6 Problems With A Centralized Internet And What You Can Do To Decentralize It

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Satoshi Nakamoto Jr.  Hacker Noon profile picture

@satoshinakamotoSatoshi Nakamoto Jr.

I am passionate about cryptocurrency, blockchain, freelancing and volunteering.

Do you remember the early days of the internet? As you listened to your dial-up modem boot up, you reveled in the sound of freedom and possibility.

These times have changed. Today’s internet is barely recognizable. At first glance, some things are the same. We still enter search queries into search engines. We are still opening websites to find the information. We still chat with others online.

But nowadays the internet is centralized. Do you remember AltaVista? Looking for information? Magellan? Snap? There are dozens of defunct search engines in the internet graveyard.

Ask yourself: When was the last time you used a search engine other than Google?

Only a few huge corporations rule our lives: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook. The power they wield over the information we seek, the data we share, and the products we buy have turned them into monopolies. Fortunately, times are changing again. Internet users are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of a centralized Internet.

Below we take a closer look at these issues. Next, we look at some of the first steps individuals and companies are taking to decentralize the web. We conclude with some recommendations on how internet users like you can do their part to decentralize the web for a fairer, more transparent online environment.

6 problems with a centralized internet

Centralization of the internet was something that many of us were haunted. But with so much power consolidated into so few hands, the problems we face pose an immediate threat to our privacy, freedoms and opportunities. Let’s take a closer look at the Internet as we see it today, and how we can create a pathway to the decentralization of the Internet.

1. Big companies are now gatekeepers of information

On August 1, 2018, Google released its infamous “Medic Update”. The search engine didn’t have much to say about the update, other than that sites needed to “stay focused on building great content.”

But in the months that followed, it became clear that Google wasn’t just penalizing sites that didn’t produce “great content.” Many of the sites that took a dip in the rankings were alternative health websites. At the very least, they just weren’t settings.

As Joe Cohen, CEO of SelfHacked, explained: “You can try it yourself: type any health topic in Google and see what appears in the first 10 results. WebMD, Healthline and some hospitals usually. Then type it in Bing: you see that Bing gives better and more relevant results every time.” This is just one example of a scenario where a large company’s massive amount of consolidated power gave it the ability to censor information.

This update buried many poorly researched, deceptive websites. But it has also wiped out many legitimate businesses and high-quality, information-rich websites. And these days, it’s hard for a site to survive without ranking high in Google. The bottom line is that large companies should not make value judgments about what types of information the public can and cannot easily discover.

2. We lose control of our data

Speaking of information, centralization not only leads to censorship, but also leads companies to misuse the information we give them. There are plenty of stories to tell here, but the most prominent is undoubtedly the scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. As explained here, Cambridge Analytica collected personally identifiable information about as many as 87 million Facebook users. The company then used that data to send manipulative messages to voters to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

3. Users generate content, big companies reap the rewards

Think of the countless hours you’ve spent posting to social media. Who benefits from that work? facebook. Instagram. Twitter. You probably don’t.

It also happens to search engines. Google’s results snippets are designed to prevent users from ever clicking through to sites. The search engine now competes directly with website owners while using their content for profit.

4. Security Threats Galore

While large companies intentionally misuse our information, they are not the only ones we should be concerned about. With so much of our data centralized, a single hack could expose the private data of millions of people.

5. There is always an intermediary

By centralizing the service, you are constantly dealing with an intermediary. If that intermediary comes to dominate your industry, they can set unfriendly terms. For example, online freelancers may struggle to work through major platforms like Upwork that charge high fees and set strict limits on monthly applications.

6. Decentralization isn’t here yet, but decentralized apps and services are already advancing

We are far from a decentralized web at this point. But there is hope. There are already many projects to help internet users take back their power.

MIT cites a few examples, including Freedom Box, a personal publishing system, Diaspora, a social network, Mastadon, an alternative to Twitter, and others. Some developers are even experimenting with decentralized website hosting. One example is Zeronet, which replaces a single centralized server with a network of computers.

You will find while researching decentralized apps and services that many of them rely on blockchain technology, the ledger in which Bitcoin transactions are recorded. As Kremenova, I., & Gajdos, M. explain in this research paper, “The innovative technology eliminates middlemen, lowers costs while increasing scalability, security, and efficiency through its core decentralized property.”

Let’s take a closer look at some examples

Email Connectivity

The New Yorker says:[Bitcoin’s] elegance has led some to wonder: if money can be decentralized and anonymized to some extent, can’t the same model be applied to other things, like email?” Indeed, The New Yorker refers to one such solution, called Bitmessage, explaining:

“Instead of talking to a central mail server, Bitmessage distributes messages across a network of peers running the Bitmessage software.”

Social Networking

Wouldn’t it be great if you were financially rewarded just for posting on social media? Polychain Capital founder Olaf Carlson-Wee writes, “To be sure, the blockchain space is still largely in an experimental phase, but early breakout apps will be explosive as they financially incentivize users to participate in the network. Imagine that you can actually earn money if you contribute on social media.”

freelancing

By its very nature, freelancing is about decentralizing work. Freelancers perform work directly for clients. They work on their own terms – or at least they try. Big platforms like Upwork make it difficult for the reasons we talked about earlier. grindez is a P2P work platform that offers freelancers an alternative to centralized sites like Upwork. With smart contracts, efficient escrow payments, and support for a variety of cryptocurrencies, this site maximizes freedom and security for participants while minimizing costs.

Documentation

Tired of sending your data to Google when you work in Google Docs? A decentralized alternative is Graphite Docs. It features a word processor and a spreadsheet app. Instead of storing user data on a central server, Graphite Docs encrypts it and stores it on a network of computers.

What can you do to decentralize the internet?

Now that you know a little more about some of the innovative work being done to decentralize the Internet, you may be wondering what you personally can do to help us move forward into a decentralized future.

Start using decentralized services

Apps and services like Bitmessage, Grindez, and Graphite Docs are already here, waiting to replace your existing email service, freelance platform, or document app. When you apply these services, you take your business away from the big companies that want to manage your data.

Speculate on cryptocurrencies

Many people are investing in crypto these days with the hope of getting rich. But an even better reason to invest in crypto is to play your part in helping create a fully decentralized economy through the use of alternative currencies and the use of trading in a more p2p nature.

Try alternatives to major search engines, social networks and e-commerce sites

Even if you don’t feel smart enough to use some of the more technical decentralized solutions out there, there are some easy alternatives to dealing with Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

For example, you can switch your default search engine to Ecosia, a search engine that donates heavily to reforestation. For every 45 or so searches you make, you help plant a tree. You can use Bitclout or Steemit for your social media needs. Use p2p marketplaces like Paxful for your online goods.

Avoid excessive sharing of your information with large companies

Companies like Facebook have done an amazing job convincing users to voluntarily give up their personal information. There is very little data that you actually need to make public when using the internet. Avoid doing this unnecessarily.

Get political (and personal)

Last but not least, how you vote is also important. Do what you can to keep politicians out of office who give in to pressure from lobbyists representing big companies. But remember that the personal is also political. Your daily choices online are just as important in shaping the system as the votes you place on candidates or legislation.

Final Thoughts

There is still a lot of work to be done in developing decentralized technology – and even more in making it easy for casual Internet users to adopt. But for those looking to improve their privacy, protect their data, escape censorship and gain more control over their digital lives, there are already groundbreaking apps and services to adopt. Not only that, but simply by participating in crypto, choosing alternatives to internet juggernauts, and aligning your politics and personal choices, you can usher in a decentralized future that protects our security and sovereignty.

Knowledge is power! Share your knowledge, open source your projects, join a community (any community!), and maybe publish a blog post about it. Constructive criticism and feedback are welcome.

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