AS THE INTERNET has evolved over its 35-year lifespan, control over its most important services has gradually shifted from open source protocols maintained by non-profit communities to proprietary services operated by large tech companies. As a result, billions of people got access to amazing, free technologies. But that shift also created serious problems.
Millions of users have had their private data misused or stolen. Creators and businesses that rely on internet platforms are subject to sudden rule changes that take away their audiences and profits. But there is a growing movement — emerging from the blockchain and cryptocurrency world — to build new internet services that combine the power of modern, centralized services with the community-led ethos of the original internet. We should embrace it.
From the 1980s through the early 2000s, the dominant internet services were built on open protocols that the internet community controlled. For example, the Domain Name System, the internet’s “phone book”, is controlled by a distributed network of people and organizations, using rules that are created and administered in the open. This means that anyone who adheres to community standards can own a domain name and establish an internet presence. It also means that the power of companies operating web and email hosting is kept in check — if they misbehave, customers can port their domain names to competing providers.
From the mid 2000s to the present, trust in open protocols was replaced by trust in corporate management teams. As companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook built software and services that surpassed the capabilities of open protocols, users migrated to these more sophisticated platforms. But their code was proprietary, and their governing principles could change on a whim.
How do social networks decide which users to verify or ban? How do search engines decide how to rank websites? One minute social networks court media organizations and small businesses, the next minute they de-prioritize their content or change the revenue split. The power of these platforms has created widespread societal tensions, as seen in debates over fake news, state-sponsored bots, privacy laws, and algorithmic biases.
That’s why the pendulum is swinging back to an internet governed by open, community-controlled services. This has only recently become possible, thanks to technologies arising from the blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about blockchains, which are heavily hyped but poorly understood. Blockchains are networks of physical computers that work together in concert to form a single virtual computer. The benefit is that, unlike a traditional computer, a blockchain computer can offer strong trust guarantees, rooted in the mathematical and game-theoretic properties of the system. A user or developer can trust that a piece of code running on a blockchain computer will continue to behave as designed, even if individual participants in the network change their motivations or try to subvert the system. This means that the control of a blockchain computer can be placed in the hands of a community.
Users who depend on proprietary platforms, on the other hand, have to worry about data getting stolen or misused, privacy policies changing, intrusive advertising, and more. Proprietary platforms may suddenly change the rules for developers and businesses, the way Facebook famously did to Zynga and Google did to Yelp.
The idea that corporate-owned services could be replaced by community-owned services may sound far-fetched, but there is a strong historical precedent in the transformation of software over the past twenty years. In the 1990s, computing was dominated by proprietary, closed-source software, most notably Windows. Today, billions of Android phones run on the open source operating system Linux. Much of the software running on an Apple device is open source, as is almost all modern cloud data centers including Amazon’s. The recent acquisitions of Github by Microsoft and Red Hat by IBM underscore how dominant open source has become.
As open source has grown in importance, technology companies have shifted their business models from selling software to delivering cloud-based services. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix are all services companies. Even Microsoft is now primarily a services company. This has allowed these companies to outpace the growth of open source software and maintain control of critical internet infrastructure.
A core insight in the design of blockchains is that the open source model can be extended beyond software to cloud-based services by adding financial incentives to the mix. Cryptocurrencies — coins and tokens built into specific blockchains — provide a way to incentivize individuals and groups to participate in, maintain, and build services.
The idea that an internet service could have an associated coin or token may be a novel concept, but the blockchain and cryptocurrencies can do for cloud-based services what open source did for software. It took twenty years for open source software to supplant proprietary software, and it could take just as long for open services to supplant proprietary services.
But the benefits of such a shift will be immense. Instead of placing our trust in corporations, we can place our trust in community-owned and -operated software, transforming the internet’s governing principle from “don’t be evil” back to “can’t be evil”.