Future Internet: centralized or distributed?

I saw last evening the documentary “The Internet’s own boy”, about the life of Aaron Swartz. His life was very impressive, and it made me think more about the Internet and to its social value. That is still a work in progress, but I have some things to share.

I’ve struggled to understand the Internet for a very long time. This may sound very strange coming from a computer programmer, leading a team of people who develops web applications. So let me clarify: the technical part of the Internet is relatively easy to understand. There’s a lot of reading to do, and a lot of technicalities, but that’s the easy part.

The question I’ve struggled to answer is:

What is the core of the internet?

My assumption is that answering this question will allow me to understand better the existing ecosystem and the possible futures of the internet. Because that’s the thing: the internet is a complex system that evolves towards sometimes unexpected outcomes.

I don’t have a definite answer to this question. I do have however one persistent thought since yesterday evening:

The Internet is meant to be distributed

The Internet is often called “a network of networks”. There are state networks, regional networks, city networks, neighbourhood networks that all work together somehow. That the internet is meant to be distributed sounds therefore correct.

But something happened in the past years. People used to have personal websites, now most have Facebook pages. Some people ran their own mail servers, now most of us use Gmail. We used to host our own blogs, now we use blogger. We had Skype, a peer-to-peer application for voice communication, that is now turning into a client-server application. Even Wikipedia, the best internet has to offer, is a centralized system. We’ve moved from a distributed internet to a more centralized internet. (I’m using most of these services – even developing one – so I’m not here to judge. I’m just noticing a trend.)

Truth been told, there are good reasons for and benefits that came out of this trend. Just a few of them: improved security, fighting spam, opening new ways of expression to people less technically inclined, reduced time and effort for shopping, chores and administrative work etc. I love all these things and use them daily.

But there’s a dark side. Centralization means our data is in other people’s hands. It means people who want to get that data know exactly where to go. It means google is gaining competitive advantages just because they have access to your data and can use it to train their algorithms better than the competition. It means we’re placing a lot of power into the hands of a few corporations, and power is known to corrupt even the best of people, given enough time.

Let’s imagine for a minute a different path. A path where you own your data, and you decide what and who to share it with. Imagine a much more distributed internet. Imagine:

  • … a distributed search engine that doesn’t store your searches or use them to display ads
  • … a distributed way to communicate to each other
  • … a distributed wiki where each of us stores a part of the human knowledge
  • … a distributed banking system where each of us stores pieces of information about each other’s money situation
  • … a distributed backup system

At first, I thought I was crazy thinking of these things. But then I found about YaCy, a distributed search engine. About Ward Cunningham’s federated wiki. About Friends, a p2p chat application. About research on distributed banking. About an older project on distributed backup system. About a peer to peer replacement for http (as far as I can understand it). About a conference on decentralizing the web. And when the inventor of the web is a keynote speaker on decentralizing the web, when the inventor of the wiki is changing paradigms from centralized to federated then you know something is about to happen.

Sure, most of these technologies are shaky. They might not work today. They might not be easy to adopt. Google or Facebook won’t go away anytime soon. Banks will argue that only they can keep our money secure, and given that bitcoins disappear from time to time, that is probably true today. Some of my friends argue that the Internet is broken today, and it might be very difficult to evolve it into something that looks at first sight as being even less reliable.

But consider this. According to certain projections, next year a third of the world population will use a smartphone. That’s a computer, almost always connected to a network. That computer could be providing useful services to the world, in exchange for similar services from your peers. In fact, there’s a theory on so-called promises that seems to promise (pun intended) an easier way to do just that.

Where will the Internet go? It’s too early to say. Centralized systems seem to have taken over the world. On the other hand, distributed systems are at the core of the internet. However, there are many obstacles in front of a more distributed internet: improved security, ease of use and administration, storage, unlimited data plans, dealing with network outages, ensuring reliability and performance etc.

Either way, thinking about this got me excited about the possible futures of the Internet. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.