Return of the Decentralized Web

Decentralized Web
image courtesy of personal data ecosystem consortium

Recently I’ve seen signs that are promising in the pursuit of returning focus to a decentralized web / internet. There are still many hurdles to get us there, but we have a good foundation to overcome the technical obstacles. There has been a surge of many prominent people working towards this goal. However I feel that making a compelling argument for the average person to care and adopt the concept is lacking. The prospect of moving their online activity and personal data investment will be the greater challenge. So with that preamble I’ll list a few of the reasons why I have a positive outlook and feel progress is on the right track.

The Background

This Wired article provides some great context as to why we should return to a decentralized web. It discusses how big companies now control most of the web along with our personal data. It then provides thoughts from the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee on how he wants to change things through his open source project Solid. From the article:

On the better web Berners-Lee envisions, users control where their data is stored and how it’s accessed.

This is something I’ve always felt passionate about. It was the promise of the now defunct Locker Project which I’ve written about extensively which was supposed to allow us to create and store all of our personal data on our local machines and provide us with controls for where and how we wanted to publish it. It’s a similar concept to what has been modeled by the IndieWeb group (another big proponent for a decentralized web) with their POSSE (Publish on your own site and syndicate elsewhere) with regards to websites.

The Framework and Tools

Besides Solid and the concept of POSSE there are other technologies that can help with the underlying framework of getting us back to a decentralized web. IPFS is a peer to peer protocol that aims to make data distributed, making it more permanent and not as susceptible to current limitations. IPFS can work in conjunction with the Blockchain which is another rising technology that you primarily hear about with regards to cryptocurrency but has also been mentioned quite a bit with regards to web decentralization. Hell, even Richard Hendricks wants to create a “New Internet” so that’s obviously a sign that we should do it. Right?

Every year Mark Zuckerberg takes on an annual challenge. This year’s challenge is to fix Facebook. He acknowledges how abuse of the service has negatively impacted people and his goal is to change that this year. In his announcement he stated the following:

…one of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization…Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force… many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens

The fact that Zuckerberg acknowledges the issues and points to decentralization as important is a good sign. Time will tell how Facebook implements changes but ultimately it will continue to be a centralized repository of silo’d personal data.

The People

Dries Buytaert is another person I follow and respect who has been a strong advocate for the decentralized web. This article details his thoughts on its importance and his 2018 resolution re-iterated it as well. In it he discusses how he wants to reduce his use of social media and increase his blogging. In it he states:

The web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come and it needs to remain decentralized. It’s true that a decentralized web is harder to build and more difficult to use. Frankly, it will be difficult for the open web to win without better data portability, more regulatory oversight, better integrations, and more innovation and collaboration.

Dries mentioned data portability which is another initiative related to decentralization and personal data ownership which I began following in 2008 but has been dormant. However, this Tweet from Chris Saad (One of its founders) suggests interest in reviving it. Dries also recently blogged about beginning to use POSSE as well.

Earlier I mentioned how the Blockchain could be used as part of the framework for a decentralized web. Just yesterday a video was published with insights from many prominent people in the space including engineer Preethi Kasireddy, and VC’s Mark Suster and Fred Wilson among many others. Preethi discusses the benefits of decentralization over centralization. Fred talks about how Facebook and Google own our data and how decentralization’s greatest potential is returning control of our identity and data back to us. Mark sent out this tweet specifically citing how Blockchain’s potential for fueling a decentralized internet.

Here’s the video

Lastly, on the heels of Zuckerberg’s challenge was the announcement of the Center for Humane Technology created by a group of former Facebook and Google employees (among others) that understand how these companies leverage all of our personal data and in turn manipulate us. Their initial goal is to focus on educating people on the harm that social media sites are playing in shaping children’s behavior. They also will work on a “Ledger of Harms” which will be a resource for engineers who build sites and tools on the health effects. While this group hasn’t mentioned decentralization, I feel we can expect that it may be an initiative in their future.

What Now?

As you can see there seems to be some momentum taking us to a good place. This is all very exciting but it also brings me back to identifying what may be the compelling reason for people to buy into the need to embrace a decentralized web and stop entrusting all of their personal data to the private silos of Facebook, Google and other services. I think the answer will be by providing the value in owning our personal data and planning our digital legacy. It will also be extremely important to do this as seamlessly as possible. I feel that much like how previous generations may have clung to photos, letters, and other heirlooms to pass on to future generations we’ll realize that we need to take the same care with our personal digital data. People need to be educated and hopefully come to realize that outsourcing the ownership of their data will make it cumbersome, if even possible, for their ability to pass that data on to their families in the future.

[Update 2/13: Here’s an article describing how Microsoft plans to use a Blockchain to provide decentralized personal identity for users]

[Update 2/16: I came across this great article: Why the Web 3.0 Matters and you should know about it by Matteo Gianpietro Zago which provides a great history of the web as it relates to the current movement towards decentralization along with the framework being created to make it happen.]

[Update 2/18: Chris Dixon makes his case on the importance of decentralization and its challenges in his article on Why Decentralization Matters]

I’d love to hear more thoughts, resources, and projects related to web / internet decentralization. Please share them in the comments.