Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the WWW, has spoken out about centralization in the internet. In a recent blog post, the computer scientist said, “The web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas”.
The sentiment itself is nothing new, but it’s certainly interesting to hear the words coming from the mouth (or keyboard) of such a major player in the internet’s history and someone who clearly understands the web so well.
Sir Tim’s frustration and concern is understandable. The founding principles of the web have always been that it should be a platform for everyone, a place of freedom and democracy. In fact, it was built with no patent, and no royalties were ever due.
And these values have always been a central part of the web, but things are beginning to change. Centralization is growing, and the web is increasingly dominated by third-party giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
But why is this a bad thing, and what can we do to stop it and promote more equality and decentralization?
The problem with centralization
Centralization isn’t always a force for evil, of course. It’s sometimes necessary for things to work effectively, but too much centralization is generally a bad thing.
On the internet, we’re seeing centralized companies beginning to account for huge chunks of their market share. Facebook and Google dominate marketing and social media, while Amazon is the undisputed king of eCommerce.
On the face of it, this might not seem like a major cause for concern for the average joe. But the trouble is, monopolies like this tend to funnel power away from individual users and into the hands of companies.
To take a prominent recent case, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the dangers of centralization for user privacy. Facebook made confidential user data available to a third party company, who used it for political ends.
When big platforms have access to so much private and sensitive user data, which they tend to in a centralized system, some of that data is bound to end up in the wrong hands.
On top of privacy concerns, there’s also controversy over popular social media platforms spreading ‘fake news’ or pushing certain news agendas onto their user’s feeds in order to influence them.
And that’s without mentioning the way big platforms work closely with advertisers, using their users’ data to help target ads and make as much money as possible from them.
Then there’s the security aspect — networks with a central point are much more open to hacks and infiltration, like the Equifax breach which caused damage on a massive scale.
If the internet continues to become more centralized, we’re likely to see a reduction in freedom and autonomy of users, and a disproportionate amount of power being handed to third-party companies
So what’s the answer?
Building a better internet
The push for more decentralization could well come from the blockchain industry. It’s a young and growing sector, built around decentralization and the idea of networks with no central point, promoting anonymity and democracy.
Right now, while blockchain is beginning to make headlines pretty regularly, the average internet user is a bit unclear on what it actually looks like in practice. One of the best ways to interact with decentralized technology and get a feel of what it’s all about is through decentralized apps (dApps).
This is what Cardstack is calling ‘the experience layer of the decentralized internet’. They want to get more people into decentralization by making it easier for users to experience and use the technology.
They’re doing this by building a platform where users can mix and match features from different dApps, sample them, easily manage multiple subscriptions, and share their own software.
It benefits developers because it creates easier access to dApps and rewards their creators for individual features.
Done right, projects like this could lead to a more decentralized web, one that stays true to its founding principles and one where users aren’t at the whim of powerful centralized companies. It’s a vision that Sir Tim would be proud of, and a crucial step in the fight against mass centralization