Internet blackouts are becoming quite common in today’s world, be it a function of censorship, cyberattacks, technical and natural problems, or human error. While the internet has become a modern-day necessity, the increasing hegemony of centralized operators raises serious doubts about the very foundation of the technology.
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From hacked Twitter and Facebook accounts to big-time crashes and the occasional “503 Service Not Available,” the current situation underscores how centralized the internet has become. Ironically, centralized online services quickly took over despite the internet’s design to decentralize communication and sharing of information.
While we can’t deny that the internet remains decentralized to an extent, it can’t be stressed enough that what we do on the internet daily is controlled by just a handful of big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Tencent and Alibaba. Even though these brands offer valuable services to the global population, the increasing dependency on these platforms has, in a way, enabled these companies to gradually consolidate control over our communication (and wealth) at an unprecedented pace.
According to David Clark’s paper, The Design Philosophy of the DARPA Internet Protocols, which is essentially the blueprint of the internet, “the internet architecture must permit distributed management of its resources, be cost-effective, and communication must continue despite loss of networks or gateways.” When we take these goals into account, it is evident that the idea was always to build a fully decentralized internet.
The core vision of decentralization started to blur and was eventually sidelined as big players entered, leading to a market condition where profitability thrived on centralization and competition was quashed via consolidation. For instance, Facebook started as a social media platform. Yet, after acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp, it now controls the lion’s share of the online messaging market in almost every country outside of China.
As such, the Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp-Messenger outage of Oct. 4, 2021, serves as a glaring reminder that most of the internet’s second-level goals are not being met and that decentralization is the need of the hour. Gavin Wood, an Ethereum co-founder and the creator of the blockchain Polkadot, took to Twitter to further underline the importance of decentralization to prevent these problems in the first place, saying, tongue in cheek, “Kudos to @facebook for giving us a very real demonstration of why the move to a decentralised Web 3 is necessary and, indeed, inevitable.”
Wood’s comments reflect how the dawn of Web 3.0, a fully decentralized internet, where each user will be fairly compensated for their time and data, can capably overcome the very issues that centralization pose. Unlike centralized networks prone to cyberattacks and outages, decentralized networks ensure a balanced internet, where millions of devices are linked together in an open network. For instance, since its inception on Jan. 3, 2009, the Bitcoin network has been functional for 99.98 percent of the time.
The history of the internet is flooded with reports of several big-time crashes, which often go overlooked, be it the infamous AOL crash, Gmail outages, government interference, or other similar cases. Besides repeated outages, the unfortunate centralized design of the internet enables countries like China and Russia to manipulate and control it.
That said, we still need to understand that the involvement of centralized service providers has played a critical role in shaping the continuous evolution of the technology. The infrastructure provided by these “big tech” companies has helped the internet expand its reach and connect global communities. We will need them in the future, at least to a certain extent.
However, we must also acknowledge that the underlying internet and World Wide Web remain a public resource that shouldn’t be controlled by just a handful of companies with ambitions that often run contrary to the public good.
Reuben Jackson is a blockchain security consultant, helping organizations with data structures. Outside his nonexistent office hours, Jackson reports and writes opinions on the blockchain/crypto space. He previously wrote about CBDCs, NFTS and crypto regulation for Crunchbase News.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias
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