The Decentralized Internet is Closer than You Think


I just read a question that David, our CEO at Hacker Noon, had for Muneeb Ali, CEO of Blockstack. In this question, David said,

Sometimes for people who lack patience, like myself, a truly decentralized internet can feel about as close as the afterlife. In a lot of ways the internet is even more centralized than age old industries like real estate. The infrastructural approaches - like the one Blockstack is taking - are long but necessary work to a more decentralized internet.

I have to agree, and disagree, at the same time. Let me explain, first by disagreeing.

We’re closer than we’ve ever been. The technology is finally catching up to the dreams painstakingly sketched in whitepapers from the 60s to the 90s. We have computers so fast that Diffie-Hellman key exchange, where you get a secret key transmitted over an open, vulnerable network, is dirt cheap. RSA is no longer as cost-prohibitive as it used to be. At the same time, I’m fucking terrified of what’s to come.

Anonymity and privacy are a thing of the past. No longer is it reasonable to use PGP and remailers to preserve your privacy. Tor is a honeypot. Blockchain-based, decentralized, distributed apps are notoriously difficult to implement, and the blockchain is ultimately an open ledger – there’s no anonymity (or pseudonyms with reputations, for that matter).

I want to be optimistic, with politicians like Elizabeth Warren threatening to break up tech monopolies, just as Standard Oil and Ma Bell were broken up in previous generations (I’m bullish on Warren). To break up the centralized giants is to create a need for an alternative, which is more likely now than ever to be decentralized.

But (and there’s always a “but”) the regulators are not our friends. Regulators, while in a trusted position, are all too human, and are susceptible to all the corruption, viciousness, and evil that any human is capable of. I’m not saying government is evil, just that absolute power corrupts absolutely. See: the NSA’s PRISM program, the Clipper Chip, the Tuskeegee Experiments, apartheid in South Africa, and so on, etc.

So why do I say “the decentralized internet is closer than you think”?

I think things are going to come to a head. The internet is going to expose so much information, or software is going to kill so many people by human mistake in the code, that regulators will have to step in out of their very responsibility. What will we do in that scenario?

There are a few options, as I see it. We can accept whatever regulation the legislators deem fit, and hope they understand the technology well enough to craft the law correctly. We can create our own self-regulation, such that legislators will borrow concepts and legal language from the existing frameworks. Or, people will go underground.

In any case, people are going to go underground. I’ve often thought about computing’s usefulness in post-apocalyptic scenarios. What good would my skill do, in that situation? Communications is the obvious answer, and obviously, you wouldn’t have centralized entities as we know them in that scenario. Decentralized networks would become a necessity. Likewise, the criminal underground, terrorist groups, drug dealers, human traffickers, and all sorts of unsavory folks would populate this sort of network, because in a fully decentralized system, you’d have to have some notion of trust and reputation, however a given network might define it.

It’s ultimately more human, to have a decentralized network. It’s closer to what we actually do in real life. At least, the way I see it, trust and reputation systems in a decentralized network would ideally derive from the way people actually interact. If I know Dane, and Dane knows Janet, and Janet knows Frank, I might be able to talk to Frank, but I wouldn’t trust him as much as Janet, and I wouldn’t trust her as much as Dane, and so on. Through repeated interaction, we gain trust, but as they say, “trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets”.

This is turning into a rant, but my point is this: decentralized networks are closer than you think. They’re bubbling under the surface, waiting for the right time, the right place. The possibilities are laid out before us, but the question is:

What will it take for the majority of people to adopt decentralized networks? Will it be an underground movement? A criminal underground? Or a revolution in the way we use computers, to put data back in the control of the people who create it?

HOT TAKE EDIT: fuck me, that got dark. Here’s something to brighten up your day: