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Data Privacy & Decentralization

A diagram of different network structures.

If there’s one thing the Internet lacks, it’s privacy. With almost half of the world’s population online and over 1.5 billion websites to interact with, the sheer volume of information available brings into question the way this data is managed and distributed. And from Facebook’s now infamous data privacy crisis to the EU’s recent implementation of the new GDPR data law, the longstanding issue of privacy and security on the World Wide Web seems to finally be coming to an important turning point for users, businesses, and organizations all over the world.

Still, despite stricter government regulations and increased transparency by companies, our data is still at risk. Even the GDPR, with its strict compliance rules and obvious data privacy benefits, can’t protect against data breaches that can put consumers’ financial and personal security in danger. The current centralized state of the Internet further limits the extent to which online data can be protected ­­– and as long as this centralization continues, there will always be a level of uncertainty when it comes to data security.

The problem with the centralized Internet

Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony in light of Facebook’s misuse of user data.

In a centralized network, all users and user data are connected through a central server. Not only does this make data more vulnerable to hacking and other forms of data theft, but it also places critical information in the hands of whoever owns the server. With all data going through that one point, users have little control over how their data is used once that information is handed over. And it’s not just usernames and passwords that warrant concern ­– even the most innocuous actions such as the phrases you search and the posts you like leave a digital footprint that is getting harder and harder to erase.

Granted, in this online world, it’s safe to assume that most (if not all) of what you do is recorded and collected in some way. Even when the Internet began as a small network of decentralized computers, information was closely monitored by the government and other public officials. But today’s central servers are no longer operated by objective third parties — instead, the vast majority of our personal information lies in the hands of a few giant tech companies whose primary source of revenue lies in the monetization and commercialization of data.

In any other industry, an oligopoly of this size and status would likely prompt legal action or government intervention. But the Internet, despite its privatization, is still seen as an open network and public good, making it difficult to regulate.

The key to restoring online data privacy

The 2016 Yahoo! data breaches were considered among the worst and most publicized in recent history.

In today’s hyper-centralized digital world, traditional forms of data protection are simply a Band-Aid fix to a much bigger problem. Stricter rules and regulations don’t change the fact that sensitive information is still passing through these central servers every day on a colossal scale. And our increasing reliance on the Internet — as a network, as a marketplace, as a communication platform — makes this a connection not easily severed, not even for the sake of our own protection.

So how can we ensure data privacy without losing out on the Internet’s utility? That answer doesn’t lie in a company or government, but rather in the structure of the Internet itself.

Here’s where decentralization comes into place. The fact is, it’s easier to keep data and other files secure on a decentralized server than on a centralized one. With data stored across multiple computers in multiple locations, the risk of a single entry point is mitigated and makes less data accessible at each point. Decentralized platforms can even avoid holding sensitive information altogether by not storing passwords and using other keystore methods to allow users to retrieve information, taking trust completely out of the equation.

Decentralization doesn’t just mean more protection for your personal data. It also puts power back into the hands of Internet users by allowing them to have complete control over the information they give and receive. By eliminating the bias of ad-based data centralization models that use your personal data against you, decentralization creates a self-governing environment that will help shape the Internet back into the community it once was rather than the business it’s become.

74% of Americans think that being in control of who can get their information is “very important,” but it takes more than skimming a site’s Terms & Conditions and setting your social media profile to private to really protect yourself. It’s time we start recognizing the important role decentralization will play in the future of the Internet — because if there’s one thing we can learn from Facebook and the GDPR, it’s that current online privacy standards aren’t sustainable in today’s offline world.

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