A decentralized web would give power back to the people online
Matthew Hodgson Crunch Network Contributor
Matthew Hodgson is technical co-founder of Matrix.org, a not-for-profit open source project unifying Chat, VoIP and IoT technologies.
Recently, Google launched a video calling tool (yes, another one). Google Hangouts has been sidelined to Enterprise, and Google Duo is supposed to be the next big thing in video calling.
So now we have Skype from Microsoft, Facetime from Apple, and Google with Duo. Each big company has its own equivalent service, each stuck in its own bubble. These services may be great, but they aren’t exactly what we imagined during the dream years when the internet was being built.
The original purpose of the web and internet, if you recall, was to build a common neutral network which everyone can participate in equally for the betterment of humanity. Fortunately, there is an emerging movement to bring the web back to this vision and it even involves some of the key figures from the birth of the web. It’s called the Decentralised Web or Web 3.0, and it describes an emerging trend to build services on the internet which do not depend on any single “central” organisation to function.
So what happened to the initial dream of the web? Much of the altruism faded during the first dot-com bubble, as people realised that an easy way to create value on top of this neutral fabric was to build centralised services which gather, trap and monetise information.
Search Engines (e.g. Google), Social Networks (e.g. Facebook), Chat Apps (e.g. WhatsApp) have grown huge by providing centralised services on the internet. For example, Facebook’s future vision of the internet is to provide access only to the subset of centralised services it endorses (Internet.org and Free Basics).
Meanwhile, it disables fundamental internet freedoms such as the ability to link to content via a URL (forcing you to share content only within Facebook) or the ability for search engines to index its contents (other than the Facebook search function).
The Decentralised Web envisions a future world where services such as communication, currency, publishing, social networking, search, archiving etc are provided not by centralised services owned by single organisations, but by technologies which are powered by the people: their own community. Their users.
The core idea of decentralisation is that the operation of a service is not blindly trusted to any single omnipotent company. Instead, responsibility for the service is shared: perhaps by running across multiple federated servers, or perhaps running across client side apps in an entirely “distributed” peer-to-peer model.
Even though the community may be “byzantine” and not have any reason to trust or depend on each other, the rules that describe the decentralised service’s behaviour are designed to force participants to act fairly in order to participate at all, relying heavily on cryptographic techniques such as Merkle trees and digital signatures to allow participants to hold each other accountable.
There are three fundamental areas that the Decentralised Web necessarily champions:privacy, data portability and security.
Privacy: Decentralisation forces an increased focus on data privacy. Data is distributed across the network and end-to-end encryption technologies are critical for ensuring that only authorized users can read and write. Access to the data itself is entirely controlled algorithmically by the network as opposed to more centralized networks where typically the owner of that network has full access to data, facilitating customer profiling and ad targeting.
Data Portability: In a decentralized environment, users own their data and choose with whom they share this data. Moreover they retain control of it when they leave a given service provider (assuming the service even has the concept of service providers). This is important. If I want to move from General Motors to BMW today, why should I not be able to take my driving records with me? The same applies to chat platform history or health records.
Security: Finally, we live in a world of increased security threats. In a centralized environment, the bigger the silo, the bigger the honeypot is to attract bad actors. Decentralized environments are safer by their general nature against being hacked, infiltrated, acquired, bankrupted or otherwise compromised as they have been built to exist under public scrutiny from the outset.
Just as the internet itself triggered a grand re-levelling, taking many disparate unconnected local area networks and providing a new neutral common ground that linked them all, now we see the same pattern happening again as technology emerges to provide a new neutral common ground for higher level services. And much like Web 2.0, the first wave of this Web 3.0 invasion has walked among us for several years already.
Git is wildly successful as an entirely decentralised version control system – almost entirely replacing centralised systems such as Subversion. Bitcoin famously demonstrates how a currency can exist without any central authority, contrasting with a centralised incumbent such as Paypal. Diaspora aims to provide a decentralised alternative to Facebook. Freenet paved the way for decentralised websites, email and file sharing.
Less famously, StatusNet (now called GNU Social) provides a decentralised alternative to Twitter. XMPP was built to provide a decentralised alternative to the messaging silos of AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN, and others.
However, these technologies have always sat on the fringe – favourites for the geeks who dreamt them up and are willing to forgive their mass market shortcomings, but frustratingly far from being mainstream. The tide is turning . The public zeitgeist is finally catching up with the realisation that being entirely dependent on massive siloed community platforms is not entirely in the users’ best interests.
Critically, there is a new generation of Decentralised Startups that have got the attention of the mainstream industry, heralding in the new age for real.
Blockstack and Ethereum show how Blockchain can be so much more than just a cryptocurrency, acting as a general purpose set of building blocks for building decentralised systems that need strong consensus. IPFS and the Dat Project provide entirely decentralised data fabrics, where ownership and responsibility for data
These projects show how Blockchain can be so much more than just a cryptocurrency, acting as a general purpose set of building blocks for building decentralised systems that need strong consensus. IPFS and the Dat Project provide entirely decentralised data fabrics, where ownership and responsibility for data
IPFS and the Dat Project provide entirely decentralised data fabrics, where ownership and responsibility for data is shared by all those accessing it rather than ever being hosted in a single location.
The real step change in the current momentum came in June at the Decentralised Web Summit organised by the Internet Archive. The event brought together many of the original “fathers of the internet and World Wide Web” to discuss ways to “Lock the web open” and reinvent a web “that is more reliable, private, and fun.”
Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, saw first hand the acceleration in decentralisation technologies whilst considering how to migrate the centralised Internet Archive to instead be decentralised: operated and hosted by the community who uses it rather being a fragile and vulnerable single service.
Additionally, the enthusiastic presence of Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Brewster himself and many others of the old school of the internet at the summit showed that for the first time the shift to decentralisation had caught the attention and indeed endorsement of the establishment.
Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, saw first hand the acceleration in decentralisation technologies when considering how to migrate the centralised Internet Archive to instead be decentralised: operated and hosted by the community who uses it rather being a fragile and vulnerable single service.
The enthusiastic presence of Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Brewster himself and many others of the old school of the internet at the summit showed that for the first time the shift to decentralisation had caught the attention and indeed endorsement of the establishment.
Tim Berners-Lee said:
The web was designed to be decentralised so that everybody could participate by having their own domain and having their own webserver and this hasn’t worked out. Instead, we’ve got the situation where individual personal data has been locked up in these silos. […] The proposal is, then, to bring back the idea of a decentralised web.
To bring back power to people. We are thinking we are going to make a social revolution by just tweaking: we’re going to use web technology, but we’re going to use it in such a way that we separate the apps that you use from the data that you use.
We now see the challenge is to mature these new technologies and bring them fully to the mass market. Commercially there is huge value to be had in decentralisation: whilst the current silos may be washed away, new ones will always appear on top of the new common ground, just as happened with the original Web. Github is the posterchild for this: a $2B company built entirely as
Github is the posterchild for this: a $2 billion company built entirely as a value-added service on top of the decentralised technology of Git — despite users being able to trivially take their data and leave at any point.
Similarly, we expect to see the new wave of companies providing decentralised infrastructure and commercially viable services on top, as new opportunities emerge in this brave new world.
Ultimately, it’s hard to predict what final direction Web 3.0 will take us, and that’s precisely the point. By unlocking the web from the hands of a few players this will inevitably enable a surge in innovation and let services flourish which prioritise the user’s interests.
Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others have their own interests at heart (as they should), but that means that the user can often be viewed purely as a source of revenue, quite literally at the users’ expense.
As the Decentralised Web attracts the interest and passion of the mainstream developer community, there is no telling what new economies will emerge and what kinds of new technologies and services they will invent. The one certainty is they will intrinsically support their communities and user bases just as much as the interests of their creators.
The replacement for YOUTUBE needs no new hardware and uses Peer-to-Peer broadcasting and lets anybody be a broadcasting network. Comcast cries!
Developed for my thesis project, an ad hoc broadcasting application that’s real time, supports surround sound broadcasting (to multiple devices), low latency synced audio (on the same wifi) and peer to peer scalable broadcasts (allowing broadcasts of 1000+ listeners with no hardware requirements). (wisurr.azurewebsites.net)
submitted by Lifeconfused
Conference paper can be read here: https://wisurr.azurewebsites.net/ACSW-2017-Ad-hoc-Broadcasting.pdf
Some use cases this application supports:
Host a party and let everyone use their phones to playback the music, for on the fly music jamming throughout the venue.
A public address system (PA) that can be utilised for broadcasting important announcements in large-scale operations such as those in airports, hospitals and factories. Such an application would be especially helpful for those who are hard of hearing.
An ad hoc broadcasting system employed by Civil Defence to aid in disaster relief efforts through the dissemination of important announcements related to emergency services.
A scalable lecturing system able to be used both within a colocated or distributed setting to allow listeners to hear the presenter even at a distance, or for those who are hard of hearing as in the first application.
An ad hoc sound system for consuming audio in an immersive surround-sound environment through mobile devices.
Use as a non-disruptive personal audio receiver that allows the user to listen to broadcasted audio (for example with headphones) without being restricted by cabling length or other physical barriers.
The first rule of a conversation: listen. Bio and disclosures: http://dangillmor.com/about
Spanish engineer Ramon Roca got tired of waiting for telecom companies to wire his town — so he did it himself.
You can see the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains from Gurb, about 75 kilometers north of Barcelona. It’s a quiet farming community of 2,500, and in most ways there’s nothing special to set it apart from many such towns across the Catalonia region of Spain.
So why do people like me eagerly journey to Gurb? Because it’s the birthplace of Guifi.net, one of the world’s most important experiments in telecommunications. Guifi is a community network that has long since transcended its local roots. From a single node more than a decade ago, it has become a vast mesh-and-more system linking tens of thousands of people in hundreds of communities to each other and the global Internet. In the U.S. most of us go online via Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable or other telecom giants to run Facebook, shop, watch videos and check our email. In Gurb and other communities, Guifi is the on-ramp to the fabled information superhighway.
For people who want to see an Internet at least partly liberated from the grip of rapacious, government-connected telecommunications giants, Guifi is one of the most hopeful developments to date. Its core values, ownership, and operations are testament to the idea that you and I, and our communities, can — and should — control how we communicate. For the tens of thousands of people using it, some at no charge, Guifi operates as well as Time Warner Cable does for New Yorkers (and maybe better).
Guifi exists because a technically savvy local man, Ramon Roca, got tired of waiting for Telefonica, the Spanish telecom giant, to provide Internet access to the people of his community. He had a personal need for access. But he had a powerful second motive as well: “to help my neighbors.”
The project is a testament to tireless efforts — in governance, not just in adding hardware and software — by Roca and his colleagues. They’ve been unwavering in their commitment to open access, community control, network neutrality, and sustainability.
“What they’ve built is extraordinary,” says Sascha Meinrath, an open Internet activist, professor of telecommunications at Penn State University, and director of the telecom-focused think tank X-LAB. In the U.S., he told me recently, we’ve collectively decided that it’s impossible to create a community owned, operated and led service of any serious scale — that most of us need a corporate behemoth like Comcast or Verizon for our connections. Guifi, he said, proves that it can be done, at some scale, in a very different way.
At the heart of Guifi is the “Compact for a Free, Open and Neutral Network,” which starts with these principles for people who want to join the network:
You have the freedom to use the network for any purpose as long as you don’t harm the operation of the network itself, the rights of other users, or the principles of neutrality that allow contents and services to flow without deliberate interference.
Those terms, put into practice, have been astoundingly robust. They’ve been the basis for a community of varying constituencies, ranging from everyday people who just want communications to several dozen small Internet service providers (ISPs) that have set up shop on Guifi to provide installation, guidance and customer service for end users. It’s all a far cry from the early days, when Roca was peeved that he couldn’t connect to the Net.
Roca was then, and remains, an engineer who works for Oracle. (During the week he often commutes to an office in Barcelona.) On a trip to California 12 years ago, he bought some Linksys WiFi routers at Fry’s Electronics. The routers were hackable. That is, one could rewrite the internal programming to make the routers do things the company didn’t expect customers to do. In this case, the routers could be turned into nodes in an extensible mesh-like system where each could receive data and supply it to routers owned by other people who wanted to join the network.
The first node went live in the early summer of 2004, when Roca turned on a router with a directional antenna he’d installed at the top of a tall building near the local government headquarters. That office was also the only place in town with Internet access, a DSL line Telefonica had run to municipal governments throughout the region. The antenna was aimed, line of sight, toward Roca’s home about six kilometers away.
Soon, neighbors started asking for connections, and neighbors of neighbors, and so on. Beyond the cost of the router, access was free. Some nodes were turned into “supernodes” — banks of routers in certain locations, or dedicated gear that accomplishes the same thing — that could handle much more traffic in more robust ways. The network connected to high-capacity fiber optic lines, to handle the growing demand, and later connected to a major “peering” connection to the global Internet backbone that provides massive bandwidth. (Peering is a voluntary exchange of traffic from one network to another.) Guifi grew, and grew, and grew.
As it expanded, Roca realized that connecting more and more nodes, hardly trivial in its own right, wasn’t enough. Making it sustainable while preserving the core principles was going to be at least as challenging.
Again, he was in the right place, at the right time. Barcelona and Catalonia are, in many ways, at the forefront of community-driven activism and collective action. The most visible is the movement to gain Catalonian independence from Spain, but the city and region are home to some of the world’s most advanced bottom-up, collaborative-economy projects. It has become almost a laboratory, and test bed, for rejecting the excesses of Big Capitalism in favor of something much more peer-to-peer.
Guifi’s infrastructure is held in common by its users, and operated as a commons. Working with volunteers who’d assumed key administrative roles, Roca concluded that the network needed a parent organization. They created a not-for-profit entity, the Guifi.net Foundation, under which a sound governance structure could be created and maintained. The foundation employs a small team (Roca remains an unpaid volunteer and board member). It handles overall governance and runs the overall network operations.
Funding has come from various sources including several levels of government. The European Union has provided grants via international organizations that support innovation aligned with EU “Digital Agenda” objectives, of which broadband is one. The grants have not been for infrastructure; they’ve been part of EU research projects, and Guifi has used its participation to help bootstrap its own broader mission.
That funding — over a million Euros to date — is a drop in the bucket next to the lavish subsidies and favors that state-approved monopolies like Telefonica have enjoyed for decades. But it’s been vital to Guifi’s emergence.
So has one of the network’s most important structural elements: The Guifi Foundation isn’t the paid provider of most Internet service to end-user (home and business) customers. That role falls to more than 20 for-profit internet service providers that operate on the overall platform. The ISPs share infrastructure costs according to how much demand they put on the overall system. They pay fees to the foundation for its services — a key source of funding for the overall project. Then they offer various kinds of services to end users, such as installing connections — lately they’ve been install fiber-optic access in some communities — managing traffic flows, offering email, handling customer and technical support, and so on. The prices these ISPs charge are, to this American who’s accustomed to broadband-cartel greed, staggeringly inexpensive: 18 to 35 Euros (currently about $20–$37) a month for gigabit fiber, and much less for slower WiFi. Community ownership and ISP competition does wonders for affordability.
Contrast this with the U.S. broadband system, where competitive dial-up phone access — phone companies were obliged to let all ISPs use the lines as the early commercial Internet flourished in the 1990s — gave way to a cartel of DSL and cable providers. Except in a few places where there’s actual competition, we pay way more for much less.
It became clear early on in Guifi’s existence that just being open and available wasn’t nearly enough. “We realized we had to make a community able to embrace these users — farmers, not technical people,” Roca says. Among other things, this meant teaching local people how to become installers, to offer professional-grade services.
Some municipal governments in the region, meanwhile, offered some financial support to create and build out local networks. In other places, volunteers pooled money and talent in an early form of crowdfunding.
In many communities, people were taking what Roca calls a “wait and see if it works” stance. So Guifi itself set up what it called “apadrinaments” — Catalan for “sponsorships” — by working with suppliers who’d build local systems once it was clear that people would pay for installation and ongoing access. “It was about announcing a plan, describing the cost, and asking for contributions,” Roca says. The payments weren’t going to Guifi, but to the suppliers of gear and ISP network services. All of these initiatives laid the groundwork not just for building out the overall network, but also creating the array of ISPs.
As the network grew, the Guifi.net Foundation oversaw the volunteer and commercial providers. It handled network traffic to and among the providers; connected to the major data “interchange” providing vast amounts of bandwidth between southern Spain and the rest of the world; planned deployment of fiber; and, crucially, developed systems to ensure that the ISPs were paying their fair share of the overall data and network-management costs.
Roca, who seems genuinely modest about his achievements, can’t begin to count the hours he’s devoted to the project over the years — a commitment that has not eased. On the day I visited him in Gurb, he’d arrived home long after midnight from a negotiating session with one of the ISPs that, he said, needed encouragement to pull its financial weight. The encounter, a fairly routine event, highlighted an ongoing issue for Guifi. Roca’s authority inside Guifi is based on his well-established credibility. But he sees his essential role now as working to create sustainable governance and payment structures that will function even when he’s no longer in charge. This is also his answer to a question that I’m not alone in asking: What’s the succession plan in an organization that has depended so much on one person’s initiative, vision, and drive?
One way forward is to be even more professional, says Roger Baig Viñas, an early volunteer who became a paid staff member. As a contributor to the free software movement, Baig was drawn to the Guifi project by Roca’s community-driven vision, and his clarity of how to get from concept to reality. As he notes, the most you can do for a volunteer is to say thank you. As the network and its complexity grow, rewards need to take other forms, too, including financial. He and Roca are among the co-authors of an upcoming communications journal paper describing how Guifi has handled its governance and financing so far, and some of the tweaks (and more) it needs going forward. The document is a clear-headed look back, and forward.
One of the most crucial adjustments will be in Guifi’s transition from WiFi to fiber, which is in its relatively early days (the great majority of network nodes are still wireless). WiFi routers are cheap on a per-household basis, so deploying the WiFi mesh has required modest capital costs but significant operating costs. Deploying fiber to a home or business is expensive, especially in rural areas, requiring much higher up-front investments. This will make the Guifi business more complicated, or at least a lot different than the current one.
Can Guifi survive, much less thrive, in a world increasingly dominated by highly centralized technology, networks, and services? Compared with Big Telecom ISPs, it’s still tiny. Governments, often in league with the telecom industry, can thwart innovative projects of this kind if they change laws, or abuse existing ones. Guifi has to worry about incumbents, but despite threatening communications there haven’t been any direct attempts to shut it down using the legal system, Roca says.
More important — at least for people who believe in open technology and communications — is whether it can become a counterweight to the Big Telecom dominance we’ve taken for granted in America and most of the world. Moreover, how can such a thing compete in an increasingly mobile world where telecoms, frequently in collaboration with Facebook, are almost literally deciding what the Internet will be?
At the very least, Guifi shows what smart and committed communities can do with open technology. (Some router manufacturers are locking down their gear, in one of the more alarming recent developments, but some remain open for modification.) Guifi has filled a need with a system that, seemingly, could be replicated in rural areas in many nations, including the U.S., where telecom companies have left much of the countryside begging for genuine broadband. It has shown that mesh-like systems (Guifi technically isn’t a mesh network, by typically used definitions, but it has many of the aspects of such systems) can work, and work well.
I’m hugely impressed — that should be obvious — by what Roca, Baig and their compatriots have achieved. They’ll never have the capital to turn Guifi into a massive, Comcast-scale enterprise; then again, they haven’t shown any desire to do so. But they’ve definitely demonstrated that communities can build relatively “large-scale, locally-owned, broadband infrastructure that provides faster speeds for lower prices in more locations than telco incumbents,” as Meinrath, the open-networks advocate, puts it.
At some point, perhaps soon, Guifi will reach its own logical best size, an evolving combination of wireless and fiber, expanding in nodes and, as wireless technology improves, increasing bandwidth at all levels. If Roca and his team can pull off their vital project to create a sustainable governance and financial structure — a network that continues to live up to the Internet’s decentralized ideals and which can’t be co-opted by corporatism — they’ll be creating a model for others. That, in the end, could be the most important thing they do.
If they can pull off this transition, and if other people learn the right lessons, we could see more and more Guifi-like networks in more and more places. Then Roca’s legacy will extend far beyond the exemplary things he’s done for his extended community. It will also be his leadership, the kind that spreads.
FOR MORE SEE: http://p2p-internet.weebly.com
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