Do We Need a More Open, Private, “Decentralized” Internet?
Is it time to rebuild the Web? That's what Tim Berners-Lee and other Internet pioneers are now saying in response to concerns about censorship, electronic spying and excessive centralization on the Web.
Last week, Berners-Lee, the guy who played a leading role in creating the Web in 1989, held a conference with other computer scientists in San Francisco at the Decentralized Web Summit. Attendees also included the likes of Mitchell Baker, head of Mozilla, and Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive.
Their discussions centered around making 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 conference site.
They're not alone. The organization Redecentralize has been working toward similar goals since last year. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's work for digital privacy and openness goes back even further. And BlueYard, a VC firm, hosted a similar event about Web openness in Berlin just a few days before the Decentralized Web Summit.
It seems clear that there is sustained and growing interest in online freedom and privacy.
How the Web Became Less Open
What are all these people worried about? What's wrong with the Web today as they see it?
Mostly, they don't like the tendency of online data to be stored on and routed through centralized servers. These are certainly problems for anyone who believes information online should be free and private.
They're also not happy about online censorship, which means governments or other authorities block certain websites within their jurisdictions. And they don't like governments spying on Web users in the way the Snowden revelations highlighted.
How to Make the Web Open Again
Arguably, however, these are not problems that can be solved by rearchitecting the Web alone.
The main issue with online privacy and freedom isn't that the design of the Web — let alone the Internet as a whole — is fundamentally flawed. Instead, it's that most online consumers services have been designed in ways that centralize information and place privacy controls in the hands of vendors, not users.
There are lots of effective ways to protect your privacy online. You can browse using Tor or a VPN to hide your identity and view censored websites. You can use tools like HTTPS Everywhere to add another layer of data encryption. You can avoid placing data in clouds whose servers you don't control. You could run your own email server if you really wanted. You can center your online activity around platforms like Usenet, which remains as free and decentralized now as it was decades ago, before the Web appeared and made Usenet forums an afterthought for most Internet users.
But most ordinary consumers don't do these things. They have not heard of Tor. They might use a VPN for work, but probably don't understand how that's different from using a VPN for privacy reasons. They upload private data to proprietary clouds without hesitation. They use proprietary protocols, like Skype, for online communication even though they have no way of verifying that their data remains as secure and private as the service providers claim.
In other words, what needs to change is Web user behavior, not the technology itself.
Yes, there might be changes programmers could make to the way the Web works that would make it inherently more private and harder to censor. But the tools for beating censorship and assuring privacy already exist. The challenge is just to make them easy enough that ordinary people will actually use them.
And that presents a huge opportunity for service providers. As user interest in online openness and privacy increases, organizations that prioritize these features and make them easy for non-geeks to implement will thrive.