The Role Of Blockchain In Internet Decentralization

Blockchain, News, Opinion | July 16, 2019 By:

The Internet began as most communication technologies, like radio, earned their stripes — tinkering by hobbyists, academics, and interested parties in a decentralized, unregulated manner. Eventually, the convergence of different endeavors by independent groups (i.e., CERN, DARPA, college Intranet networks, etc.) spark discovery, standardization, and ultimately, centralization. 

Such is what Tim Wu refers to as “The Cycle” in his book “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.” 

What is the master switch he details throughout a comprehensive history of information technology? 

Eventually, the early hotbeds of distributed innovation (e.g., early ham radio operators) are overtaken by corporations that can operate at scale, such as AT&T becoming the “common carrier” of radio for a large portion of the 20th century. The master switch subsequently becomes the arbitrary control centralized entities wield over their users in a mass-consumed information medium. 

The story has gone down a similar path for the Internet. 

Once the commercial potential of the contemporary web was realized, a rush of entrepreneurs, mostly tech companies and web commerce stores, fueled the dotcom boom. The bubble eventually burst, and the cream of the crop rose to the top. Today, those premier firms include household corporations like Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and of course, AT&T. 

The collateral effects of the shiny, user-friendly products and applications they have brought us are the concentration of both power and the underlying infrastructure of the modern Internet. The abrogation of net neutrality unshackled ISPs like Verizon and AT&T from furnishing an “open Internet” without discriminatory practices (e.g., bandwidth hindrance), and tech monopolies like Facebook and Google control unprecedented amount of sensitive user data on their servers. 

All of this has come at the cost of privacy and innovation, something Tim Wu cites as “The Internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour.” The crux of the problem has become the aggregation of the Internet’s infrastructure, leading to outdated protocols and traffic chokepoints, along with security vulnerabilities brought on by the centralized command of big tech. 

They are no panacea to technology’s woes, but blockchains have presented some compelling applications outside of bitcoin, particularly in bringing back those golden days of decentralized hotbeds of innovation. In the process, they have sparked a return to an emphasis on privacy and security, driving myriad projects to explore revamping the Internet’s former glory. 

ISP Centralized Dominance 

The centralization of the Internet primarily takes two broad forms: the command of gateway access and the underlying protocols (i.e., ISP dominance) of the Internet’s infrastructure, and the data and service application dominance of big tech firms like Amazon and Facebook — the layer that captures value from the users of contemporary applications. 

Concerning ISP power over the Internet, consider that major ISP providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have a virtual stranglehold on their respective market. They can operate with economies of scale, a significant advantage over smaller ISPs, and with net neutrality repealed, can discriminate and censor web traffic with impunity. 

ISPs function as the gateway to the Internet, hoarding command over the lower layers of the Internet’s OSI model, such as the physical, data (e.e, Ethernet), and network layers. To understand the influence of the potential impact on ISPs by governments, consider the case of China and Russia. Many Chinese ISPs are state-owned, feeding their enormous censorship engine, while Russia has plans to grant their federal media watchdog the power to completely disconnect the country from the world Internet infrastructure. 

These cases are more severe than ISP dominance in the US, but they represent the vulnerability of central systems, mainly that they are subject to influence from outside parties. In the US, ISPs can slow down traffic based on content at their whims now due to the repeal of net neutrality. However, one of the more salient takeaways is the degradation of innovation of the Internet’s core protocols under centralized complacency. 

Even public blockchains, decentralized at the node level, suffer from central control of networking infrastructure. 

For example, Marconi, is a project seeking to revitalize the Ethernet layer of the Internet with a blockchain-enabled, decentralized network design, cites the following in their white paper

“Blockchain projects are being developed to provide decentralized computing, storage, and a suite of applications to realize a decentralized future. However, these projects all continue to build atop the same underlying network infrastructure consisting of switches and routers connected by Ethernet, a foundation which remains fragile due to being insecure, difficult to manage, and centrally controlled.”

Centrally-controlled ISPs also leads to adverse consequences in networking reliability and routing at the higher layers of the Internet, where applications are built by major tech firms. The incentive to improve the underlying protocols is reduced, and barriers to access in remote regions can be high. 

For example, with NOIA Network, we are working on revamping the BGP routing protocol with blockchains, IPv6, and segment routing, connectivity issues from outdated routing are a result of network bottlenecks and general inefficiency. 

When you want to bypass traffic on the highway, you can use applications like Google Maps or Waze that find alternative routes for you. NOIA leverages a blockchain-governed marketplace for Internet transit resources, combined with IPv6 and segment routing, to provide a virtual analog of Waze to Internet routing congestion. 

Big Tech Control & Pushing for Decentralization 

While projects like Marconi and NOIA Network are targeting the Internet’s infrastructure and core protocols, other projects, namely public blockchains themselves, provide the viable alternative to the centrally controlled application landscape of big tech today. 

It’s no secret that big tech firms like Facebook and Google hold vast quantities of exceptionally personal data on their users. Moreover, they have shown a proclivity for not properly managing or securing such data. Enter blockchains. 

Rather than applications relying on servers controlled by monopolies, they rely on a public blockchain as its infrastructure. For example, with a blockchain network like Blockstack, where a standardized Blockstack ID translates across applications on the network, private and encrypted data lockers protect user information from tech companies, furnishing sole access control to the user. 

The important takeaway is that users control their data on their own devices. 

The new “decentralized web” is already taking shape with the emergence of blockchain decentralized application (dapp) browsers such as Opera and Cipher Browser, which enable users to explore different blockchain apps using their own cryptocurrency wallets. 

Finally, an alternative perspective on the role of blockchains providing a vital boon for the decentralization of the Internet is bypassing Internet connectivity entirely. 

For example, efforts to promote bitcoin as a multi-homing network have created an environment where bitcoins can be sent via the Internet, radio waves, or satellite link. The decentralization, rather than explicitly focusing on the Internet itself, is imbued in the optionality to actually access the blockchains themselves, a critical safeguard against any attempted censorship of blockchain networks by ISPs. 

Concurrently, a multi-homing bitcoin network offloads the burden of explicitly using the Internet to access financial capital. Users in remote or economically destitute areas of the world can tap into global value systems even if their ISPs are censoring their Internet connectivity. Hopefully, such a paradigm can usher in billions of the unbanked into the global economic system. 

Despite how it may seem at face value, the Internet is not as decentralized as it can or should be. Decentralization takes many forms, and blockchains offer a promising tool for concerned users of centralization to wield as a safeguard against the return to a master switch in the grandest information medium.