Making the Internet borderless with decentralized VPN technology
There’s this rule of thumb in computer science that acts more like a fundamental law in the cryptosphere—it’s about ten times more difficult to do something the decentralized way than the centralized way. Perhaps that’s why the bulk of 21st century Internet innovation (or colonization) happened under Big Tech’s reign while the peer-to-peer movement remained a thing to scoff at. Developing tech companies have always been understandably reluctant in choosing the decentralized path, but the crypto world cleverly managed to popularize the hard way as the default way for today’s tech startups (or at least the appearance of decentralization, but we’ll get back to that). But how do you get a highly technical revolution real-estate in the public consciousness? Only in hindsight does the recipe become obvious:
The first ingredient is relatable blanket terms that neatly sum up the crypto movement's ideals. Blockchain, DeFi, and Web3 should do for now. Then make clinging to those ideals a prerequisite for the successful funding of any startup. Next, add a financial incentive for the hackers, tycoons, and shills to go do what they do best under the flag of crypto. And vwa-la, a few bubble cycles later the general public, without learning a single thing about money or the Internet, intuitively associate their future with those blanket terms.
The trouble is, a great deal of information gets lost in translation when using such vague terms to explain a project. Blockchain startups are generally fixated on a distinctly narrow non-blockchain solution, yet they can prop themselves up as new “Internet layers” or “decentralized banks” while having nothing to do with Internet infrastructure or banking, all because they’re powered by or built on the many larger blockchain infrastructure components that preceded them. Those deep in the space know blockchain equivalents, by virtue of their decentralization, are a different thing entirely. What an inconvenient truth that is if you’re tasked with explaining what doesn’t yet exist.
dVPNs are in the opposite predicament. For obvious reasons, they got stuck being framed almost exclusively in the context of VPNs. Ironically, they do not fit the Web3, DeFi, or blockchain narrative because they are actually a novel Internet infrastructure layer. The same case could be made for any modern tech startup that doesn’t fit into a buzzword-oriented category. But I’d argue the dVPN has a closer relationship to Web3 than most would like to admit.
A Web3 with no dVPN
There’s a reason governments and megacorps don’t delve much into blockchain technology, even as year over year support for a Blockchain Revolution continues to grow: Web3 is still under the thumb of the same public and private institutions it means to replace. Just using the tech sector and overall government spending as a proxy, the crypto movement has yet to even slow its exponential growth. I tried to solve for this disconnect in my book Blockchain Wars: The Future of Big Tech Monopolies and the Blockchain Internet, and concluded the societal shift toward decentralization is far from inevitable—it’s more like a fight for control over the movement’s direction.
DeFi and Web3 have some ambitious goals, to say the least. DeFi aims to give power back to the people by creating a money system that governments can’t control. Web3 aims to shift the decision-making around Internet services from business executives to communities of peers. These grandiose goals are perhaps attainable in the long-term, but the more imminent problem is staring every Web user right in the face—the Internet’s borders.
An Unspoken Problem
A good portion of your worldview is shaped by where you live, and that’s no longer just because of your physical surroundings. The Internet you probably interact with every day feeds you noticeably different information depending on your location. In the more mild cases, this will slightly alter Google searches and social media feeds based on the demographic of your area. In the more extreme cases, Internet services are filtered or completely blocked by governments. Without being too specific, it’s safe to say this at least partially explains the all-time-high and ever-growing political polarization, both nationally and regionally.
It shouldn’t be hard to convince anyone of the issue with this system. It makes large institutions, specifically governments and tech companies, the default gatekeepers of all public information. And it’s no secret these heavily regulated domestic versions of the Internet aren’t designed on some impartial basis, or in the best interest of citizens, but for suppression of information deemed harmful by the controlling party. It’s the perfect setup for extremely powerful propaganda machines, capable of dividing entire populations even in today's increasingly globalized world.
We crypto enthusiasts don’t flaunt this, probably because Web3 offers no compelling solution. It doesn’t matter how good a blockchain’s underlying cryptography is. Countries can and will block the traditional websites of their affiliated startups, thus blocking access to that blockchain. China can’t stop the Ethereum Blockchain, but it could block all the front-ends of Ethereum dapps. Even the United States blocks or limits access to foreign cryptocurrency exchanges, even blockchain-based ones like Binance Smart Chain.
The technical reasoning for this runs quite deep. As I alluded to at the opening of this blog, “decentralized” Internet services you interact with are almost never decentralized. For each project, there are varying degrees of decentralization, each in the various places where they apply. It’s not an easy topic to summarize, but FlipsideCrypto, a data science company that studies blockchains, does it best with their 0.1%—0.9%—99% rule. About 99% of blockchains are centralized, 0.9% are approaching decentralization, and 0.1% are truly decentralized. This doesn’t even account for the heavily centralized Web2 layers that almost all blockchains still rest on.
Web3 can accurately be described as a new Internet layer, but certainly not as a new Internet, as it doesn’t carve into its lower levels. At this incipient stage, it’s tempting to overestimate Web3’s abilities while underestimating its fragility. Admittedly, Big Tech and Big Government will continue to crimp down on Internet innovation with the arbitrary borders their spheres of influence create.
Enter the dVPN
dVPNs have little to do with blockchain, but everything to do with peer-to-peer networks. Their goal is quite simply, to make the Internet blind to borders. It does this by encapsulating the parts of your device that touch the Internet and supplanting all their data exchange with some distant connection chosen by you. That’s it really, an elegantly simple dictum technically capable of addressing all the aforementioned concerns.
At face value, this seems just like a VPN, but as with most things in computer science, the decentralized architecture makes it a different thing entirely. The most important facet of their decentralization is in their node network, which is residential, not commercial. This means VPN endpoints are random people using open-source software to share their device’s spare bandwidth, not servers in industrial data centers. This grants dVPNs three distinct advantages over VPNs: (1) the displacement of trust from a single company to an open-source community of random peers, (2) cheaper, KYC-less, middlemen-less, subscription-less, seamless payments, and most importantly (3) a service unblockable by conventional means.
Such advantages arise only out of a high degree of decentralization on many different levels, hence the high difficulty in making them a technical reality. The story of how dVPNs enable this and fit into the larger Web3 space has gone untold. Mysterium Network is the perfect poster child of the dVPN technology stack because of the project’s incessant commitment to decentralization.
***Disclaimer: Though I'm writing this on my own accord and with full autonomy, I do work at Mysterium Network as a business analyst and admittedly have a certain degree of bias toward them.***
Decentralization on “many levels” sounds ambiguous. Let me be more specific. Mysterium’s token is decentralized, given the total supply having been circulating for over four years, the number of holders growing with each new user, and with the vast majority of trading being on decentralized exchanges. The tech has always been fully open-source, made with consistent, almost daily iterations by over a dozen developers, for several years. It is not a privately owned dVPN service, but a public technology stack others can use to make dVPNs or add dVPN-like features to their apps/dapps/browsers/search engines. Specialized hardware is a foreign concept for Mysterium, as the network can be adapted for any device and router types. Moving into mainnet, every user/provider interaction with the service will be permissionless. And of course, geographical decentralization and a majority residential node network is a given, and all those network statistics are transparently recorded on my.mysterium.network.
Rather than harping on the technical aspects that make this dVPN stack such a technological feat, I’ll point to a single metric that demonstrates it. The Fundamental Crypto Asset Score (FCAS) is a metric created by the same company that made the 0.1%—0.9%—99% rule. You’ll see this used in the ratings tab on coinmarketcap. Using a series of both on and off-chain datapoints, FCAS measures the quality of hundreds of cryptocurrencies by User Activity, Market Maturity, and Developer behavior. Mysterium has terrible scores for user activity and market maturity because none of the testnet data makes it into the calcs, but the developer behavior at the time of this writing is 926/1,000. For reference, that’s within 5 points of the Dev scores for Uniswap, Chainlink, and Polkadot. The results may be slightly skewed by the fact that the Mysterium team uses GitHub for a lot of things, but the fact that a ~#1,000 crypto stacks up with some of the most well-developed projects ever speaks volumes about their technological sophistication.
Suffice to say, Mysterium’s ethos exhibits a refreshing willingness to forgo the easy path in favor of decentralization. It’s an increasingly rare quality in the cryptosphere, and it’s about to start paying off.
Mysterium mainnet is set to occur within a few short months, meaning access to a polished, permissionless, unstoppable dVPN technology stack is also around the corner.
It's unrealistic to think the rules of the data economy and government censorship will be rewritten through implementation at the level of app users. The real game-changer is realized from browsers, apps, and other Internet services having a newfound toolkit that wards off Internet gatekeepers that bully their users. Restoring the Internet as a global network, blind to borders is a necessary step for Web3 that isn’t guaranteed without the help of the dVPN.
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