The Future of the Internet: Privacy, Censorship, and Equality by@Christopher_Fowler

The Future of the Internet: Privacy, Censorship, and Equality

Viktor Tron is the founder and team lead of the Ethereum Swarm project. The Swarm project aims to provide an infrastructure for a global digital society. Tron: Decentralized storage is needed for the future of the internet. He also shared insights about the inner workings of Swarm, its strong points, and how the project is crucial for the future of decentralization. Swarm requires payment for the retrieval, upload and storage of content, and allows users to share their data with advertisers in the process of earning income.
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Under the guise of "stopping health misinformation," online censorship has increased throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Big tech companies like Facebook and Google are censoring a wide range of information from being published and shared on social media channels like Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and Facebook.

Social media companies have accumulated unprecedented power, and their lack of transparency and integrity as gatekeepers of information is worrying.

As we continue to spend more of our time online, either working remotely or consuming content, the need for freedom of expression on the internet is crucial. 

At the forefront of the shift from digital supremacy to a more democratized landscape stands Blockchain technology, a crucial element that has impacted countless industries. Cryptocurrencies are not only changing finance, they are also allowing decentralized incentive models to surge, leveling the playing field between large corporations and common people.

I spoke with Viktor Tron, founder and team lead of the Ethereum Swarm project. Having been involved with the Ethereum foundation at its early stages, Viktor kick-started his career early on and is recognized by his peers as a computer programming expert. During the interview, Viktor walks us through his personal journey and professional career. He also shared insights about the inner workings of Swarm, its strong points, and how the project is crucial for the future of the decentralized internet.

Q: Why is decentralized data storage needed? 

Decentralized storage is needed to provide an infrastructure for a global digital society. Let’s start from the viewpoint of a future social ideal. 

More and more these days, economic activity is based on data. The impact of this economic shift into digitized data and data transmission will increase the demand and prevalence of infrastructure solutions.

In a global digital society, data and content will be persistent and readily available for anyone and at any point in time. Blockchain and other decentralized solutions will ensure data will remain constant.

Another upside of decentralized storage is that data becomes permissionless, accessible to anyone, and uncensorable, meaning no gatekeepers decide which content can or cannot be uploaded to the network.

Infrastructure that tracks the origins and aggregation of data is also crucial for the future of a global digital society. Decentralized systems, like the one Swarm is building, are ideal and provide all the necessary requirements for this kind of society. But in order to understand a little better, let’s take a step back.

In the good old days, people owned their data.

Since the early rise of the internet, it became clear that there was a huge demand for the democratization of content and free flow of information. Before that, publishing content was a huge bottleneck, as there were several intermediaries and restrictions one would have to go through. 

The same that happened with content and data is now happening in the world of finance.

Thanks to the blockchain, the bottleneck for transacting value has been severely diminished by cutting out banking institutions and other middlemen.  

The problem was, as access to publishing was open to anyone, the prevalent server-client infrastructure made it impossible for content creators to scale. Nowadays, big corporations have made scaling possible through solutions like cloud storage.

Also, the content publication is somehow left void if the publisher does not provide easy access to consumers. In order to be discovered, data must be searchable and present in diverse platforms, including search engines, social media channels, and content aggregators.

Unified service companies like Google provide both the infrastructure and platform services, handling both the storage and distribution of data all in one place. However, a big problem arose when these large unified companies, like Facebook, started to own users' data. 

Suddenly, user data was tracked and sold to marketers for the highest bid.

In the Web 2.0 phase, several big tech companies realized that user profiling, together with tracking online behavior, provided a way more lucrative value proposition than selling the platform features. 

This business model from big tech has led users to progressively giving up sovereignty over their own data, but Swarm solves that by placing control over data once again in the hands of users.

One of Swarm’s strongest propositions and selling points is that it puts the settlement and accounting of data back in the base layer infrastructure, where it belongs originally. To put in less technical terms, Swarm requires payment for the retrieval, upload, and storage of content. 

Swarm will also allow users to share their data with advertisers directly, earning income in the process. The cost of these services is settled in a transparent way.

It is also important to mention that decentralization systems are superior in many ways. It makes the components of the system homogenous and thus easily replaceable. In turn, centralized systems have several bottleneck issues and are vulnerable to censorship, server downtimes, and single points of failure. 

Q: While decentralization solves some problems, it may create others. What do you think may be the biggest challenges in a future where Swarm has seen mass adoption?

I would have to say that if there is mass adoption of Swarm, it's a great indicator that there aren’t any major problems. Instead, I believe Swarm’s toughest challenges will be faced on the way towards reaching mass adoption.

The largest hurdle will be educating people on why they should pay for content they are currently getting for free. Users will first need to be convinced about the advantages of Swarm. Alternatively, decentralized systems which are advertisement-based can help users have access to content for free as long as they share their data. 

Of course, there are other challenges as well. The project is still in its infancy, and we are currently faced with scalability issues, which, until solved, will prevent the mass adoption of Swarm. We must make gradual progress, reaching new developers and creating new tools for users. 

Q: What sets Swarm apart from other projects like Filecoin, Chia, IPFS, or Dfinity?

A: I usually say what sets Swarm apart from Filecoin, for example, is twofold. The first is that, in Swam, the storage model is directly distributed. 

In systems like BitTorrent and IPFS, users become part of the network by sharing whatever content is on their hard drives, which will be made available for anyone to download. 

In Swarm, however, users store only the data that the network tells them to. When you open your storage, specific tasks are assigned to you and you must serve chunks of data belonging to your neighborhood. In other words, you become a node operator and take responsibility for a partition of the network.

Users can also contribute to the network by sharing hard drive space for forwarding messages or sharing bandwidth. Users are always compensated for any contribution they make to the network, receiving tokens in the process. 

The financial incentive is designed to convince more people to join the network. And once more and more people join a decentralized network as contributors, it becomes more resilient and cheaper to use. 

The second reason Swarm is different is that it is a much stronger affiliation towards confidentiality, which allows for anonymous browsing and very strong messaging and privacy features.

Also, its incentive system is non-spoofable, which ensures contributors can’t cheat the system.

They will only get paid for uploading content that users want to see and access. The incentive system also provides a fair distribution of storage revenue for contributors, balancing itself through automatic price setting and careful incentivization. Prices change according to supply and demand.

Swarm’s vision is to provide a comprehensive backend for the decentralized web. To give all the tools from the server-side, thus giving programmers all the components necessary to create interactive applications, such as decentralized database banking and data aggregation.  

Q: Swarm uses the Ethereum blockchain as an incentive layer for nodes to store and share data. Why Ethereum and not another smart contract ecosystem?

That’s a funny question because I was initially involved in the early-stage development of Ethereum. Swarm is at the forefront right now, but it started quite a while ago, just like Ethereum. 

The choice to use Ethereum was due to the fact that there were no other viable options back when Swarm started. However, I still consider Ethereum my blockchain of choice and the most complete smart contract ecosystem.

Q: As scalability problems arise for Ethereum, many question the network’s long-term viability. Can Storm function without Ethereum?

Swarm actually started as a subproject of the Ethereum foundation, but we have become independent since then. In its conceptual structure, Swarm is blockchain agnostic. This means that Swarm can be implemented into any network, and our development team has plans to integrate cross-chain compatibility into our incentivization structure.

However, at this current stage, Swarm can not function without Ethereum. The code was written to be compatible with Ethereum, and significant changes would be needed in order to function without it. 

There is definitely long-term viability of adopting other networks. Especially if these other networks support similar language or EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine), which makes the process of translating code much easier. 

Q: The BZZ token plays a crucial role in the Swarm ecosystem. How do external factors like speculation or market volatility impact the technical side of Swarm?

An important thing to note is that having long-term storage is, most of the time, a real pain in the ass for token volatility. Storage services are negotiated and placed into contracts, meaning that both parties commit to a specific price beforehand.

The contracts then require users and operators to have a good model that carefully calculates the price of storage years into the future. If you mispredict the future, it can cost you. 

However, Swarm has an automatic price mechanism so users won’t need to worry so much about the volatility of BZZ. In other words, the network is responsive to price changes and the price of storage services is kept low due to the competitive landscape.

Q: We look at decentralization as the future of the internet (Web 3.0.), do you believe that there will be a complete shift to this model or that both options will become equally accessible in the future?

The two can co-exist and complement each other. Some services are better suited for centralized systems while others are a perfect fit for decentralized infrastructures like the blockchain.

Certain server base solutions will remain in use due to being technologically superior in certain aspects. But in the future, storage will no longer be dependent on any companies, but rather on the incentive system that keeps decentralized networks running. 

Let’s look at the example of flight aggregators like Momondo and Skyscanner. This type of business model can actually benefit from leveraging both centralized and decentralized systems. 

By having flight aggregators on Swarm, users will be able to transparently verify the authenticity of any flight offer. The system will be trustless, meaning users won’t have to worry about the reputation of the traveling agencies.

However, some of these services may suffer from latency challenges due to the nature of redundant storage. Therefore, in order to not compromise the speed of the services, flight aggregators might still elect to use centralized solutions in conjunction with blockchain technology. 

Q: From the point of decentralized storage, what differentiates Swarm from other solutions? Which solution most ensures public data safety and accessibility?

Generally say that it’s not worth making distinctions between these solutions. Usually, the perceived stability and resilience of the individual projects are what count the most. However, long-term aspirations are also important.

Our modular solution is meant to make Swarm viable in the long term. It also makes work easier to coordinate, facilitating the creation of much more complex features.

It’s also worth mentioning that web 3.0 is a paradigm. It’s currently in a position equal to most 2.0 solutions, which will assist Swarm and promote decentralization. 

As for the features that set Swarm aside, these include being a full cloud solution, having strong privacy features and a solid incentive system, which takes care of prices automatically through supply and demand.

Q: Is Swarm built for people, companies, or both?

In a way, companies are also people. So, I’m not sure I agree with this distinction, especially since the premise behind decentralized systems is to break down barriers of entry and any type of discrepancy between network participants.

Of course, Swarm is built with end-users in mind, be it companies or individuals. However, since Swarm is a base layer infrastructure, built with a large focus on fair and incentivized data distribution, its main target group is developers. 

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you start your career as a developer? What projects have you been involved in before Swarm?

It’s hard to say when my professional career started. I believe in personal integrity, in my life, there isn’t much separation between work and non-work activities. 

In other words, the lines between the personal and professional have become blurred. I also share the opinion that it’s inefficient to make strong distinctions between work and life, and people who do that usually do not enjoy their work.  

Placing that aside, my career began at the age of 12. I started out publishing code, written for the Commodore 16, in a children’s magazine.

Years later I started to get heavily involved with the study of mathematics and linguistics, which led to aspirations of becoming a teacher. I then started a career in linguistics research and moved more and more to natural language processing and speech technology. I had the privilege of making contributions to Siri and Swipe. 

Afterward, I gradually shifted towards being more of a “computer guy”. I started working as a programmer for several projects, including a semantic web-based portal for the BBC.

I then got involved in crypto, and it didn’t take for me to get fully immersed. When I discovered Ethereum I was completely blown away, which ultimately led me to drop everything else to become the first paid employee of the Ethereum foundation.

Within the foundation, Swarm emerged as a promising project, part of the holy trinity that aimed to completely decentralize the internet. The holy trinity included Ethereum, as the CPU, Swarm, as the hard drive for storing data, and Whisper, as the decentralized messaging protocol.

As time passed, Whisper started to lose relevance and Swarm took its place. Expanding its mission to offer a complete blockchain-based solution, Swarm allows interactive global applications to run in the decentralized web. 

Since Swarm parted ways from the Ethereum foundation, it has grown immensely. We now have between 40 to 50 paid employees and contributors. It’s worth mentioning that Swarm is not just my idea. It’s father is Daniel Nagy, who is a long time friend of mine and colleague since the beginnings of my career in the Ethereum foundation. 

I have been working on Swarm 24/7 for the last 7 years. I am extremely pleased with the release of mainnet 1.2, as it represents one of the greatest achievements in my career. 

Q: Any closing thoughts about the future of the internet and its impact on society?

If we take the whole decentralized paradigm into account, Swarm can be a major social impactor. 

Today’s trend is basically to achieve global free data. A global planetary consciousness where there is unimpeded and uncensorable interaction between people. I trust that any voluntary and informed transaction between individuals will lead to value creation. Thus, by maximizing interaction between people we are, in fact, contributing to a better world. 

Therefore, any infrastructure solution that prevents obstacles to interaction, be it impeding regulation, intermediaries, or monopolistic corporations, will be highly beneficial for humanity. I believe platforms like Swarm, which breaks down the barriers for social interaction and value creation, are the next evolutionary step after the internet provided free access to information. 

Now it's the time to have coordination, free economic interaction, and consensual standards to emerge. I believe decentralized solutions can help bring a new era of prosperity, and that’s why I am optimistic about the future.

Disclaimer: 

The author does not have any vested interest in the projects mentioned above.

The opinions in this article belong to the author alone. Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice. Please conduct your own thorough research before making any investment decisions.

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