The world’s first Decentralized Web Summit took place in June at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. The goal of decentralization is “to make the web open, secure and free of censorship by distributing data, processing, and hosting across millions of computers around the world, with no centralized control,” according to the summit’s website.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web delivered the keynote address in which he decried the “siloization” of the web, which is the antithesis of what he envisioned 27 years ago.
While the World Wide Web brings people and information together, some are concerned about manipulation of access and the invasion of privacy. People are concerned that the web — which should be free, open, and accessible — is in fact sectioned off and controlled, not to mention subject to surveillance by government agencies, as Edward Snowden revealed a few years ago.
People who access the web through dominant players like Facebook and Google may not always realize that they are getting a limited view that may promote particular agendas. Earlier this year, Gizmodo revealed that Facebook’s trending news team introduced bias in the site’s news feed, a charge that a former Facebook employee substantiated in a Digiday article.
Just this past July, Google was accused of bias in the algorithms applied to its auto-complete function, which did not match the parallels in other search engines like Bing or Yahoo. Though Google defended the objectivity of its algorithms, preventing auto-correct from bringing up results that the company considers offensive comes close to censorship and misrepresentation.
This is not the way the web should operate according to those who attended the Decentralized Web Summit. They share Berners-Lee’s ideals for a completely unrestricted network, though they have somewhat different takes on how to define decentralization and what it means for users. To get a sense of this topic, Syracuse’s online master of information management program gathered the views of 25 experts to clarify what people mean when they talk about decentralizing the web.
One definition is offered by Jason Griffey, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University: “The term ‘decentralized web’ is being used to refer to a series of technologies that replace or augment current communication protocols, networks, and services and distribute them in a way that is robust against single-actor control or censorship.”
Another Berkman Center fellow Samer Hassan echoes one of the themes stressed by Berners-Lee: Decentralization is not a new direction but the original plan for the web that was corrupted as a result of being subjected to “the surveillance of U.S. centralized control monopolies.”
The goal is not just one of change but a redirection to get the web back to the original vision for it. The hope is that this return to a more pristine state can be achieved as a result of a “global effort to re-decentralize the infrastructure, protocols, applications, and governance of the web.”
That entails, among other things, that the web becomes independent of “large internet ‘gatekeepers’ like Facebook and Google,” according to Mark Watson, a computer scientist at Cognition.tech. Along the same lines, Simon St. Laurent, strategic content director at O’Reilly Media, Inc., says the aim of decentralization is to ensure that “no one player can control the conversation or spin it to [his or her] exclusive advantage.” That would apply to corporate, government, and individual manipulation.
Assuming that decentralization can be achieved, there is another question: What will the user experience be like? According to the experts, users will have greater and faster access to content after it is removed from centralized platform controls. Empowering individuals to respond to content queries will also remove the problem of displaced content that currently cannot be brought up by search engines.
Primavera De Filippi, a researcher at the National Center of Scientific Research and faculty member at the Berkman Center, explains that the user’s worldview would open up. People don’t realize that they are operating under the limitations of the services that own the content.
“What people currently see on the web is what the main intermediaries of the web (Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) decide to expose users [to],” she says. “Because those are the ones ‘owning’ the content, only they can choose what to display and to whom. A decentralized web would allow for a ‘decentralized discovery’ of content, enabling people to explore the World Wide Web according to their own system of values.”
Users will also be able to interact directly with other producers and consumers of content. As Denis Nazarov, co-founder at Mediachain Labs explains, “The decentralized web will enable users and creators to interact and exchange value directly in a peer-to-peer fashion, removing the role of centralized platforms as middlemen that extract value from our interactions.”
Another benefit of this peer-to-peer possibility is faster access and new paths to content that are removed from our current system. This is what Kyle Drake, founder of Neocities, envisions.
“The main changes [users] will see is that content will load much, much faster, and access to it will be more reliable (both in terms of speed/latency and in terms of availability),” Drake says. “For example, they may never see a 404 page ever again because as long as at least one computer in the world somewhere has the page, it will be possible to view it.”
We can appreciate that, even under current conditions, the web it is not just a source of entertainment and news or even a means of communication. It’s a network that is greater than the sum of its parts and one that has become an integral component of modern life. That’s what Jeffrey Ventrella, founder of Wiggle Planet, LLC, asserts: “In the future, the web will be like air and water. It will be a part of the commons.”
(About the author: Adam Levenson (2U Inc) manages the blog content for Syracuse University’s online master degree programs in information management and library science. He is eager to connect with information and data science professionals and can be contacted on Twitter, LinkedIn, or email).
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