Can We Decentralize the Web?


This week the Internet Archive hosted an amazing Decentralized Web Summit, which united the makers who want to build a web "that's locked open for good." [Watch the videos here.] Vint Cerf was there, as was the technical product development leader for Microsoft's own decentralized identity efforts, several companies building the so-called punk rock Internet, "along with a handful of venture capitalists looking for opportunities." One talk even included Mike Judge, the creator of HBO's Silicon Valley, which recently included the decentralized web in its ongoing storyline.

Computing highlighted remarks by Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, and Mitchell Baker, the chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation. The ideology of the web's early pioneers, according to Baker, was free software and open source. "Money was considered evil," she said. So when companies came in to commercialize the internet, the original architects were unprepared. "Advertising is the internet's original sin," Kahle told the packed room. "Advertising is winner-take-all, and that's how we've ended up with centralization and monopolies."

At the conference, attendees presented utopian visions of how the future of the internet could look. Civil, a new media startup, proposed crowd-supported journalism using cryptocurrency micro-payments. Mastodon, a decentralized and encrypted social network, was commonly referenced as an alternative to Twitter. As Facebook and Google continue to monopolize the digital advertising ecosystem -- recent estimates say that the two companies control over 70% of digital advertising spending globally -- the promise of a decentralized web, free from the shackles of advertiser demands is fun to imagine.


Tristan Harris, who leads the Center for Humane Technology, "just hopes the pioneers of the new internet turn around to face the potential negative externalities of their products before it's too late," arguing that "If we decentralize the systems we already have without an honest recognition of the social harms that are being created -- mental health [issues], loneliness, addiction, polarization, conspiracy theories... then we've decentralized social harms and we can't even track them." But Tim Berners-Lee "remains hopeful".

"There's massive public awareness of the effects of social networks and the unintended consequences," he told Computing. "There's a huge backlash from people wanting to control their own data"... Meanwhile, there's the rise of "companies which respect user privacy and do not do anything at all with user data" (he namechecks social network MeWe to which he acts as an advisor), open-source collaborations like the data portability project (DTP) led by tech giants, and his own project Solid which is "turning from an experiment into a platform and the start of a movement".

"These are exciting times," said Berners-Lee.