What is a Decentralized Web? Part 1

In my relaunch post a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of building an open, decentralized web.

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.
This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It’s signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

As I write this, we mark the first anniversary of the Decentralized Web Summit (DWS) held at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. I wasn’t there, but was inspired by the ideas shared there. Click the link to see video of the keynote addresses given there, and much more information on what happened there. You may also find this Fast Company story from two of my favorite writers, Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks quite useful.

It’s occurred to me that in the year since the summit, the term “decentralized web” hasn’t gained the traction among ordinary folk that “net neutrality” has.  In this and the next couple posts, I’m here to help.

We once solved a big problem with the internet

When the World Wide Web was born, most people got online through one of two commercial services: Prodigy and America Online. If you don’t remember, these companies offered dial-up access to news, games, and community — all of which were located inside the walls of each service. Both companies worked hard to keep you inside their walled garden, even after they started offering content from the open Internet.

At that time, your “online service” completely controlled what access you had to the information resources of the wider internet. They also controlled the look-and-feel of those resources, so even if they offered a gateway outside the walled garden, you might not realize it.

Eventually, demand for full internet access forced the corporate online services to acquiesce, even though they probably knew that their internally generated content could never compete with the wonders of the World Wide Web.

Today’s oligarchy

The problem today is not that far away from the early 1990s. Consider this:

Tim Berners-Lee, who won the Turing Award for inventing the World Wide Web in the first place, describes the new problem this way in this interview with The New York Times: “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times has a slightly different list; omitting Twitter and adding the operating system behemoths: he calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Do take his survey to see how badly you’re hooked.

In the same interview, Berners-Lee identifies the results of this oligarchical control of the Web:

“It controls what people see, creates mechanisms for how people interact. It’s been great, but spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content, taking you to the wrong websites — that completely undermines the spirit of helping people create.”

So here we are again.

One solution: (Re)Decentralize the Web

The long-term solution would seem to be breaking up the Frightful Five, and putting users in control. But that’s easier said than done. I have long advocated that writers should have an online home of their own, but Berners-Lee highlights the problem that is everyone’s.

In the interests of preserving your time, I’ll stop now. In the next couple of posts, I hope to further explain the issue of centralization, how it affects you, and show you some intermediate steps along the way.

One more thing: Another blog for the Open Web

I want to introduce you to AltPlatform.org, another blog devoted to Open Web technologies. The founders are folks I have a ton of respect for, and (like me) think the time is right to move forward on these ideas.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “decentralized web”? Does my premise reflect reality? What questions do you have? Leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer in a subsequent post (if I don’t respond immediately).

 

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3 thoughts on “What is a Decentralized Web? Part 1

  1. Hmmm…. When I tapped the link to this blog post, Gmail put up a message: This is an untrusted site. Do you want to proceed? Looks like Google is building walls around the garden.

    So, yeah, you’ve gotten my attention, and I’m eager to learn more. Thanks, Mike,for a well-written and informative post.

    1. Thanks, Larry. I know that Google is trying to push sites to use secure (https) pages, but WordPress.com moved all its sites to secure pages some months ago. Tells you something about the dangers of unchecked power, doesn’t it?

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