What is a decentralized internet and why is it such a big deal? Let’s take a look into the answers to these questions, and the coins (whether blockchain-based or not) attempting to find the answers.

A Brief History of the Internet

During the mid 1990s, it was estimated that only about one percent of the world’s population was connecting to the internet at any given time. Over the course of 20 years time, this figure has ballooned to roughly 73%. That’s almost three quarters of the world population that is now connecting to the internet on a daily basis, or 5.1 billion people. Needless to say, the internet has had a transformative effect on all of our lives; from the way we do business, to the way we communicate with one another, to the way we find and distribute valuable (and even not so valuable) information.

Just like with the rise in popularity of bitcoin, the internet’s growth is largely attributed to the fact that it is not owned or controlled by any central administration. However, the last decade has seen an increasing amount of centralization of internet servers and governance, squeezing out a disaffected share of users who no longer see the system as the fair, beneficial or benign communications process that it once was. They are now looking for a less regulated way to connect online with a mass audience, giving rise to the idea of a new generation of network connectivity. Even the man who gets credited for inventing the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, believes that the internet is now too centralized and is currently working on his own decentralized re-invention of the internet to bring it back to its ideals of being freely usable by all and on an equal playing field.

Ethernet technology, invented by 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe in the mid 1970s, was the first sort of computer networking system to see mass adoption, which physically connects computers in a network together by using a specially designed cable. The actual internet (as we know it today), which linked together computers from all-around the world using telephone circuits, coaxial cables and fiber optics, did not come about until the early 1990s, and it was not without its own initial problems. It was laboriously slow, without many users, and without much to do once one got connected. Ethernet’s Metcalfe was so sure that the internet was going to collapse by the end of 1996 that he famously proclaimed he would eat his words if it didn’t. In 1997, he used a blender to make a paper smoothie, with the text of his proclamation written on the paper, and drank it.

Obviously, the internet never died out in popularity, nor did it collapse, but it is facing a new set of problems caused by its creeping centralization of provision. Internet service providers, search engine giants and major social media services are slowly dominating their market shares, making internet users beholden to their terms and conditions in the process. Some of these terms are proving to be highly unfavorable, more and more often leading to unsavory results such as Facebook supplying political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica with unwitting user information earlier this year.

Problems Mitigated by a Decentralized Internet

There are several advantages that a decentralized version of the internet can have over a centralized one. By distributing servers hosting web content among a wide population of individuals, a decentralized internet provides the framework for a network without a single point of failure. This means that its uptime is not reliant solely on one or two service providers who may be subject to faulty behaviors or use their influence to diminish competition. In addition to leveling the playing field for web entrepreneurs of all types, a decentralized internet offers the following benefits:

Server Hacks

Since data for a decentralized internet can be hosted on a wide number of servers spread out across the world, if one server is hacked or corrupted, it does not necessarily bring down the entire rest of the network with it. Similar to how the Bitcoin Network would reject a tampered version of the blockchain provided by a hacked or renegade bitcoin node, information provided by a hacked or renegade distributed web server will not propagate across the network as its version of recorded contents will be checked against properly functioning nodes and voted out if they do not correspond with what is deemed to be valid by the prevailing majority. Much like how the Bitcoin Network has thus far proven itself to be unhackable, a decentralized internet could also prove to be unhackable.

Server Failure

In October 2016, a major portion of the internet went offline for most of the day due to a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on domain name system (DNS) host Dyn. A coordinated flood of visitor activity hit Dyn servers all at once, and since it serves as a major conduit for a lot of web traffic, regular users were unable to reach Dyn and visit their website destination. As mentioned previously, an internet that uses a distributed series of servers, spread out all across the world, can still run if a single server crashes. This means that if a server unexpectedly malfunctions, or is the target of a DDoS attack, a decentralized internet can continue functioning normal by bypassing the corrupted server altogether. The lack of a single point of failure adds an increased degree of robustness against server failure or DDoS attacks.

Data Censorship

The countries of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia place several firewalls up to bar communication with designated websites and IP addresses. In 2011, the government of Egypt blacked out 93% of all internet services in order to slow the mobilization of protestors during a widespread uprising, and in 2017 blocked dozens of news websites deemed to be critical of the current administration. In Turkey, Wikipedia has been blocked for over a year. These problems are also avoidable by use of a decentralized internet which would make it difficult for a government or regime to pinpoint central locales of internet provision of which they could enforce closure.

Another form of censorship caused by service providers is the obstruction of net neutrality. This occurs when a service provider discriminates against or charges differently by user, website, content or platform. Service providers could also choose to slow connection speeds toward content they found to be unfavorable or boost speeds to websites willing to pay them extra money. In a decentralized internet, all players – whether user, website publisher or platform provider – are treated equally, making sure that all information held by its servers can be accessed at the same rate and by all.

Invasion of Privacy

In the United States, all broadband Internet traffic (web browsing, emails, instant messages, etc.) is required to be made available for real-time monitoring by federal law enforcement agencies under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. Data monetization encourages major corporations like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook to not only collect and sell your user data to advertisers and other third parties but to monitor your browsing habits, online interactions and hardware/software preferences. Users agree to terms permitting this when using any such major service, but a decentralized internet could avoid this possibility by allowing for a greater choice in service providers, including those who specifically do not track their users or collect their data, for the purposes of monetization or any other.

Problems Endured by a Decentralized Internet

As with what tends to happen whenever any established technological process is uprooted and rebuilt from scratch, a decentralized internet isn’t going to be pretty – or even widely successful – at first. It’s going to come with its own set of problems, most of which will be due to its lack of immediate adoption. Some of these problems will probably include slow transmission speeds, a lack of content and a lack of infrastructure. Corporate internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon already have billions of dollars worth of infrastructure in place to assure quick data speeds and stable connections, not to mention years worth of content already being hosted on their servers. A decentralized internet will be without these two factors – or many users – until the problems caused by a centralized internet are no longer worth the hassle for its users and many of them begin to ditch it in favor of a new alternative.

Decentralized Internet Blockchain Projects

There are several different versions of a cryptocurrency-based decentralized internet in the works, all of which have different ideas of how to best accomplish this vision. Some are blockchain-based while others simply use a coin or token as a means for payment of related services. We present to you 4 of the biggest ones, all which have cryptocurrencies in the list of the top 100 coins by market capitalization, in order of project launch date.

 

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MaidSafe (MAID)

Started in 2006, the idea for MaidSafe predates the invention of cryptocurrency itself and is the original vision of a decentralized internet. It aims to do this by creating an autonomously functioning, end-to-end encrypted network that is accessible by all and free to use. MaidSafe rewards those who donate their server space and connectivity to their own SAFE network with Safecoins, which can then be used to pay for uploading data to the network or exchanged for goods and services like any other currency. All applications built on the SAFE network (which is accessed using the SAFE browser), using an open-source platform, are thereby decentralized applications (DApps), and after the initial upload fee is paid they remain in place forever, without the need for monthly server fees or subscriptions. In 2014, MaidSafe conducted a highly successful crowdsale in which they raised $7 million over the course of 6 hours.

Pros: Highly anonymous with no 3rd party tracking, free to use, easy to develop DApps.

Cons: 5 years after crowdsale conclusion its main product is still under development, could realistically be 4-5 more years before a fully-functional version is released to the public.

 

LogoTron (TRX)

Tron was founded in July 2017 by Justin Sun, inventor of the popular Chinese chat app Peiwo. Tron is a bit different from MaidSafe in that it is blockchain-based and plans to create a decentralized internet that is specifically focused on media and entertainment. Unlike MaidSafe, the Tron main net has already been launched and although still in the early stages is ready for developer use. Tron places high regard on meeting regulatory compliance standards and has a number of existing partnerships with content distribution services. Tron aims to re-empower content creators by allowing them to bypass intermediary services that severely reduce their potential income, rewarding them based on the popularity of their content. This model is largely different from pre-existing content creator / service provider relationships currently in existence, which heavily favor giant corporations (such as Facebook, Google and Apple) and are demotivating to artists and other content producers. Though Tron does have some major financial backers (such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma), it still has a long road ahead of it before it can even begin to think of rivaling today’s major social media and entertainment platforms.

Pros: Extremely fast transaction speeds, cutting-edge technology, reward system for content creators.

Cons: Inexperienced leadership, lack of clear goals for implementation, could be 5 or more years until final version of the product is fully developed.

 

Holochain (HOT)

Holochain is a “post blockchain” decentralized internet system that uses the concept of “holographic data storage” to fulfill the goal of creating a network that is widely distributed and secured. The holograph metaphor comes from the idea that if you wave your hand over a hologram, you may be able to block a portion of it temporarily, but you cannot block its source, which remains uninterrupted and unstoppable. Holochain does not run on a traditional blockchain but uses a “chain based ledger system” that is secured by a novel consensus algorithm known as Proof of Service. Proof of Service rewards those who complete requests on behalf of users (such as building DApps, lending storage space or providing connectivity infrastructure) by issuing them Holo Fuel, which is needed to utilize many aspects of the Holochain network. By providing a system of interconnected nodes that run on their own unique set of hardware devices, Holochain hopes to create a new peer-to-peer layer of internet that emphasizes user control over their own data, privacy and environmental friendliness.

Pros: Highly scalable, cutting-edge software and hardware, environmentally friendly, robust infrastructure.

Cons: Complex to use (not very beginner-friendly), proprietary hardware required to operate node, long road ahead in terms of developing a community and user base.

 

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Aion (AION)

Aion is a bit different from the aforementioned projects in that its goal is to create a decentralized internet of blockchains, tying all cryptocurrency and blockchain networks together through decentralization of network resources. Nevertheless, the outcome of tying together isolated blockchains could be seen as a newly-created version of the internet, in that DApps from various cryptocurrency platforms could co-mingle with one another, allowing their usage by anybody. CEO of Aion Matt Sparks describes the project as for those who want to build bridges between different blockchain networks, both public and private, using Aion’s codebase to build their own network in the process. Since blockchains use different programming languages, they need a bridge to communicate with one another – a problem which Aion is attempting to solve. To approach this problem, they have constructed a new network routing process that allows for the transfer of value and logic between cryptocurrency networks, something that is previously unattempted and not being pursued by other internet decentralization projects.

Pros: Fast transaction speeds, highly scalable with high data capacity, DApp building framework allows not only for blockchain interoperability but allows anyone to create their own blockchain to interface with existing blockchains as well.

Cons: Leaves out non-blockchain related networks, not much publicity or marketing, has a long way to go in terms of releasing a fully operational product.

 

There are other projects in the works relating to internet decentralization, most notable of which is the previously-mentioned project by Berners-Lee, but these are the top 4 in terms of how successful their corresponding native currency (or ICO product) has become since made available for sale. While it is evident that all of these projects have quite a while to go before they are poised to achieve a great deal of recognition or popularity, these two factors may become greatly enhanced by a virtue of the falling popularity of regular internet, which is alienating more and more users by the day. Regardless of whether or not blockchain or related peer-to-peer technology will be the answer to the solution, there are definitely some interesting projects in the works that are worth keeping an eye on, and will perhaps reveal themselves as good investment opportunities, however long into the future.