Hey, did you hear they’ve figured out how to fix the Internet?
Turns out it wasn’t even all that hard. In fact, all we need to change is one thing:
We need to to stop giving our personal data away to strangers.
We actually want to do the opposite. We each need to keep our personal data ourselves.
This simple but profound insight is driving a technological insurgency under the banner of the Decentralized Web. It provides every person with a private, secure, permanent place to keep all our digital stuff, with tools to manage it, and with control over who can access any of it. Its most famous proponent is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the original World Wide Web 30 years ago. His Solid open standards project out of MIT is designed to be the universal platform for this new, much better Internet.
One of the best things about it is that it’s just open technology standards. Like the original Web. So anyone can opt in to the model, and no one can stop you. It makes heavy regulation or antitrust actions unnecessary. And enables innovation to come from anyone, anywhere.
Here’s the short version (I’ll include some links in the comments if you’d like to dig deeper):
How we do it today
The Internet today uses a centralized model; services and apps can vary but they all use one fundamental design. They offer some useful service that uses your data (and identity and contacts) as input. In the process, data for all of a service’s users is collected and combined. Each service operates its own software stack, so the resulting data stores are completely isolated from each other.
Let’s let these car window people illustrate the foundational concept:
Today, when you want to communicate with someone, you both connect to some agreed-upon service, which fulfills the interaction you request (e.g., chat/share/voice/video). Then the service adds your data to its database.
The structural problem is that your data gets locked into the service that you used to create it. The real-world outcome is that it eliminates meaningful competition. Any new market entrant — no matter how innovative or high quality — will have a disadvantage it simply can’t overcome: it can’t build a solution that works with your existing data. To entice you to switch, you would have to find it worth starting over.
A better design
On a decentralized Web, everything is flipped in your favor. Each of us gets to claim our own private space on the Internet — a “pod.“ Process-wise, it’s exactly like signing up for yetanotherservice, except now you have a place to create and store all the data that you simply gave away before.
But here’s the thing. Existing data can also be imported into your pod, potentially from any service or repository you’ve ever used. This means you gain the ability to seize ownership and control of your entire personal data set: past, present, and future.
But it’s not just about storing data; you want to be able to do all the things you like to do now. And you can. Your pod includes rich tools to communicate, with your friends or with the world.
There are two main classes of communication: personal and public. Personal communications are typically conducted one-to-one or in small groups. Public communications are the social, many-to-many use cases. Your pod handles both brilliantly.
For personal communications, you connect directly — no third-party service required at all. You just log into your pod, which provides native services to support all the things you do today: messaging, voice/video, file sharing, etc.
Public services are different in that they require an aggregator function, where everyone can share with everyone else. But this design is inherently centralized, so how do you get around that problem?
Here, the decentralized model exhibits a powerful new property, one that creates true competition where little exists today.
As you do today, you can share your content with whatever centralized service you (and your friends) like. However, since you own and control the master version of that data, you can simultaneously share a copy (including existing data) with any service’s competitors via a one-time checkbox. Then you can switch between them all you want, and so can your friends.
This forces even market-dominant services to compete across all product dimensions, including privacy. Incumbents would start with a favored position, but would need to respond to competitors who deliver what users demand. New business models will proliferate; services could even pay users, sharing revenue in return for the data fuel any service needs to operate.
Scratching the surface
As I mentioned, I’ll link to more detailed content in the comments, but this post is trying to be the short version. There are literally hundreds of improvements, big and small, that come with the decentralized approach. I’ll pick a few to feature below, but just know that there are many that are equally cool, and which you can discover for yourself.
E-COMMERCE — You could import your purchase history from Amazon — and any other merchant that you’ve used online or offline that can correlate your history with your identity (pretty much all of them). An app (or a widget for any app) could display exactly what you paid for something at any point in time, and potentially display your best price/delivery for that item right now.
PASSWORDS — Logins and passwords go away. You log into your pod and your pod silently and securely handles authentication between you and any other entity, from a person to an app to a web site.
APPS — Because you are providing (and retaining) the data, and because your pod’s services are accessible via open APIs, all that’s needed for a rich app is a thin layer of logic and UI. Thus anyone on the planet can write what requires a full stack today, and innovate in any direction. Since your data is no longer isolated in different proprietary services, whole new classes of apps can be imagined — all competing on the value they deliver to you.
ADVERTISING — Advertising is nonexistent by default on the decentralized web, at least in personal communications. But you can envision apps that selectively enable it, across both personal and public communications. The ability to agree on terms creates equality in the agreement; beyond content and app access you may choose to accept ads in return for things like pod hosting services, or even micro-currency payments.
IDENTITY — The Decentralized Web consolidates your identity into a single authoritative instance, controlled by you. It creates the digital analog to the physical you, authenticating you in every digital interaction. Like all of your data, you can share specific elements of your identity, and modify or remove access at any time.
REPUTATION — As your cryptographic credentials successfully authenticate you across a wide range of interactions, you quickly establish an un-spoofable reputation. In turn, this lets you clearly identify other real human beings, while easily filtering out bots, trolls, impostors, and sockpuppets.
Summing it up
The meta thought behind the Decentralized Web is empowerment. It’s a seismic shift that will permanently improve the Internet for all of us. In taking control over our personal data, we gain “personal agency” — the ability to conduct our digital activity in ways that serve our individual interests, not those of corporations (or spies or censors or criminals or fake news sources, all of whose jobs also become much harder BTW).
It’s a complete transformation, kids, and it’s coming.
If you want to explore the Decentralized Web in more depth, links are included below. If you have your own comments or questions, I’m happy to respond. Thanks for reading.