The Decentralized Web Is Coming

Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are in the federal government's crosshairs, but the technology necessary to undermine their dominance may already exist.


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Google handles 88 percent of search traffic in the United States. Facebook has more than 2.4 billion active monthly users worldwide. Half of all U.S. online retail is projected to go through Amazon by 2021.

Both Democrats and Republicans have called for breaking up the tech giants, holding them legally liable for what others say on their platforms, and imposing new regulations that would stop them from misusing their customers' personal information. But there's also a growing movement, which includes some of the web's early pioneers, to come up with technological ways to counter Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google.

The goal is to build a better, more decentralized web.

"There are so many different possible ways of decentralizing the internet, and what's lacking is the legal right to interoperate and the legal support to stop dirty tricks from preventing you from exercising that legal right," says Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and tech journalist who's been thinking and writing about the web since Tim Berners-Lee introduced it to the public in the early 1990s.

Berners-Lee and other web pioneers intended for their creation to be decentralized and open-source. "The cyber-utopian view was not merely that seizing the means of information would make you free, but that failing to do so would put you in perpetual chains," says Doctorow.

There are many theories about why the web became centralized. Doctorow largely blames the abuse of intellectual property law to defeat the decentralized "free software" movement championed by the programmer and activist Richard Stallman. Stallman helped create the popular open-source operating system Linux after freely modifying Unix, Bell Labs' proprietary system.

But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, became an impediment to the open and permissionless approach to software development. The law was intended to prevent duplication of copryrighted works and was eventually applied to all software. Breaking "digital locks" to learn from, interact with, and improve upon the code of dominant web platforms became a federal crime. It's standard practice for today's tech companies to shield their proprietary code from would-be competitors by wielding the power of an increasingly expansive intellectual property regime.

"And so this thicket of exclusive rights around products that can be invoked to prevent new entrants for making add-ons, compatible products, or even competing products is a really important change in the landscape," says Doctorow. "One that has made it very hard for new entrants to emerge and I think is in large part responsible for the concentration in the industry."

Despite these legal and political challenges, innovators are attempting to create new decentralized ecosystems of web services.

Mitra Ardron is the head of decentralization at the Internet Archive, a digital repository of more than 50 petabytes of images, movies, and texts—including more than 330 billion webpages.

"The archive's mission is to make all of mankind's knowledge available online forever to everyone for free, which is a pretty big vision, right?" says Ardron.

He says the history of the web is too important to be held in custody by a single organization. So he's overseeing a plan to migrate the Internet Archive's more than 50 million gigabytes of data to a distributed network maintained by users.

A beta version of this peer-to-peer network is already operating and publicly accessible.

"I think what [a more decentralized web] would look like is a world where servers were everywhere, that your internet router at home would also be a server," says Ardron.

Doctorow doesn't think the decentralized web can take off without government intervention. He agrees with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) that the Federal Trade Commission should break up the tech giants.

"[The tech giants] got giant doing what we used to ban and that we stopped banning right when the tech industry started," says Doctorow, who argues that Ronald Reagan and the federal courts undermined the original intent of the Sherman Antitrust Act during the 1980s using the legal theories of former federal judge Robert Bork:

Every president since Reagan has expanded Bork's doctrine, allowing for even more aggressive market concentration, producing a country (and a world) where a handful of firms dominate virtually every industry, from telcoms to talent agencieswrestling to eyewear, to Big Tech

But in the October 2019 issue of Reason magazine, economist Thomas Hazlett argues that sweeping antitrust action has often entrenched existing players, largely due to the phenomenon of regulatory capture:

The late Nobel laureate George Stigler started as a "bust 'em up" guy: In 1952 he wrote an article in Fortune stating the "case against Big Business" and calling for the dissolution of General Motors. But through observation and analysis, Stigler's view progressed until he arrived at an antitrust policy that gave dynamic forces their due and put consumer interests at the center. He came to see government institutions as imperfect, and he posited in a 1971 paper the theory of "regulatory capture," whereby "regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefit."

Arguments about antitrust aside, the technological tools needed to bring about a more decentralized web may already exist, though they're not yet widely implemented.

"Web 3.0 has this wonderful set of trust baked into the Internet itself," says Molly Mackinlay, a former Google programmer and a current project lead of the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a communications protocol that's meant to replace the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) that most of us use to access the web now. While HTTP connects your computer to a particular server, IPFS scours the network for a piece of content, which gets assigned a unique ID marker and connects you to whomever happens to be hosting it.

Mackinlay wants a decentralized web that relies less on centralized servers and more on distributed storage networks—such as Filecoin, a cryptographic token that rewards users for storing data. This, she says, would be an effective way to sidestep the dangers of censorship and overregulation.

"That's a better, safer, more resilient world, which doesn't end up…susceptible to authoritarian manipulation and control," says Mackinlay.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Alexis Garcia, John Osterhoudt, and Weissmueller. Opening graphic by Lex Villena. Additional graphics by Meredith Bragg.

Photo credits: Preston Ehrler/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Polaris/Newscom, ITU Pictures (under CC Attribution 2.0 License), Jeremy Hogan/Polaris/Newscom. 

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