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Paul Merrell

The punk rock internet - how DIY ​​rebels ​are working to ​replace the tech g... - 0 views

  • What they are doing could be seen as the online world’s equivalent of punk rock: a scattered revolt against an industry that many now think has grown greedy, intrusive and arrogant – as well as governments whose surveillance programmes have fuelled the same anxieties. As concerns grow about an online realm dominated by a few huge corporations, everyone involved shares one common goal: a comprehensively decentralised internet.
  • In the last few months, they have started working with people in the Belgian city of Ghent – or, in Flemish, Gent – where the authorities own their own internet domain, complete with .gent web addresses. Using the blueprint of Heartbeat, they want to create a new kind of internet they call the indienet – in which people control their data, are not tracked and each own an equal space online. This would be a radical alternative to what we have now: giant “supernodes” that have made a few men in northern California unimaginable amounts of money thanks to the ocean of lucrative personal information billions of people hand over in exchange for their services.
  • His alternative is what he calls the Safe network: the acronym stands for “Safe Access for Everyone”. In this model, rather than being stored on distant servers, people’s data – files, documents, social-media interactions – will be broken into fragments, encrypted and scattered around other people’s computers and smartphones, meaning that hacking and data theft will become impossible. Thanks to a system of self-authentication in which a Safe user’s encrypted information would only be put back together and unlocked on their own devices, there will be no centrally held passwords. No one will leave data trails, so there will be nothing for big online companies to harvest. The financial lubricant, Irvine says, will be a cryptocurrency called Safecoin: users will pay to store data on the network, and also be rewarded for storing other people’s (encrypted) information on their devices. Software developers, meanwhile, will be rewarded with Safecoin according to the popularity of their apps. There is a community of around 7,000 interested people already working on services that will work on the Safe network, including alternatives to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.
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  • Once MaidSafe is up and running, there will be very little any government or authority can do about it: “We can’t stop the network if we start it. If anyone turned round and said: ‘You need to stop that,’ we couldn’t. We’d have to go round to people’s houses and switch off their computers. That’s part of the whole thing. The network is like a cyber-brain; almost a lifeform in itself. And once you start it, that’s it.” Before my trip to Scotland, I tell him, I spent whole futile days signing up to some of the decentralised social networks that already exist – Steemit, Diaspora, Mastadon – and trying to approximate the kind of experience I can easily get on, say, Twitter or Facebook.
  • And herein lie two potential breakthroughs. One, according to some cryptocurrency enthusiasts, is a means of securing and protecting people’s identities that doesn’t rely on remotely stored passwords. The other is a hope that we can leave behind intermediaries such as Uber and eBay, and allow buyers and sellers to deal directly with each other. Blockstack, a startup based in New York, aims to bring blockchain technology to the masses. Like MaidSafe, its creators aim to build a new internet, and a 13,000-strong crowd of developers are already working on apps that either run on the platform Blockstack has created, or use its features. OpenBazaar is an eBay-esque service, up and running since November last year, which promises “the world’s most private, secure, and liberating online marketplace”. Casa aims to be an decentralised alternative to Airbnb; Guild is a would-be blogging service that bigs up its libertarian ethos and boasts that its founders will have “no power to remove blogs they don’t approve of or agree with”.
  • An initial version of Blockstack is already up and running. Even if data is stored on conventional drives, servers and clouds, thanks to its blockchain-based “private key” system each Blockstack user controls the kind of personal information we currently blithely hand over to Big Tech, and has the unique power to unlock it. “That’s something that’s extremely powerful – and not just because you know your data is more secure because you’re not giving it to a company,” he says. “A hacker would have to hack a million people if they wanted access to their data.”
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