Perhaps in a reflection of the universe and reality itself, though that’s a topic for another day, a lot of what we create as humans seems to have the uncanny habit of cycling between centralisation and decentralisation. Politics and economics, the family unit, the project management style in vogue and the list goes on. At the moment the word ‘decentralisation’ is most often encountered around blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. However, there may well be a bigger move towards decentralisation in the foreseeable future – that of the World Wide Web.
Google’s re-entry into the Chinese market, and the censor the company is willing to now accept as part of that, has recently been a topic of hot debate. The company has reportedly even seen a backlash against the development from its own employees. An internet overly dominated by hugely influential ‘gatekeepers’, including Google and Facebook, has now led to a new movement within the technology community, with supporters determined to fight for a new, more varied and ‘decentralised’ World Wide Web that is being termed the ‘DWeb’.
The theory behind a new DWeb is an online ecosystem that allows the whole world to communicate amongst itself free of big companies whose priority is profits and the amassing of personal data that also raises the shadow of future repressive government surveillance.
So how would it work? In many ways, a DWeb would return to the roots of the internet. In the early 1990s when the internet first became available to private individuals, computers would talk to each other directly. Over the years that followed that changed and communication started to take place more through early messenger apps such as MSN and ICQ before even bigger companies such as Google and Facebook further centralised the flow of communication and information between individuals. The DWeb wants to roll the internet back to a decentralised environment where individuals communicate more directly and not via huge commercial intermediary platforms.
The risks the present system represents are put forward by DWeb supporters as security, with the vulnerability of our personal data to hacking and misuse when concentrated in a few hands, the risk of government surveillance and the danger that our contacts and communication are lost if one of the big entities we rely on shuts down or is compromised. The DWeb, supporters say, would provide the same services as we have become used to but in a way that is ‘decentralised and not creepy’. Censorship would also be much harder on a theoretical DWeb and governments wouldn’t be able to easily shut down access to any website they didn’t like.
From a technology point of view, a DWeb would be expected to operate through a peer-2-peer system where each computer in the network both requests of and provides services to the others. A DWeb would also classify, store and transfer content and data differently. Instead of http and https links and protocols which classifies and identifies content based on location, DWeb protocols would identify information based on its content and not location. This would cut out the need for single servers to host content and data and mean a P2P system could work instead. Blockchain technology is envisioned as the basis for a DWeb.
Enthusiasts believe that from a user point of view the DWeb would do everything the current internet experience provides and big differences wouldn’t be very noticeable. But intermediaries from centralised social media companies to payment processors could be cut out. The drawback is that on the current model of thinking, users of the DWeb would have to each have one long, complex password used for logging in to everything and doing anything. To be secure, this would be irrecoverable so if lost, you lose access to everything, basically forever. No password recovery email. Well, everything has its pluses and minuses…