In Season 5 of Silicon Valley, which wrapped up May 13, Richard Hendricks, CEO of fictional startup Pied Piper, and his plucky band of misfits worked tirelessly to bring their new kind of internet, PiperNet, to market.
But while the product itself isn’t real—Pied Piper’s website looks real enough—there are a number of players actually trying to make this fictional internet, one that is decentralized so users don’t have to rely on intermediaries like Google or Facebook, a reality.
Holochain, Blockstack, the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), MaidSafe and Storj are among the real-life Pied Pipers working on such decentralized projects. In addition, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, which runs like an app on the internet and provides an interface for end users, is leading a project at MIT called Solid that seeks to build decentralized social applications. (He was not available for comment.)
What is a decentralized internet, and why are we talking about it?
A decentralized internet uses peer-to-peer communication—think your smartphone to my smartphone—to enable users to store and exchange information without an intermediary.
On Silicon Valley, that intermediary is tech giant Hooli. In the real world, it’s companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which have web servers that store information and serve applications to end users.
In a peer-to-peer network, however, there is no central authority, which arguably yields a number of benefits.
The most obvious, and perhaps most important, is that without gatekeepers, no one gathers data about consumers to sell to advertisers.
“We created an internet where the way you make money is by watching everything people do—essentially stalking them and selling all the knowledge of how to most effectively manipulate them to the highest bidder,” said Matthew Schutte, director of communications for Holo, which is building a distributed cloud via peer-to-peer application hosting. “I don’t think any of those advertisers are evil—they are trying to effectively market their products—but the architecture is like an arms race. If you haven’t gotten to understand your consumer better than anyone else, you will lose.”
Inside the new internet
According to Schutte, Holo’s Holochain is a new way of building and running applications that operate on users’ devices that would eliminate this practice. It has about 2,000 people in its online chat community.
There’s a bit of a libertarian streak here. A peer-to-peer network means no platform controls how users communicate with each other. The rules, then, are established by the inmates instead of the asylum, like, say, Twitter, which dictates the number of characters you can use.
“[Platforms like Twitter] control the form of the information that we’re sending to one another,” Schutte said. “They dictate how we can speak with one another on their platforms.”
And without the watchful eye of Big Tech, these networks are also (allegedly) self-policing. Schutte likened it to a card game among friends in which players uphold the rules if someone tries to steal a turn.
“This is how Holochain works,” he said. “It enables us to play a game together without necessarily having any one party designated as the referee.”
Schutte argued users could be relied upon to root out problems—and we’ve sort of seen this already on Amazon and ebay, where customers decided for themselves what a five-star rating means. Of course, we’ve also seen the opposite, and we call that vigilantism.
“Suppose, in some peer-to-peer Twitter replacement, some people perceive problems with abusive behavior or user impersonation,” said Steve Bellovin, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University and one of the founders of early online community Usenet. “What ability do I have to block people, to alert people to the impersonation, to prevent the impersonator from claiming I’m the impersonator?”
In the end, self-policing might not be so easy.
IT pioneer Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext” to refer to text with links to other texts, said, in a peer-to-peer network, users have to commit their personal computing power—and the web includes billions of pages. He called it a “lovely idea” that is idealistic, kind of like a commune in the 1960s, but added, “To me, it’s a little like a couple of hippies dancing in front of a German tank. Maybe it will take off, but Facebook and Google are very well entrenched and very, very, very big.”
Dewayne Hendricks (no relation to Pied Piper’s Richard), chief executive of Tetherless Access (and former member of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council) who is also known as the Broadband Cowboy, said there have been a number of prior attempts to develop internet alternatives, including the FreedomBox, which peered with other FreedomBoxes to allow users to access a different internet.
“The idea was, ‘Look, you don’t need to be a slave to Comcast or any of the other ISPs—we can create our own internet and have everyone run their own server and package up a box that Grandma could use and that would be her internet, and it would peer with other boxes like that,’” Hendricks said.
The problem, however, is that grandmas don’t typically use tools like FreedomBoxes, so they never moved beyond early adopters.
“That’s the big difference now that would allow you to get past the early adopters and into the next phase and start climbing up the S curve,” Hendricks said.
It also hammers home Nelson’s commune comment as everyone shoulders some of the storage burden for the greater good.
But there are still some kinks to work out.
When asked if peer-to-peer networks could solve existing problems with the internet, Bellovin said, “Yes and no.”
That’s in part because of considerable technical issues, including batteries on mobile devices draining under the strain of constantly being online. For instance, Skype originally used a peer-to-peer architecture, but Microsoft had to replace that with a dedicated server, Bellovin noted.
“How would you feel,” Bellovin said, “if your phone ran out of battery because it was relaying calls for random strangers?”