The Push for a Decentralized Web

The first episode of the new season (Season 4) of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” beleaguered entrepreneur Richard Hendricks, asked by eccentric venture capitalist Russ Hanneman, what, given unlimited time and resources, he would want to build.

“A new Internet,” says Hendricks.

“Why?” asks Hanneman.

Hendricks babbles about telescopes and the moon landing and calculators and the massive computing power in phones today, and says: “What if we used all those phones to build a massive network?… We use my compression algorithm to make everything small and efficient, to move things around…. If we could do it, we could build a completely decentralized version of our current Internet with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying. Information would be totally free in every sense of the word.”

Hel-lo! Decentralized Internet? That’s a concept I’ve heard bubbling around the tech world for a while now, but not so much in the consciousness of the general public. Is HBO’s “Silicon Valley” about to take the push for a Decentralized Web mainstream? And is what Hendricks talks about on the show really what the Decentralized Web is all about?

I contacted Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and the pioneer of the Decentralized Web movement: he first pitched the idea of a Decentralized Web in February 2015, initially describing it as “Locking the Web Open,” at the first meeting hosted by NetGain, a partnership of some of the largest U.S. foundations aimed at strengthening digital society. In August of that year he published a manifesto (he calls it a white paper) making a detailed case for the Decentralized Web, and in June 2016 he hosted a conference to bring key potential players together to move the project forward.

The Decentralized Web, he told me, “would be everywhere and nowhere. There would be no web servers, it would be a peer-to-peer backend, so if any piece of hardware went down, you wouldn’t lose websites. It would be more like the Internet itself is today—if a piece goes down, you can route around the problem. The current Web isn’t like that.

“Today, if you stand in front of a website, you can tell all the traffic going to it. We know that GCHQ, the NSA of the United Kingdom, recorded all the IP addresses going into WikiLeaks.”

This kind of thing, he says, “would be far more difficult in a decentralized world.”

Is that what the fictional Hendricks was talking about? Kahle, who watched the episode, says yes, mostly.

“He says one of the things it would get you is privacy, and it certainly would,” says Kahle. “He also mentioned that it would start to get around firewalls, like the great firewall of China. And it could do that; if someone behind the firewall had read a website, someone else could get it from them.”

Translating the “no tolls” part of Hendricks’ vision into the real world is a little tricky. If by “no tolls,” he was referencing the current debates over net neutrality, that is, whether Internet providers should be allowed to charge content providers for the use of fast lanes, the Decentralized Web would definitely blow those virtual tollbooths out of the road. If, instead, Kahle says, “no tolls” means no paywalls, not so much. Indeed, the vision of the Decentralized Web involves making it easier to pay for content in order to let readers support publishers, instead of just advertisers.

 

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