The internet's original vision was to create a decentralized and neutral platform that gave everyone equal access to services, content, and publishing tools. And for a time, that's how it was. Today, there's general consensus that we've drifted far away from that vision as centralized services have established dominion over the infrastructure and data that run across the world wide web.
As a consequence of its recentralization, the internet is becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks, government censorship and surveillance, illicit use of personal information and many more ills.
Visionaries, experts and thought leaders are exploring new technologies that can help re-decentralize the internet. And one of the their candidates is blockchain, the distributed ledger that became famous with the advent of Bitcoin.
Decentralizing vital internet services
By hoarding too much resources in one place, key providers of vital internet services have made it easier for cybercriminals to target them. It's also easier for governments to censor centralized services, and technical failures in such systems can quickly gain critical proportions.
Blockchain solves this problem by providing an environment where a large number of parties can share resources and information without having to trust each other or any central broker.
Last September, Akamai, one of the largest content delivery networks (CDN) and web hosting services, shut down the website of security blogger Brian Krebs following a very large distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that was costing the company too much. Centralized CDNs provide cybercriminals with a single target to attack, making it easier to conduct DDoS attacks. Those attacks cost CDNs a fortune, and naturally, they transfer the costs to their clients.
Gladius, a blockchain startup, aims to make DDoS attacks a thing of the past by creating a decentralized CDN and DDoS mitigation system. Instead of concentrating web content in regional data centers, Gladius uses the blockchain to distribute files and assets on thousands of computers that share its network. When users sign up with the Gladius network, they can rent their computer's idle time, storage and bandwidth to host websites
Gladius replaces intermediaries and brokers with smart contracts, programs that run on the blockchain itself and enable website owners to directly borrow and pay for resources the platform's users offer on the network. There are several benefits to Gladius' model. First, it removes centralized storage locations, making DDoS attacks much harder and reducing the costs of hosting websites. Second, it can speed up access to websites by bringing cached content much closer to visitors. And third, it creates an incentive for users to share their idle network and computing resources.
Other blockchain startups such as iEx.ec aim to bring general sharing of resources to the blockchain, a direct challenge to the working model of the likes of Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. This could possibly prevent incidents such as an AWS S3 technical issue earlier this year which caused outage in high-traffic websites such as Trello, Slack and Medium.
iEx.ec uses blockchain and smart contracts to provide what it calls a distributed market for cloud resources. The platform enables different parties to share resources such as processing power and storage space. The system uses smart contracts to manage the complexities of allocating resources and paying for completed work. The platform registers performed tasks on the blockchain in a transparent and immutable way. Clients can verify the performance and credibility of providers by looking at their history on the blockchain.
The company believes its decentralized computing platform can help smaller cloud providers to consolidate their market share. It can also power new types of business applications such as IoT ecosystems, distributed applications (DApps), and high-performance computing tasks (HPC) such as deep learning, business intelligence and numerical simulations.
Nebulis, a project that employs blockchain and the Interplanetary Filesystem (IPFS), a distributed alternative to centralized web servers, aims to create a decentralized Domain Name System (DNS). Nebulis stores, updates and resolves domain records on the Ethereum blockchain instead of storing them on centralized DNS servers. The platform can prevent incidents such as last year's major outage of critical internet services, which was the result of a cyberattack against major DNS provider Dyn. It can also make it exponentially more difficult to stage man-in-the-middle attacks or practice censorship and domain redirection by manipulating DNS records.
Decentralizing online applications
End users are losing their power in choosing services and controlling their data as internet giants continue to grow in size and reach. Google can read all your emails and files, see your browsing habits and search history. Facebook probably knows more about you than you do yourself. And as long as everything lies within the confines of a walled garden service, you have little control over how much information these companies store about you and what they do with it, and even less over what happens to your data when their servers fall victim to data breaches.
Blockchain's alternative approach to storing information and running applications can help put power back in the hands of users. Several companies are working on decentralized alternatives to popular internet applications, in which users enjoy better privacy and ownership of their data.
CryptaMail and John McAfee's SwiftMail are two blockchain-based email services that want to protect users against data breaches such as the infamous Yahoo service hack, which reportedly cost 3 billion users their data. The platforms encrypt all messages and store them on the blockchain. Only the receiver has the keys to unlock and read the message and there's no central storage location for users' account content.
CryptaMail uses the NXT blockchain application platform while SwiftMail uses its own private blockchain. As opposed to public blockchains, where everyone can join the network, private blockchains are composed of a predefined set of nodes, which are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the integrity and security of the network.
Other platforms such as onG.social and Indorse are addressing some of the endemic problems that haunt social media networks with the power of blockchain. onG, which is a blockchain-based social hub, rewards users with cryptocurrency for the impressions and engagements their content generates. This is a break from the current model of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, which take away all the revenue of users' activities. Indorse, which is a decentralized version of LinkedIn, makes sure all user data is owned by the users themselves by avoiding to store it on centralized servers. In Indorse, users choose what data they share with the network and get rewarded for it.
Storj, a decentralized version of Google Drive and Dropbox, uses blockchain to split files into smaller bits, encrypt them, and distribute them across nodes participating in its network. People who make their free storage space available to the network receive cryptocurrency rewards. Storj solves two specific problems. First, it makes sure that your files aren't stored in a central location, where a service provider or a potential cybercriminal can find access to them. And second, it speeds up file access speed by enabling users to download their files piecemeal from several locations at once.
One of the fundamental benefits of blockchain applications is that they create business models where everyone benefits from the growth of the network as opposed to a single entity taking away all the revenue.
Blockchain isn't a perfect solution
While blockchain solves some of the problems that stem from the centralization of the internet, it introduces its own set of challenges.
First, a fee applies to every transaction on the blockchain, which means you'll have to pay with cryptocurrency for every action you perform in applications, such as sending emails or storing files. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing and can potentially be turned into an advantage. In fact, fees might incentivize fair use of services and raise the cost for cyberattacks or evil uses of the system.
A second problem that blockchain services will have to overcome is that of interoperability. While open standards have enabled services with different architectures to communicate and share information, blockchains are designed to work within themselves. For instance, sending emails between Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo is trivial, but performing the same task on their blockchain equivalents presents a challenge. Projects such as Interledger have solved the problem of exchanging information between different money ledgers. A similar model might work for other blockchain applications.
Software updates are another challenge that blockchain applications face. As opposed to centralized systems, where one party takes care of updating features and fixing bugs, blockchains lack formal governance, which can cause trouble in critical cases. One notable case in this regard is the DAO hack, which caused the Ethereum blockchain to split in two different ledgers.
And finally, ensuring good and legal use of blockchain applications is very difficult. Facebook and YouTube are having a hard time policing the content users upload on their platforms, and they're applying a combination of human operators and artificial intelligence algorithms to achieve it. But they're still able to do it because they have exclusive access to all the data their applications host. Vetting and filtering content on distributed platforms is impossible using the same techniques and requires other innovative methods.
A potential solution would be anonymous, incentivized voting systems where a number random of users stake an amount of cryptocurrency on the blockchain and cast their vote on a content. The voters who make the correct call will be rewarded with an added fee and a reputation score while those who make the wrong call will lose the tokens they've staked. Randomness will prevent collusion while staking cryptotokens will incentivize people to vote honestly.
Despite the challenges, blockchain presents a robust platform that can put users in full control of their digital life to ensure fairness, privacy and equal access to internet services. While it might not be the sole solution, blockchain can constitute one of the main building blocks of a decentralized internet.