The notion of decentralization has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, due in large part to the gross irresponsibility of some of the world’s leading technology companies. But decentralization has a long and robust history, with entire political movements built around the concept:
Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.
The internet has experienced a notable paradigm shift since it was created. In the “Wild West” days of the internet, neither the government nor mega-corporations existed on the web as they do today. Over the years, however, power has been consolidated into the hands of the few. This is only starting to change now, as we will see later in the piece.
The foundation for the internet as we know it was built during the Cold War by a U.S. government organization, the “Advanced Research Projects Agency.” The goal was to create a decentralized communications system that would function regardless of the health of the rest of the network.
In time, this project was taken over by the U.S. Defense Department, creating the DARPAnet, and then by the National Science Foundation, the NSFnet, when the project grew to a such a size that the Defense Department was no longer willing to sponsor it.
Under the National Science Foundation, the NSFnet expanded to colleges and universities throughout the country, using Network Access Points built in separate regions to simplify access and routing issues.
In the early days of this internet, users would essentially place a call using a telephone line to another computer or to the ‘intranet’ of an organization, namely colleges. Using this client/server architecture, users could access email servers, bulletin boards, or research databases in order to share information and communicate with others connected to the same server.
The World Wide Web
As more people were able to obtain personal computers, this net became larger, and with the creation of the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991, which mandated that NSFnet access points be sold to the highest bidder, internet service providers entered the picture, allowing a greater number of users to connect with one another. This also ushered in the first stages of internet commercialization, with AOL arguably taking the lead.
AOL’s ‘carpet bombing’ advertising campaign, with piles of free trial disks on nearly every corner, resulted in over 50 percent of the internet-connected U.S. population accessing the web through AOL. To most users, the platform was simply a gateway to their favorite media sources, and coincidentally, AOL’s media partners. In addition to its pay-by-the-hour fees, AOL gained revenue through these partnerships, propelling it to a staggering $222 billion market cap during its peak.
While AOL’s reign was relatively short lived, its tremendous success arguably gave way to the internet as we know it now. Realizing its commercial promise, the internet turned into a river of capital promise, complete with everything we know and love about the web — a bombardment of advertising, get rich quick schemes, fake news, music, porn, and more!
There has been some resistance to the status quo over the years, however. In addition to the cash funnels, data compilers, and subscription services, there are free encyclopedias, peer-to-peer file sharing programs, decentralized currencies, crowd funding, and user created content.
At the heart of the decentralization process are peer-to-peer, open source platforms. These platforms are built on the ideas of the early internet; they can be censorship resistant, scalable, and in most cases, anonymous.
While blockchain technology opened new doors for the decentralization movement, there were already notable applications and websites operating under the same principles.
Wikipedia may be a controversial addition to this list, but it the largest open, multilingual, editable, and free source of information on the internet. With over 40 million articles in more than 300 languages, it is one of the most visited sites on the web — and it’s 100% free to use.
Though it has received criticism from academics disputing the accuracy of the content, its open platform allows for content to be fact-checked and edited to achieve a greater consensus on a particular topic.
Dr. Larry Sanger, Wikipedia’s co-founder, understands the importance of an accessible database of knowledge, and he is looking to take the idea to the next level.
Currently, Wikipedia is vulnerable to censorship in certain countries as it is not completely decentralized. Dr. Sanger is looking to change that by joining Everpedia to create a blockchain-based, completely decentralized online encyclopedia that will be truly free to use worldwide.
Tor, “The Onion Router”, is another platform, not built on blockchain technology, that has truly helped to open up the internet. Developed in 2002, Tor directs internet traffic through an overlay network allowing users to conceal their identity, avoid surveillance, and send messages anonymously. While the platform does not ensure complete privacy, it does make it exceedingly difficult to track a user’s actions on the internet.
Tor, like many other decentralized applications, has received its share of criticism. Due to its anonymous nature, it’s often used to carry out illicit activities but also allows numerous beneficial services such as protecting the identities of journalists and access to restricted content in certain countries which filter the internet — all of which make it a difficult platform to regulate.
In the wake of Napster’s rise and fall, a new peer-to-peer file sharing movement was born. BitTorrent is one of the most commonly used of these protocols. In 2004, BitTorrent was responsible for more than 25 percent of all internet traffic.
In order to reduce the impact of downloading large files from a single user, the BitTorrent protocol breaks down large files into separate, encrypted pieces which allowed users to easily share large files, even over slow connections.
BitTorrent has been used by broadcasters, software producers, and even governments to distribute files, updates, and educational material.
Arguably the most important and widely adopted of decentralized applications, Bitcoin is the first peer-to-peer currency built on blockchain technology. While primarily a disruptive financial tool, new off-chain solutions are coming to fruition, allowing developers to create decentralized applications and smart contracts on top of the Bitcoin blockchain in a similar fashion to Ethereum.
Bitcoin is largely responsible for the resurgence of the decentralization push. Its rapid rise in popularity has ushered in a new era of possibilities and use-cases for blockchain technology.
Blockchain tech has created new opportunities for decentralization in ways previously not thought possible. Users are constantly building new platforms which have the potential to share information directly and securely, create a sovereign digital identity, participate in governance in entirely new ways, disrupt the financial system, and much more.
As governments and corporations become increasingly involved in our private lives, these decentralized applications will allow us a new opportunity to truly have a voice and a choice of our own. From sharing files to creating entirely decentralized and autonomous organizations, we are on the cusp of a new shift in global power structures.
As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, decentralization allows us an “effective counterweight to the claims of the central government.”