I am passionate about cryptocurrency, blockchain, freelancing, and volunteering.
Do you recall the early days of the web? When you listened to your dial-up modem starting up, you were reveling in the sound of freedom and possibility.
These times have changed. The internet of today is scarcely recognizable. On the surface, some things are the same. We still enter queries into search engines. We still open websites to find the information. We still chat with others online.
But today, the internet is centralized. Remember AltaVista? Infoseek? Magellan? Snap? There are dozens of defunct search engines in the internet graveyard.
Ask yourself—when is the last time you used any search engine other than Google?
Just a few massive companies hold dominion over our lives: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook. The power they wield over the information we seek, the data we share, and the products we buy have turned them into monopolies. Thankfully, times are changing yet again. Internet users are becoming more aware of the dangers of a centralized internet.
Below, we explore those issues in detail. Then, we take a look at some of the early steps that individuals and businesses are taking to decentralize the web. We will close with some recommendations for how internet users like you can do their part to decentralize the web for a fairer, more transparent online environment.
Centralization of the internet was something that snuck up on a lot of us. But now that so much power is consolidated in so few hands, the problems we are facing pose imminent threats to our privacy, freedoms, and opportunities. Let's dig deeper into the internet as we see it today, and how we can create a route to the decentralization of the internet.
1. Big companies are now gatekeepers of information
On August 1st, 2018, Google released its infamous “Medic update.” The search engine didn’t have much to say about the update, except that sites should “remain focused on building great content.”
But over the months that followed, it became clear that Google was not just punishing sites that failed to produce “great content.” Many of the sites that plunged in the rankings were alternative health websites. At the very least, they simply were not institutions.
As SelfHacked CEO Joe Cohen explained, “You can check it out for yourself: type any health topic in Google, and look at what comes up in the first 10 results. WebMD, Healthline, and some hospitals usually. Then type it in Bing: you’ll see that Bing gives better and more relevant results every time.” This is just one example of a scenario where a big company’s massive amount of consolidated power gave it the ability to censor information.
This update buried a lot of poorly researched, misleading websites. But it also wiped out a lot of legitimate businesses and high-quality, information-dense websites. And these days, it is hard for a site to survive without ranking high on Google. The bottom line is that big businesses should not be able to pass value judgements on what types of information the public can and cannot easily discover.
2. We are losing control of our data
Speaking of information, not only does centralization lead to censorship, but it also leads to companies misusing the information we give them. There are plenty of stories to tell here, but the most prominent is undoubtedly the scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. As explained here, Cambridge Analytica harvested personally identifiable information on as many as 87 million Facebook users. The company then used that data to send manipulative messages to voters to sway the 2016 US presidential election.
3. Users generate content, big companies reap the rewards
Think about the countless hours you have spent posting to social media. Who is profiting off of that work? Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Probably not you.
It is happening with search engines too. Google’s results snippets are designed to keep users from ever clicking through to sites. The search engine is now competing directly against website owners while leveraging their content for profit.
4. Security threats abound
While big businesses deliberately misuse our information, they are not the only ones we need to worry about. With so much of our data centralized, a single hack can expose the private data of millions of people.
5. There is always a middle man
Centralization of services means you are constantly dealing with a middle man. When that middle man comes to dominate your sector, they can set unfriendly terms. Freelancers online, for example, may struggle to work through major platforms like Upwork that charge high fees and place strict caps on monthly job applications.
6. Decentralization isn’t here yet—but decentralized apps and services are already springing up
We are far from a decentralized web right now. But there is hope. Quite a few projects are already out there to help web users to take back their power.
MIT mentions a few examples, including Freedom Box, a personal publishing system, Diaspora, a social network, Mastadon, an alternative to Twitter, and others. Some developers are even experimenting with decentralized website hosting. An example is Zeronet, which replaces a single centralized server with a network of computers.
You will notice while you are researching decentralized apps and services that many of them rely on blockchain technology, the public ledger in which Bitcoin transactions are recorded. As Kremenova, I., & Gajdos, M. explain in this research article, “The innovative tech eliminates middlemen, reduces costs, all while increasing scalability, security, and efficiency through its decentralized core property.”
The New Yorker says, “[Bitcoin’s] elegance has led some to wonder: if money can be decentralized and, to some extent, anonymized, can’t the same model be applied to other things, like e-mail?” Indeed, The New Yorker references just such a solution, called Bitmessage, explaining,
“Instead of talking to a central mail server, Bitmessage distributes messages across a network of peers running the Bitmessage software.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if you were rewarded financially just for posting on social media? Polychain Capital founder Olaf Carlson-Wee writes, “To be sure, the blockchain space is still mostly in a phase of experimentation, but the first breakout apps will be explosive because they financially incentivize users to participate in the network. Imagine being able to actually make money when you contribute on social media.”
By its very nature, freelancing is all about decentralizing work. Freelancers perform work directly for clients. They work on their own terms—or at least, they try to. Big platforms like Upwork make it hard for the reasons we talked about earlier. Grindez is a P2P work platform that offers freelancers an alternative to centralized sites like Upwork. With smart contracts, efficient escrow payments, and support for a variety of cryptocurrencies, this site maximizes freedom and security for participants while minimizing fees.
Tired of sending your data to Google when you work in Google Docs? A decentralized alternative is Graphite Docs. It features a word processor as well as a spreadsheet app. Instead of storing user data on a central server, Graphite Docs encrypts and stores it on a network of computers.
Now that you know a bit more about some of the innovative work being done to decentralize the internet, you may be wondering what you personally can do to help push us further towards a decentralized future.
Start using decentralized services
Apps and services like Bitmessage, Grindez, and Graphite Docs are already out there, just waiting to replace your existing email service, freelancing platform, or document app. When you adopt these services, you take your patronage away from the big companies that want to control your data.
Speculate on cryptocurrencies
A lot of people are investing in crypto these days in the hopes of getting rich. But an even better reason to invest in crypto is to play your part in helping to create a fully decentralized economy through the use of alternative currencies and using commerce in a more p2p nature.
Try alternatives to major search engines, social networks, and e-commerce sites
Even if you do not feel savvy enough to adopt some of the more technical decentralized solutions that are out there, there are a number of easy alternatives to dealing with Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
For example, you can switch your default search engine to Ecosia, a search engine that donates heavily to reforestation. For every 45 or so searches you run, you help plant a tree. You can use Bitclout or Steemit for your social media needs. Use p2p marketplaces such as Paxful, for your goods online.
Avoid over-sharing your information with big companies
Companies like Facebook have done an astonishing job persuading users to voluntarily part with their personal information. There is very little data you actually have to make public when using the web. Avoid doing so unnecessarily.
Get political (and personal)
Last but not least, how you vote is important too. Do what you can to keep politicians out of office who will cave to the pressure of lobbyists representing big businesses. But don’t forget that the personal is political too. Your daily choices online are just as important in shaping the system as the votes you place for candidates or legislation.
There is still a lot of work to be done in the development of decentralized technology—and even more with respect to making it easy for casual internet users to adopt. But for those who are looking to enhance their privacy, protect their data, escape censorship, and take back more control of their digital lives, pioneering apps and services are already here to adopt. Not only that, but simply by participating in crypto, choosing alternatives to internet juggernauts, and aligning your politics and personal choices, you can help usher in a decentralized future which protects our security and our sovereignty.
Knowledge is Power! Share your knowledge, open source your projects, participate in a community (any community!), and maybe just maybe publish a blog post about it. Constructive criticism and feedback are welcomed.
Create your free account to unlock your custom reading experience.