I usually write in Google's online word processor Google Docs, even when noting the company's shortcomings. This article is different: it was drafted in a similar but more private service called Graphite Docs. I discovered it while exploring a nascent and glitch-ridden online realm known as the decentralized internet.
Proponents as varied as privacy activists and marquee venture capitalists talk about the decentralized internet as a kind of digital Garden of Eden that can restore the freedom and goodwill of the internet's early days. The argument goes that big tech companies have locked up our data and minds inside stockholder-serving platforms that crush competition and privacy. Ultra-private, socially conscious decentralized apps, sometimes dubbed DApps, will give us back control of our data and let startups slay giants once more.
"The best entrepreneurs, developers, and investors have become wary of building on top of centralized platforms," Chris Dixon, a partner with investor Andreessen Horowitz, wrote last month in a kind of manifesto for a more decentralized internet. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has similar concerns. Graphite Docs and some other early DApps are far from perfect but show there's something to the hype. A life less dependent on cloud giants is possible, if not yet easy.
When you type in Google Docs, every word is sent to the ad company's servers, where you must take it on faith your data will be left alone. Despite Google's privacy policies and strong reputation for security, it has the technical ability to do whatever it wants with information you entrust to it. When I tapped these sentences into Graphite Docs they received a higher level of protection.
I could still access and edit my document from different computers, and even invite collaborators, because it was backed up online as I worked. But the data was stored in an encrypted form, on a network of computers unable to read my data. The encryption keys needed to unscramble it never left my own devices, meaning that unlike with most of the online services I use, my data was solely under my control.
All that was possible because Graphite Docs is built on top of Blockstack, a platform for decentralized internet apps developed by a startup of the same name. You access apps on the platform through a browser, but they run locally, on your computer, with help from software you install from Blockstack. That software helps you create the ID you need to log in to Blockstack apps and stores your encryption keys. And it gives you a choice of where you want to store your encrypted data: your own server or the Gaia storage network powered by Blockstack and some early adopters who have contributed their own computers to the cause. You can access your data from anywhere—as long as you remember your 12-word encryption keyphrase.
As you’ve probably gathered, getting started on the decentralized internet isn't as easy as downloading a new app from an app store. The people behind these clunky, early apps claim that it eventually will be. They argue cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, powered by many computers around the globe, and the datastores of a similar design known as blockchains, show that robust, secure infrastructure doesn’t need central authorities or servers. "We’re working to build a new internet, and the end goal is everyone you know is on it every single day," Blockstack cofounder Ryan Shea says.
For a computing platform to become that ubiquitous it must attract two kinds of people: developers to build news apps and services, and users. Decentralized apps and services are already appearing aimed at both audiences.
Several groups are working on alternatives to cloud storage providers like Amazon. When I uploaded photos to a service called Storj, for example, they were chopped up, encrypted, and distributed among a network of computers owned by strangers who had volunteered storage space on their systems in return for fees paid in cryptocurrency. You may know the basic idea from fictional startup Pied Piper in the sitcom Silicon Valley, but it works—albeit in my experience slowly and not always reliably.
Many decentralized internet projects are, like Graphite Docs, pitched as more private versions of existing products. The service, which offers spreadsheets as well as documents, was founded by developer and writer Justin Hunter, who plans to make money by offering an enterprise version to organizations that value privacy. Another project, OpenBazaar, is something like a decentralized eBay. When I browsed last week I saw lemon matcha tea, postage stamps, and hemp oil available to anyone willing to pay in bitcoin or a spinoff currency, bitcoin cash. In December, Blockstack put up $50,000 to encourage people to build decentralized messaging apps that could compete with apps such as Slack. Apps such as iMessage, WhatsApp, and Signal already encrypt what you write locally, but they still rely on a central server to move messages around.
Some parts of the emerging decentralized internet have serious backing from people who helped build the current generation of tech giants, with their centralized services. Now that their creations are proving difficult to compete with, venture capitalists appear to be seeking returns elsewhere.
Venture firms Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz, backers of Google and Facebook, respectively, have invested in a decentralized data-storage network called Filecoin, a creation of startup Protocol Labs intended to compete with conventional cloud storage. As with many decentralized internet projects, the company has raised money by selling a form of cryptocurrency that will later be used to motivate participation in the final system. Blockstack, a public benefit corporation, recently raised $50 million in the same way, adding to the more than $5 million in venture funding it has received from investors including Union Square Ventures, an early backer of Twitter.
Despite that blue-chip backing, the decentralized internet remains a niche interest closely allied with the idiosyncratic world of cryptocurrencies—and it shows. When I visited DTube, billed as a decentralized variant of YouTube, the trending videos were predominantly male vloggers opining on topics including bitcoin trading and the need to dissolve the US government.
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Videos were sometimes very slow to load. But they weren’t interrupted or obscured by ads, and I didn't have to wonder whether watching an interview with conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin would be cataloged by an ad-profiling algorithm and haunt me later. Users can tip video creators with the cryptocurrency steem, and popular videos can bring in hundreds of dollars' worth. The video files themselves are stored on the interplanetary file system, IPFS, a decentralized file-sharing system powered by volunteers.
It’s a clever design but one that illustrates how decentralized systems might face legal and governance problems. Some parts of the IPFS network support copyright takedowns, but they can be worked around. DTube’s operators say they can’t censor videos on the service, and that content will only disappear if the site’s users overwhelmingly down-vote it. If the community’s actions don’t meet the expectations of copyright lawyers, or end up penalizing certain kinds of content, expect things to get complicated.
Can these early, clunky decentralized apps ever compete with the centralized services that dominate today? When I ask Stavros Korokithakis, a software developer in Greece, he replies, "Certainly." He and a friend have built a decentralized app called Hearth, described as a cross between Dropbox and a web-hosting service.
Korokithakis says he wants to help people create personal and idiosyncratic web pages as they did on the "old web" of the 1990s, before predefined and ad-supported social profiles like those offered by Facebook ruled the world. But he concedes that taking on the centralized giants is a tough challenge. For now, decentralized apps’ clearest benefit is their resistance to censorship, he says, yet “the average person doesn't feel the need to evade censorship."
David Pakman, a partner with venture firm Venrock, which has invested in a forthcoming decentralized video-streaming network called Props, argues that decentralized apps will soon have more to offer. New platforms begin by trying to emulate old ones but take off when people create new services that were previously unimaginable, he says.
It's a convenient way to avoid being pinned down on just what the decentralized web will be good for. It’s also true. The creators of the Apple II did not predict the success of the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, the killer app that helped establish the utility of PCs in workplaces. The DoD-backed academics who laid the foundations of the internet didn't foresee or build Facebook.
Finding the killer apps of the decentralized internet will take more time, people, and money than have been thrown at the problem so far. Pakman says that societal attitudes to power and big tech companies appear to be in the right place to deliver them. "There’s massive distrust in centralized everything," he says. "We don't trust the government, don't go to church or synagogue, don't trust banks, and now we no longer trust tech companies."
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