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Oct 18th 2018

Decentralized Internet: TV Technobabble or Problem-Solver?

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Fictional tech comedy “Silicon Valley” garnered accolades for its mostly accurate portrayal of California’s IT culture. But it’s also a goldmine for new ideas — in some cases the show draws on existing trends, in others it blazes the trail. This season the Pied Piper gang tackles the concept of decentralized internet, which is generating buzz in of its own in the real world. But is this type of open-source technology viable, and what is open source? What problems could this new web solve? Is it even a good idea?

Let’s find out.

Why Bother?

What’s the impetus for another internet iteration?

Proponents of the decentralized model cite two main problems: lack of consumer choice and eroding data protections. There is a lack of choice, noted Recode, because just three top interent service providers (ISPs) supply the vast majority of users in the U.S. It’s also difficult for smaller ISPs to compete in the market because bigger players own the necessary infrastructure and have unfettered access to the internet backbone.

In addition, recent federal motions have all but eliminated net neutrality protections, which prevented ISPs from throttling speeds, limiting access to specific content and more intrusively mining consumer data. Without the defense of net neutrality, consumers could find themselves paying a great deal for sub-par service that won’t defend their personal data.

Demystifying “Decentralized” Internet

What is the decentralized internet that “Silicon Valley” proposes, and how does it help solve current internet issues?

According to Tech.co, it’s about changing the way internet is delivered to users. Existing “centralized” internet relies on large servers that can be hacked or taken offline. Decentralized alternatives use a peer-to-peer model; users would effectively provide internet for each other and data would be spread out across hundreds of nodes and devices, making it almost impossible for the internet to crash. One key component of decentralized alternatives is blockchain technology, which enables secure transactions across distributed networks without the need for intermediaries or brokers.

Opting for Open Source

Crucial to the decentralized plan? Open-source software. Open source code isn’t owned and maintained by a single company but is instead public property — users and companies can leverage and modify the code as they like to suit specific purposes. For any peer-to-peer network to avoid the pitfalls of existing ISP control, open-source code is a necessity.

Current Iterations

When “Silicon Valley” wanted to create a decentralized web storyline, the show reached out to Scottish firm Maidsafe, which is working on its own peer-to-peer internet solution. As noted by the IEEE Spectrum, Maidsafe works by leveraging user-provided bandwidth and storage space; data is broken into chunks, encrypted and then sent across existing internet wires but with a different addressing system. Not only does this improve security, but Maidsafe COO Nick Lambert says the only way to prevent users from access their data would be shutting down the internet.

Another option is Anonymouse, developed at the University of Michigan by Robert Dick, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. His version has data “hopping” from phone to phone, allowing users to create microblogs which include images and text. The more users, the better — 80 percent of 100 current testers typically receive Anonymouse messages daily, but as the network grows, so does reliability, said IEEE Spectrum.

A Corporate Cure-All?

The notion of decentralized internet isn’t new. As noted by Bitcoin Magazine, the internet was originally conceived as a decentralized network that had multiple providers offering different services to the public at large. But economies of scale have changed the game, making it more cost-effective for ISPs to own infrastructure and dominate the market.

Decentralized options based on open-source code offer the potential for users to sidestep existing ISPs. Instead, they could buy internet from someone down the street or become their own mini-ISP and sell to other users. According to Hackernoon, that’s the idea behind startup Althea, which lets users deploy their own decentralized networks and take payments in cryptocurrency.

Catch-22

The biggest challenge to decentralized internet? Users. Here’s why: The fewer users on a network, the fewer nodes are available to deliver content, in turn impacting the quality and speed of the experience. More users means better internet, but most users aren’t willing to switch until networks are stable and speedy. In addition, the use of high-volume, high-power servers by traditional ISPs means faster web loading times than decentralized options. Another issue: Many users don’t have the tech savvy needed to maintain and upgrade internet nodes.

Silicon Solutions

The bottom line is it’s not just good TV — decentralized internet is possible, and already in development. The caveat? It’s not a cure-all; until data privacy and throttling issues drive widespread adoption, decentralized solutions won’t have the user base necessary to deliver comparable service.

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