When I started to use the Internet in 1990, most of the service were decentralized:
- Global discussion forums where on Usenet which was operated by a loose network of admins, without central control.
Decisions about creating new news-groups where done democratically. (The “alt” hierarchy had a lower barrier to create groups)
Of course admins had the freedom to create new hierarchies with their own rules.
- Instead of search engines there was the archie service.
- Chatting was done with the “talk” application on Unix. (and later on IRC)
Back then I could not imagine that services like these would be centralized, run by corporations, and use the Web as a platform. I could not imagine that anybody would want to use that and give up democracy.
I rather imagined that new services would be implemented as a distributed service, too.
(If I could have imagined the centralization and commercialization of services, I would have created one by myself and would have become rich.)
Recently, several events happened which showed us the downside of centralized Internet services. (and much more happens unnoticed)
- It became clear that corporations like Facebook and Google can influence election results.
Either by allowing third parties to abuse their platform for doing so, or by themselves by slight changes of the config of their algorithm which selects the information that is displayed in feeds or on the first page of search results. Even subtle changes can have sufficient effects to move a few percent of voters. Which is often sufficient to change the result of an election. (People who have knowledge in direct marketing and Internet marketing understand that.)
This gives too much power in the hand of too few people. And without democratic control. Rather these few people can undermine democratic control which is crucial to the survival of our democracies.
- Recently, Google started to effectively censor information that they don’t like or that their biggest customers don’t like. The most visible example is the removal of alternative medicine information when conducting health related searches that don’t explicitly mention alternative medicine. E.g. the information from http://mercola.com, see also https://www.perrymarshall.com/training/google-canceled-his-traffic/
This is dangerous because it violates the foundation of free speech.
One of the foundations of free speech is that humans should be able to come to their own conclusions about topics based on the free flow of information. This is a lot more democratic than central institutions deciding what the truth is and what thoughts are permissible. Even the science community can be wrong, and can be corrupt, so it should not have the final say of what information shall be accessible.
This all makes me wonder whether the centralization of Internet services was a mistake that will be corrected.
Maybe decentralization is the next big trend on the Internet?
Or maybe it’ll be some middle ground?
The technology is there for sure. (e.g. distributed databases using distributed hash tables or similar technologies)
For example with search engine technology, there’s an open source project that provides a completely distributed search engine that does not have central control. It uses the computing power, storage and network bandwidth of the search users.
It is called YACY and has been around for a while: http://yacy.net.
I am not sure whether YACY will make it to mainstream.
But it is a proof of concept that it is possible to undo the centralization of Internet services.
Maybe my company will be involved with some decentralization project. Stay tuned.