The re-Decentralization of the Web

How the blockchain can help scale back the massive expansion in web surveillance on the part of governments and other actors.

Written on: May 8

Tim Berners-Lee holds as good a claim to inventing the internet as anyone. He was the first to implement a successful communication between a client and server in 1989, after making the proposal earlier that year to establish a world wide web. In an article penned for the 25th anniversary of the Web, Mr. Berners-Lee described the creation as a "radically open, egalitarian and decentralized platform...it is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium. It stores and allows us to share our ideas, music, images and culture. It is an incredibly intimate reflection of our interests, priorities, disagreements and values."

It is increasingly argued that the system described by Mr. Berner's Lee is under attack. The decentralized nature of the web is slowly being eroded by pseudo monopolies in a number of important web segments like search, networking, email, web security and DNS, instituting multiple single points of failure that can be exploited to breach users privacy or censor information. At best this leads to more intrusive advertising; at worst, it can lead to identity theft, stalking, and the repression and/or silencing of political or cultural population segments.

Web developers have been looking at the blockchain as a method of, in the words of Mr. Berners-Lee, "re-decentralizing" the web, creating a new architecture more immune to censorship and conducive to privacy.

The trouble with the Domain Name System

When a user types in a website address the request is funnelled through a central domain name system (DNS) which matches the URL name - like twitter or google - to an IP address. The IP address essentially converts the url name into computer speak readable by any device, which points to the server on which the destination site is hosted.

The DNS system offers an extremely convenient mechanism for governments to censor information. For instance, in May of 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan vowed to "eradicate twitter" after details emerged there of government corruption, and instructed all ISP DNS servers to stop redirecting twitter.com requests. The centralized nature of the DNS system made it quite simple for PM Erdogan to shut down twitter - call on the DNS representatives in Turkey, and dare them to disobey.

Namecoin and Ethereum

Many bitcoin enthusiasts see the blockchain as a tailor-made engine for DNS reform. The blockchain can be utilized to host an entirely decentralized registry matching URLs with their corresponding IP address. Such a mechanism would ensure that the next time Erdogan was inclined to take a particular site offline, he would have no central agency to strong arm. This is the ambition of Namecoin, the crypto-industry's first attempt at using the blockchain for DNS decentralization.

Namecoin uses a .bit top level domain (TLD), which is at the moment accessible only through proxy servers or FireFox and Chrome extensions. Instead of centralized registrars, Namecoin currency - generated by piggybacking on the bitcoin mining network in a process termed "merged mining", and available to be bought and sold on a number of exchanges - are used to demonstrate cryptographic ownership of a particular domain. Not only does this prevent domain theft, it makes the identification of a site holder a much more difficult proposition for authorities.  Though a very interesting step in the right direction, has not really had much success in generating greater adoption.

This lack of greater adoption is largely due to a lack of interest.   While the issue of web decentralization is of utmost importance to many technologists concerned with the future of the internet, it does not resonate much outside these small circles. How can an existing system like DNS that has a huge amount of infrastructure behind it be replaced when there is little support for its replacement in the first place?  These and other questions were addressed in a fascinating presentation given to an Ethereum Silicon Valley Meetup in April 2014. 

The presentation first emphasized that browser security teams - those behind Mozilla, FireFox and Chrome, for instance - are those that are most uncomfortable with the current DNS system, identified as the one point which is entirely immune to any security efforts.  These security teams will most likely help to shape the security debate as it gains steam.  More interestingly, the point was made that each censorship event - like the Turkish Twitter episode in 2014 - creates a new demographic acutely aware that something is not right on the internet. Perhaps the next event will see some domains switching to a blockchain-based alternative TLD to ensure content is delivered despite censorship efforts. As time passes and more and more events take place, a larger segment of the population will become unsatisfied with the current system, and blockchain-based alternatives will emerge as an interesting solution.

Namecoin was criticized for not adequately protecting existing domain property rights within the .bit TLD network. So for instance, top domains like google, twitter and facebook were snapped up by domain hoarders, and are thus unavailable for utilization by the actual brands. Ethereum, a product very much appreciated by bitreview.com, has integrated a namecoin contract into the core product. Ethereum representatives explicitly criticized Namecoin's lack of IP protection, so will be interesting to see how this is approached. Additionally, as Ethereum utilizes a downloadable client, the user-unfriendly proxy server issue is somewhat mitigated.

Privacy

Regardless of one's views of Edward Snowden, the documents he released showed a number of extremely concerning privacy infringements by the US government against its citizens. Most notable perhaps was that the National Security Agency had secretly broken into the data servers of google, yahoo, microsoft and others and was redirecting millions of domestic email records each day into its own database. Additionally, it was released that the NSA and international partners had cracked much of the encryption technologies used to secure everyday internet transactions - like passwords for online banking, for instance - and had also reached agreements - or successfully coerced - many of the large technology companies to build backdoors into their "secure" products.

marketers

The US government was quick to point out that information collected was being used primarily as metadata, or information about data, and agents were not pouring over the content of all the emails collected without cause. Of course, most are not comfortable with this particular slippery slope. Perhaps this government acts responsibly with the data - but what about the next government or the one after? Where is the line drawn between security and privacy? How will it change over time? And after this cat has been released from the bag, how can citizens be confident in their privacy again, ever?

Just as importantly, the episode highlighted disturbing truths as to how our data is being stored, transferred between servers and used. Single institutions control massive amounts of information and processing power, and have increased market share to a point where much activity on the internet is centralized on or between their servers. Much of the encryption technology used online is dated and has been proven to be exploitable. It paints a picture of an internet architecture easily exploitable by hackers and thieves, which is reflected in the fact that 7% of the US population over the age of 12 were victims of identity theft in 2012.

Advertising is becoming increasingly aggressive - we know already that Facebook is extremely liberal in providing the information it gathers about users to marketers. What's to stop less scrupulous individuals going even further? And while perhaps some are willing to suffer infringements by the American government or by friendly and benevolent multinational corporations like facebook or google, the fundamental issue is that the internet has slowly centralized and a number of exploitable single points of failure have emerged. How and by whom these single points of failure will be exploited is not certain, but not everybody is as nice as facebook.

The blockchain and the re-decentralization of the internet

A number of blockchain start ups are pushing back against internet centralization with innovative blockchain uses, of which we've picked a few of our favorites to detail.

Bitmessage begins its white paper describing emails as "ubiquitous but not secure", and proceeds to paint a dire picture of the current state of email security. Messages are easily intercepted by governments or other actors, hiding one's identity is extremely difficult, and man in the middle attacks - in which "secure" communications are intercepted - are simply done if any surveillance group were to control certificate of authenticity providers.

Bitmessage has established a solution in which messages are encrypted, sender and recipient are masked, and the system is easily managed by non-technical users. The hash of a public key serves as a user's address, while also providing proof to a recipient that any message has, indeed, been sent by the holder of the address. Each user of Bitmessage must download a client which also serves as a node responsible for passing messages to the network. The entire network receives all messages, though only the client with the corresponding private key would be able to actually decipher the message. This ensures that emails are never stored in central servers - but actually broadcast in encrypted format into a closed peer to peer network. Moreover, both sender and recipient can never be identified to the outside world, as the entire network relays and receives messages. (While outside the scope of this article, the whitepaper offers scaling and spam solutions).

Storj is a peer to peer cloud storage network, which effectively acts as a marketplace for users to buy and sell excess hard drive space. Not only is this an easy way for anyone to earn a few extra bucks (or storjcoin, as the case may be), it is much cheaper than utilizing one of the massive cloud storage providers like dropbox, google or apple. Additionally, and more important for our purposes, Storj leverages the blockchain to provide a decentralized method of storing content, which is encrypted, separated into "shards", and distributed amongst multiple computers offering redundancy. Most obviously, this eliminates the single point of failure problem with traditional data storage, while increasing security and privacy.

Storj also provides a blueprint for a new method of hosting and serving websites, a gauntlet which has been picked up by Ethereum. The Ethereum network consists of a number of decentralized applications which might be likened to websites.  Ethereum utilizes an entirely decentralized model of hosting and serving these dapps, on the excess hard drive space of the network.  While peer to peer hosting is in extremely early days, it is easy to imagine a future in which websites and information are encrypted and split up amongst internet users, not only enhancing greatly user privacy and security but facilitating a much cheaper, and censorship resistant, web space.

A word on child pornography

Inevitably, when discussing the need for greater anonymity on the net minds drift towards the uncomfortable reality that anything making the job of law enforcement more difficult benefits terrorists and child molesters. This is also the case with blockchain-based decentralization of the web. The internet benefits all of society, good and evil alike. Does privacy, information protection and censorship-free web space outweigh the fact that a small and evil minority will misuse the technology?  In our opinion, the worst among us should not be given a veto to stymie our technological progress.  

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