Why does Silicon Valley dream about decentralising the internet? Is it even possible – and what would that actually mean for you?
Releasing the internet from the tentacles of the huge tech firms under its control is one of the biggest dreams of web developers, data privacy campaigners and many entrepreneurs. But why do we need to decentralise the internet anyway?
Think about the emails you send and receive – companies like Google or Yahoo are dealing with your messages and, as per the agreement you accepted during the registration, you allow them to control your information.
But it’s dangerous to allow companies to handle too much of your personal data because they can sell your private information to third parties, or because your personal information can be leaked in data breaches. Worst of all, if a company has gathered enough information about you then your behaviour is predictable and the choices you make can be predicted.
This is why personal data is today called the “new gold”, because if your behaviour can be predicted then your personal and political choices can also be influenced.
It’s important to understand the power of data and how it can be used. For example, did you know Facebook needs just 300 likes to predict your behaviour better than your parents or your partner can?
It can learn whether or not you will like a chocolate cake, or a particular new movie, or a certain political candidate, and according to researchers it will know these things about you better than anyone else.
Recent controversies in political campaigns, such as whether the Brexit vote and last US election were unduly influenced, shows how important data is, how easily it can leak and how it can be influenced. Here’s where the need for change comes from: the decentralised internet puts the end-user in control of their own data.
It’s worth remembering that Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Alphabet/Google, has said these sobering words on the topic of data privacy: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
Putting it all together
You don’t need technologies like Blockchain and you don’t have to disrupt the current status quo to begin the first step in decentralizing internet services.
The infrastructure and software are already out there, having been tested and used for years. Think about the first iPhone – it was a revolutionary product that made a great leap forward on the phone market, right? The technological components of the first iPhone were nothing special compared with the market, but Apple found a way to put those components together to create something remarkable.
We already have all the components to decentralise the internet, but what’s missing is a way to put those components together.
So the first (and feasible) step is decentralising services like emails or cloud storage. Instead of having our data stored by email providers, we could instead have each user in control of their own personal service.
For example, a user can have their own mail server, their own file storage service, their own calendar, and everything stored on their own cloud server. This way the end-user becomes their own service provider, and there’s no need for email suppliers like Google or Yahoo anymore.
This is not scientific fiction: you can easily find all the open-source software to accomplish it (and I’ve posted links at the end of this article). This is totally feasible and it will be big business in the future, because this could potentially be a significant new segment of the market.
How to deliver the right service
A user can have a personal cloud server (like DigitalOcean or Amazon AWS) or a personal home server (you can use a Rasberry PI) on which they can install the required services (like mail server and a storage service).
For example, if you want a suite to replace Google services (Gmail, Docs, Tasks, Keep, Calendar) you can use Nextcloud, which is an open-source software with plenty of plugins available.
The list of free software that you can install in your own server is long: you can have a decentralised Facebook with Friendica where you own your data and no one can see it (apart from the people you allow) or PeerTube, a decentralized version of YouTube.
I’ve tried Nextcloud on my Raspberry PI server and it’s great.
But are there any problems?
There are three main technical issues (but they present opportunities as well):
1) Server setup
Setting up the cloud server and installing the required software can be hard, especially for someone who’s not a techie. An online service needs to be created to fully solve this issue – for instance, the service could automate the procedure allowing a non-technical user to set up a server with one click. There are already services like this, but they come with limitations.
What if your server gets hacked? Since the cloud server is yours, you cannot rely on the support. Here’s another opportunity – there needs to be more services available that can secure the server (like automated backup and server protection).
Right now the cost is relatively high. A small cloud server with enough space and computing power for this kind of service can cost you around €18 ($20) a month. The cost has actually come down compared to five years ago, but few people are willing to pay for something that you can get elsewhere for free.
Taking back control
The majority of people I know are not aware of the importance of controlling your own data and throw their entire life up on social networks. Did allegations that Facebook was harvesting and using personal data in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica change the public’s habits? No, it did not.
But having our own email servers and controlling our own data has fewer privacy implications than compared with the current services – just think about the endless agreements you have to read and accept when you are signing up for a new account on a social network.
Since the user is the owner of their own server, then they are the owner of the data within their server as well. It is the user who decides how much of their data can be seen and by whom.
Free the internet!
Companies like to play with our data and walk a tightrope with the law when doing so.
As Mr Schmidt said: “Google’s policy is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it. I would argue that implanting things in your brain is beyond the creepy line. At least for the moment, until the technology gets better.”
Decentralising the internet is how we make it a place where personal data is protected and cannot be harvested by large corporations, to be used to sell products, manipulate political thinking or push out unregulated messages. It can also open up a huge new market with all the business opportunities that come with it.
The desire to decentralise the internet is high and the recent scandals around harvested data prove that trusting a centralised service is risky.
Because while your home might be your castle, it’s your data that’s now king.
Here’s a list of decentralised software that you can install on your server for free:
Friendica — https://friendi.ca/
Decentralized, self-hosted Facebook where every account runs on its own server, so your data is owned and controlled by you, meaning you can decide who can see your pictures and posts.
You can read more from Daniele on topics like this one on his personal blog.