The Status Quo
Internet giants like Facebook and Google wield a lot of power as a result of their access to the endless sea of their users’ data. The fact that such organizations are centralized means the general public or the numerous subscribers are at the mercy of these organization when it comes to how they decide use the information. The problem here is not just a matter of intrusion or invasion of privacy, but the potential use of the power of such organizations to manipulate the collective thoughts of groups and as a means of controlling the populace. With the advent of cryptocurrencies, there has been a move to create a decentralized internet that would allow users to have control over their data. We shall examine the need for society to be protected from the risks that come with huge centralized internet companies.
Facebook and Google do not only have access to databases of data but also how the data interacts with each other. “Knowledge Graphs” is an apt term for what these organizations possess. Complex algorithms are used to analyze and predict what a user might desire with a high degree of accuracy. If you ever felt every ad you run into seemed tailor-made for you, this is why. As stated in the introduction, these resources are very useful but can become dangerous tools when they end up in the wrong hands.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, had to testify before the U.S Senate on how Cambridge Analytica was given access to data from about 87 million accounts. This data is said to have been used to create targeted political ads during the 2016 elections. From the hearing, we learned that the politicians in charge of overseeing such organizations can do little to rein them in since they don’t have the full understanding of the technology. This is alarming.
Google, another internet giant, is said to have about 15 exabytes of data. This roughly the equivalent of storage space of 30 million personal computers. In 2009, the company experienced a data leak that involved about 0.05% of their data. There have also been concerns about relations between Google and U.S Security agencies as well as their willingness to hand over data to those agencies.
Some time has passed and we have less public outcry about the issue of data protection and the call for more oversight of internet giants like Facebook. Facebook also made it clear that it was taking steps to avoid such problems in the future. An example of the improvements was allowing users to be able to see what data of theirs the company was keeping and using. The European Union has also brought into effect new rules on data protection that mean users would have to give consent before certain information about their browsing activities can be collected.
These are, however, no guarantees that these steps would prevent the next possible data breach. Once big players on the internet remain centralized, there would always be the great risk of data getting into the hands of the wrong people.
Cryptocurrencies and the Decentralized Internet
For every Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, there is now a Diaspora, Steemit Basic Attention Token, and Dtube. We also have more decentralized cryptocurrency exchanges and decentralized marketing platforms being developed. These are all attempts to create decentralized media platforms that would greatly lower if not eliminate the potential exploitation of the user’s personal data. There are also cryptocurrency projects like Ethereum and EOS that are aimed at building a new and decentralized internet.
Some of the “decentralized internet” projects named above have taken off successfully and are growing at a steady rate. They are however nowhere close to dethroning the current order. Despite numerous complaints, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are still doing okay. Interestingly, even though lots of criticisms and campaigns have been directed at these centralized companies, very few people actually deleted their social media accounts on these platforms.
Why the Decentralized Internet Platforms have not taken over yet
If we are all really concerned about our privacy and how our personal data is being used, why are the decentralized platforms not gaining ground at a faster rate? Almost all these projects are not widely known beyond the cryptocurrency world.
The main reason is that the huge network effect of the existing platforms makes it difficult for users to leave for newer ones. For instance, a video blogger might be interested in using Dtube but would be reluctant to leave YouTube simply because she has a larger audience there.
Another reason is that the decentralized internet applications are still a work-in-progress at the moment. Most of them are still working on improving their user interface and user-friendliness. For example, Dtube is less attractive to the average user than YouTube at the moment. In addition, some of these platforms are in many ways still centralized since they are in the early stages of development and in the hands of the creators. Steemit is an example of a supposedly decentralized social media platform which is not actually decentralized. All these factors make it unlikely that the decentralized internet with decentralized applications would be a reality anytime soon.
The Way Forward
The way forward for a decentralized internet and freedom from potential exploitation and manipulation of society would have to involve better incentive systems for the decentralized version of the internet. To gain more network effect, the systems must have inbuilt incentives that would attract users to sign up and stay on the various platforms. The existing incentives would have to be looked at and improved upon to attract non crypto savvy users as well.
It would also take some sacrifice from the current members of the cryptocurrency community. Individuals exposed to cryptocurrencies tend to become more aware of the need for privacy and decentralized systems, if that was not what drew them to the community in the first place. The crypto community would have to continue to lead the charge, build these decentralized systems, use them and spread the word.