their citizens from the rest of the Internet, and insisting that any service operating within their borders must do so from servers hosted within the country.

Four years later, the priorities of Berners-Lee’s concerns have changed, with the centralization due to platforms like Facebook and Twitter chief among them.

In an open letter published on The Guardian, he wrote:

“The threats to the web today are real — from misinformation and questionable political advertising to a loss of control over our personal data.”

He warned that in addition to all the usual concerns of gatekeeping, the centralization of the web allows it to be weaponized at scale.

“In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.”

Berners-Lee said that we’ve looked to the platforms themselves for answers, who are taking steps to fix them. However, the responsibility of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good.

“A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions,” he argued.

Taking back the web with blockchain technology

While several projects have started up to offer ad-free and privacy-aware alternatives to Facebook, none of them have succeeded in gaining much traction.

Diaspora* promised a fully decentralized alternative to the current model of closed-ecosystem social networks. Despite raising $200,000 on Kickstarter (which, in June 2010, made it the largest successful project on the platform), Diaspora’s development was plagued with problems and it failed to achieve much success.

Berners-Lee himself sits on the board of MeWe, a platform which operates under the slogan #Not4Sale, and promises not to track your usage or share your personal data. It remains to be seen if MeWe can succeed where others have failed.

More interesting is Berners-Lee involvement in an MIT project called Solid which aims to decouple data from apps, and give users complete control over what they share. This would also allow you to switch apps without losing data, and allow developers to re-use data created by other apps.

However, one area where decentralization is king is in blockchain technology. While far from perfect, distributed ledgers are not only decentralized, but designed to resist centralization.

Even if one platform where to become dominant, a core premise of typical blockchain projects is that there are several actors in the system who keep one another in check.

Several experiments in combining social media with blockchain technology have already been launched, including:

  • PROPS by YouNow, an ecosystem for video application
  • Indorse.io, a LinkedIn-like professional network which uses the distributed consensus model of a blockchain to validate the skills people claim they have.
  • Sola.io, a hybrid media- and social network.
  • Sapien, a news platform which aims to fight fake news, reward content creators, and give you control of your data.
  • Steemit, a social network that rewards authors, commenters, and curators for their participation, and weights votes by your level of investment in the platform.
  • Minds, another crypto-powered social network which also allows you to sell exclusive digital content to your audience. Almost like a cryptocurrency-powered Patreon.

Social media projects based on platforms like Ethereum and Waves are working too not only address the problem of the web becoming more centralized, but to solve the issue of creators getting paid for their work.

Read: Are Bitcoin transactions traceable?

Just as we look back at the web of 90s and early 2000s now and reminisce about the days before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, and eBay, hopefully in ten years from now we can look back and marvel at how far we’ve come since the days of Internet monopolies.

Written by

Technology journalist, coder, and speaker. He runs Relative Entropy and lives as a knight-errant of the keyboard. @ sigstart