Okay, we lied. This was originally going to be a three part series, but the rapidly-evolving landscape of internet access and content providers has inspired us to do a part four, which will cover the blurring lines between these markets, and how this will likely have an additional negative impact on the open and free spirit of the web, which ironically is what made the monopolistic practices of these huge corporations possible. Specifically, we’ll cover three things in part IV: 1) the fact that Charter Communications abruptly became the second-largest ISP in the states by acquiring Bright House and Time Warner Cable recently, 2) the fact that Comcast is getting into the mobile market, and 3) the fact that Verizon now owns Yahoo and AOL.
But for now, back to the topic at hand….
Why We Need To Re-Decentralize The Web
At the end of part two, we hinted at what the problems are with the web today, but we’ll recap quickly. Then we’ll dig into examples of why these things are problems, and what some of the brightest minds (including one of the creators of the “World Wide Web”, Tim Berners Lee) are working on to try to resolve these problems.
Important Note: These Aren’t Problems For Everyone
Mostly the things we’re calling “problems” here are actually not a problem at all for some people, specifically: the NSA, oppressive governments around the world, the shareholders of major corporations like Facebook, Google, or Verizon, or the intellectual-property-obsessed entertainment industry. You know, those people who buy new copyright laws whenever their copyrights are expiring. For average citizens everywhere, however, these are real problems that are only getting worse.
Censorship and Privacy
Two of the key problems are actually intertwined, and center on the control of user-generated data and content. In the case of privacy, one of the main issues is how organizations like Facebook and Google lull users into a sense of complacency about how much data they share and how they’ve agreed to let it be used, in order to exploit that information for profit in a variety of ways , mostly related to advertising. The exploitation of personal data in this way is downright “rapey” on mobile; as far back as 2014, security studies made it clear that not some, but most of the apps you have on your phone share far more sensitive information than you realize (we touched on this in part two). When it comes to censorship and privacy of citizens, tech companies are often willing government partners. Google’s experience with China was well publicized, and you might expect this in a country like Russia, which just blocked all access to PornHub and YouPorn, for instance, but globally, things are only getting worse, as detailed in the Freedom House piece Privatizing Censorship, Eroding Privacy. It’s about much more than banning porn, it’s about controlling your daily behavior.
Openness and Accessibility
Parts of this may seem trivial, but the very foundation of the web – the cross-platform protocols that made web pages, browsers, and connecting different kinds of computers possible – is constantly being undermined by proprietary code and formats. A classic (and routinely frustrating) example would be things like the fact that you can create a PDF (a format originally created to circumvent this very problem) on Google Docs that is impossible to edit in its native software, i.e.: Acrobat. Or some time try exporting your contacts from Facebook in any usable fashion. There used to be partial “hacks” like importing your contacts from Facebook into your Yahoo email account, and then exporting a CSV file, but aside from the fact that the data was still incomplete, most people don’t even know what a CSV file is. Meanwhile, Facebook has all this data from you AND your friends, and is essentially reselling it millions of times on a daily basis. They probably know who your real friends are better than you do, and what you’re all going to buy next.
Archiving of Information
This may seem even less important to you than the accessibility issues mentioned above. Until, of course, the day a service you use is acquired, and the new owners decide to simply shut it down. This first happened on a large scale with Geocities, when Yahoo acquired it. You may not remember GeoCities, but millions of users used the service extensively to build communities and even businesses, and one day, Yahoo literally “turned it off”. But ignoring the fact that one day, Facebook could very well say “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya” and cast your thousands of images and memories into oblivion, there’s a more important angle to this. One of the more immediate ones is link rot, which is reaching epic proportions, since anyone can set up a web page or other web resource any time they like, and delete it at will, no matter how many other resources link to it. This creates a shorter term “broken web”, and as this Journalist’s Resource page highlights, as much as 70% of the web consists of broken links, quite often to important government or academic reference materials.
So What’s Being Done?
Tim Berners-Lee, creaator of the web, puts it quite simply by saying “we need to re-decentralise the web”. To that end, he’s leading an MIT project called Solid, which as their pitch puts it “aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.” The name “Solid” is derived from “social linked data”, which is a way for you to own your own data while making it available to the applications that you want to be able to use it. With Solid, you store your data in “pods” (personal online data stores) that are hosted wherever you would like. But it’s not just storage system: It lets other applications ask for data. If Solid authenticates the apps and — importantly — if you’ve given permission for them to access that data, Solid delivers it.
Sounds Nerdy. Would People Use It?
Arguably, the first hump would be getting people to understand the value of such a thing, and the second would be commercial entities’ resistance to it. But some of the best minds in the field are behind the idea and engaged in developing it, so there’s some hope. The real trick would be getting people to understand that as technical as the idea sounds, it would actually make their internet life magnitudes simpler, and more secure. For one thing, the idea would render account usernames and passwords as we know them pointless. Imagine not having to keep track of the absurd number of accounts many of us do these days, and having a one-click verification of who you are, owned by you. Here’s a scary graphic to make what we’re saying here seem more impressive. Learn more by viewing the actual Linking Open Data cloud diagram .
But Wait! There’s More!
There are a LOT of groups working on ideas related to these concepts. For more in-depth views, check information about the InterPlanetary File System, ReDecentralize, The Decentralized Web Summit, MaidSafe, and things like BlockChain, Bitcoin, and BitTorrent.