When the Internet first came to be, it was a fully decentralized resource. No one person or organization held the keys or directed its course. As such, there was not a central authority to impose censorship or ownership, and there was no single point of failure. Early Internet users owned their contributions as well as their data. Over time, however, this has changed—and quite drastically.
Today, data is the new oil and companies with access to large datasets such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are on course to comprise the new oligopoly—a market structured much like a monopoly, but with several dominant companies controlling the majority of the market instead of just one. Remember Ma Bell? Like that.
The question now is, is it time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction, towards the Internet as a decentralized resource? Is it time to break up the data oligopoly and give consumers a real choice? And if so, what would be the benefit?
Historically speaking, centralization has helped to gain scale and achieve standardization, which in the case of the Internet, meant better service at a lower price and at a predictable quality. But similar to how centralization has helped craft empires, dynasties and monopolies, the centralization of the Internet is now concentrating resources and power at one end.
The average Internet user is practically forced to put their full trust into huge companies to manage their online identity, forfeiting any control they may have once enjoyed in order to access what was once a shared, decentralized resource. For example, without a Facebook or Google account, there are some apps and websites you simply cannot access. And as this trend of centralization continues, these gateways will become increasingly more common.
Centralization not only concentrates power and resources into the hands of a few, but also presents a single point of failure. One need only to look as far as the recent Equifax hacks, which affected nearly 150M people, or Amazon's S3 outages, which took down numerous Internet services with it, to realize the dangers of increased centralization.
But risks go beyond hacks and outages. Dominant social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have become centralized distribution centers for information and have shown themselves prone to information tampering, warfare and propaganda. Case in point with the recent U.S. presidential election.
The Surge to Redistribute Power
The societal penchant for decentralization is not new—the French Revolution actually helped give birth to the term—but it is experiencing a resurgence. New forms of decentralization can be witnessed emerging across industries. For example, BitCoin, the cryptocurrency, is a form of currency that doesn't have a central server or central authority that manages it, and therefore can't be taken down by targeting one server or organization.
In geopolitics, the movement toward decentralization can be seen in secession efforts such as Brexit or Catalonia, as countries attempt to break away from unions that they have forged in the past, opting for local government and control.
Even the farm to table movement can be examined in terms of decentralization, as people opt for local food sources as opposed to factory farming. The swing of the pendulum is further evidenced in efforts such as Redecentralize.org, an organization whose goal is to "get decentralized products into the hands of billions."
Is it Time?
The current incarnation of the "information revolution," ushered in with the arrival of the Internet, promised a major swing in the direction of decentralization and an even spread of wealth, power and resources. But instead, it created big centralized systems such as Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Businesses and consumers will default to centralized data until the technology that serves decentralization exists. It won't be a government regulation that makes companies and public make the jump. Rather, the move toward data decentralization will need a groundswell of support, a grassroots movement that companies will join so as not be left behind.
As governments and smaller companies realize the potential risks of data oligopoly and the Internet, the tide of support may turn in favor of data decentralization. The hyper growth of blockchain technology is early evidence. And while we witness what is happening in the EU, with the passing of GDPR—one of the most stringent regulations to enforce and control data from companies to the public—the capability exists, now more than ever, to believe that these changes mark a new beginning.
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