Alternatives to make the web of Berners-Lee, not the one of GAFAM.
When I discovered blockchain, pretty much like any newbie to this word, I got lost in definitions, fortunately not to the point where I look how to buy one, but it was tough.
A whole new concept, not so easy to absorb. I managed to understand that it was a distributed ledger where we can document the history of almost everything, efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. It is the technology behind the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. I saw also an omnipresent word: “decentralization”, something that blockchain seemed to embrace. But that was all, and for some time, that, was all the “blockchaining” I had, despite my feelings. I was like:
Articles kept describing it as a revolutionary technology but, frankly, I had a little problem with that. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see how a bunch of cryptography and — what seemed to me, a linked-list like invention, can have the power to change the IT industry. Until one day I found this, Roger Ver, a libertarian and an early investor in bitcoin-related startups talking about this cryptocurrency (independently from different opinions of him).
More than half a million children have died and the political official says it was worth it. How sick that was?
What draw my attention the most here, is the confidence of Roger. He seemed extremely confident about what bitcoin can do. He was sure that bitcoin has the power to do things that even governments and international associations couldn’t achieve. It was astonishing honestly! So I researched and read until I started understanding why Bitcoin had a bad reputation at the beginning even though blockchain was getting a strong hype. I also understood that the origin of that could be some parts that considered it a threat — to them.
A Change is Needed
That video made me think if someone is willing to bring changes and fight big corporations as well as their politics, what would they need? I think they need courage and a good tool — a tool to broadcast thoughts to the entire world and reach out to others who share the same ideas. That tool exists and it is perfectly suitable for such an objective. It is the internet and more precisely the World Wide Web.
Unfortunately, with its current state, the web isn’t ready to accomplish this mission. The current structure, protocols, and tools can’t stand against all the censorship and the few corporations controlling the bigger part of it. Central authorities can tamper with whatever they want whenever they want and surely they are ready to fight any attempts against that because it’s going to reduce their impact and thus weaken their empires.
How the Current Web Works?
Talking about the current web, let’s evaluate its current state and try to highlight the major issues.
With a server-client approach, the server being the center of the system, whenever the client surfs the web, a whole process is ran:
- DNS: The site’s URL is resolved using the DNS service. We know that we have 13 root name servers that act as the backbone of the online access. They are maintained by some organizations around the world. The first problem here is that DNS is controlled by specific authorities and it can be used to track users’ behavior or censor content.
- HTTP Servers: Once the resource’s location is known, a web server handles the request. Did you guess? Exactly, the server is a single point of failure. If it’s down, everything hangs up. Even with the most advanced techniques to try and remedy it, we still see this problem. One of the recent examples being slack on June 27th, 2018.
- Non-auditable back-end: The client receives web pages. The browser communicates with the back-end which represents the business logic of any web application. The issue here is that this part isn’t auditable and is totally out of the user’s control. We can not inspect what’s going on behind the scene. Even if the code is open source, it’s extremely hard to ensure that it’s the same version that’s being executed.
- Data storage: Finally, the data needs to be stored somewhere. So, we use traditional databases hosted by some providers, which means, the user can neither control it nor prevent third parties from accessing it or using it illegally. This is a huge deal…
All of this means that the current version of the web is not suitable to leverage any big changes. So, rather than trying to add some bug fixes and enhancement proposals, we need to radically replace it; replace protocols, architectures… everything that would stand against the (let me call it) “Revolution”. Of course, it would be unreasonable to try and change it all at once. We need to divide and conquer. Every component can be treated as a standalone problem so that we can focus on one at a time.
How Blockchain can Intervene?
Let’s be grateful that Satoshi published the white paper of Bitcoin because that has changed everything.
Blockchain brought new concepts and approaches allowing to deal with common issues in a different way, financially in the first place, but it was extended to more general use cases. The way it was conceived, made it revolutionary. And this time, I don’t have any problem with this word. In fact, its power is in its principles. Blockchain is a peer-to-peer network. So, no single participant controls it. It is decentralized in a way that no single authority can shut it down. Due to its distributed mechanism, it is free from any hacks or fraud.
The question is: How decisions are made if there is no central authority?
In the network, all members have got the right to participate to decisions making, and through consensus, the right direction is chosen. Of course, users get incentivized to keep the integrity of the system using different mechanisms. The economic incentives are the most used. For instance, with the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains, cryptocurrencies are used to encourage the members of the network, as for study grades to urge students to work hard. All of this is possible, due to the human tendency to profitability. Another ultra-important incentive is security. Blockchain provides a high level of security and authenticity to the user via advanced cryptography.
With those characteristics, blockchain has no single point of failure, it allows us to re-decentralize what was not meant to be centralized at all. It removes central authorities and it is censorship resistant. It gives control back to the user, not service providers.
Alternatives that Blockchain Provides
With all of those advantages, it would be pointless and purely theoretical if we don’t use them to create alternatives for users. Isn’t that what we do? That’s the core mission of the free software community members. It’s to liberate users from existing constraints, give them control and provide them with options so that they can make their own choices.
Going back to the web, each step in the workflow we explained earlier needs to be replaced or at least modified, and most of that is already done. That’s why this community is special. DNS, storage, browsers… a decentralized version of all of that exists or is being developed, maybe not mature like centralized solutions but they’ll be.
- Ethereum Name Service (ENS) offers a secure & decentralized way to address resources both on and off the blockchain using human-readable names, which is what DNS does. Namecoin is an experimental technology that tries to do the same thing. IOV also is working on a similar approach, they’re developing Blockchain Name Service. ENS is probably the most advanced one right now.
- IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) is a highly ambitious awesome project. It’s a peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol aiming to replace HTTP. Web pages won’t disappear because of server failure as they are distributed on multiple nodes.
- Ethereum blockchain can serve as a sort of auditable back-end (or partial back-end) for applications. Smart contracts can implement the logic required by different use cases in a transparent and verifiable way.
- iExec is creating a blockchain-based decentralized marketplace for cloud resources (data-sets, computing resources, applications…). Users are able to control and monetize their digital assets securely and in a trustless way.
- Metamask: is a plugin that “Brings Ethereum to your browser” (Chrome, Brave and Firefox) so you can run Ethereum DApps without running a full Ethereum node.
Those components can be assembled together to create the next generation of the web. Some of them are still immature and they aren’t as performant as the centralized solutions, but thanks to the contribution of the community, they are on the way toward achieving that.
The change will not be easy, nor will it be instantaneous
Blockchain is more than a technology, it’s a way to redesign our perception of the IT industry. It changes how we deal with problems. It can help transform the web into a more transparent and privacy-respecting environment. This is not going to be instantaneous and will take a while. It all depends on us and on our response to it. There is no doubt, that it is not easy to get out of the comfort zone, but that’s something mandatory. It is the price to achieve aimed changes. But as technical community members, our role is to reduce the difference in the eyes of the end user so as to make the migration smoother.