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Beware the Dangers of the Decentralized Web

The Decentralized Web movement is either woefully naïve or a front for further organized crime activity

Tim Berners-Lee, the famed inventor of the World Wide Web, has a new project: the Decentralized Web.

His thinking is that great Internet powers like Facebook and Google have largely taken over the egalitarian, Decentralized Web he invented. To fix this problem, we need a new set of protocols that will disintermediate such centralized control, returning it to the people – ‘re-decentralizing’ the Web, as it were.

Berners-Lee’s motives are commendable to be sure – but there’s just one problem. It will never work. And furthermore, as a figure from the Internet’s formative years, he should realize that.

The sad fact is that there have been decades of attempts at decentralized models of global network communications – and every single one of them ends up being a medium for criminal activity that ends up dominating any altruistic uses of the technology.

If it follows the course it’s currently taking, the Decentralized Web will fare no better. And yet, the current state of the Internet is unquestionably fraught with problems. There’s got to be a better answer.

Understanding Decentralization

Depending on the context, the notion of ‘decentralized’ is often confounded with ‘distributed.’ Today, decentralization is an important characteristic of permissionless blockchain platforms like Bitcoin – and in this sense, decentralization refers to the lack of a single point of control. In other words, no one is in charge of a decentralized network.

Decentralized architectures are inherently distributed, but the converse is not true. The open source Cassandra database, for example, is inherently distributed, but only works because it has centralized control.

The Internet, and by extension, the World Wide Web, were originally both decentralized and distributed, as anybody could stand up a web server anywhere they liked. Then, as Google became the predominant search engine, it didn’t actually control the web, but it increasingly controlled who would access which pages, amounting to the same thing.

Today, Google and Facebook control the majority of the online ad market, while Amazon dominates ecommerce. Which ads you see and which products you buy – and to an appalling extent, what opinions you hold – depend upon these three goliaths.

The Decentralized Web seeks to counteract such centralized power by returning control over web-based content to individuals via protocols that uniquely identify content itself, rather than the URLs of that content.

The approach makes sense on its face, but it has at least one fundamental flaw. If we look at the history of decentralized content, that flaw will become apparent.

Decentralization Before the Web

Even before the web was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, we faced a battle between centralized and decentralized content distribution – not over the Internet, but over dialup modem links.

Dialup services like CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL offered the benefits of centralized services, including curated, legal content and advertising.

In contrast, bulletin board services (BBSs) provided the decentralized counterpoint. Anybody with a modem could stand up a BBS, simply by setting up their computer to answer the phone and connect to BBS software running on the computer.

The original motivation of BBSs were their eponymous bulletin boards – simple, text-based shared notifications that people could read and update. However, as modem speeds increased, people increasingly used BBSs to host binary files like images and software.

Since such binaries took far longer to download than the text-based bulletin board content, BBS phone lines soon became overwhelmed, as a single downloader might monopolize a line for hours at a time. To survive, BBSs had to scale up, adding numerous phone lines, modems, and computers, and coming up with ways to charge by quantity of content instead of a simple monthly subscription fee.

In other words, BBS economics had shifted. Providers had to charge more to stay in business, which meant they had to provide premium content – in the form of pornographic images and pirated software.

Before the Clinton administration relaxed the enforcement of obscenity laws in the 1990s, thus shifting the now-legal pornography business to the new World Wide Web, BBSs were one of the two most convenient places to obtain illicit hardcore porn – although the download speeds of the day limited it to poor quality images.

The Rise of Usenet

The other place to get your porn, of course, was Usenet. Usenet provided a large number of hierarchically-organized newsgroups – what we’re more likely to call forums today. Every hobby had a newsgroup, from roller coaster enthusiasts to model train aficionados.

Dating from the early 1980s, Usenet was originally a way for BBSs to synchronize with each other over dialup modem lines.

As modem speeds improved and Internet service providers (ISPs) began to offer consumer Internet access, the ISPs began to host Usenet servers, providing access to them either over the Internet as part of their regular fee, or sometimes at a premium.

In particular, ISPs would often charge a premium for groups dedicated to hosting binaries. Slowing down adoption was the fact that uploading such binaries to a Usenet newsgroup was a laborious process involving encoding and segmenting such files – but regardless, Usenet took over the porn distribution business from BBSs.

As the Web took off in the mid-1990s, the binaries remaining on Usenet took on a darker character, centering on illegal content such as pirated software and child pornography, as the other newsgroups filled with spam.

Eventually law enforcement took notice, and a cat-and-mouse game ensued. Criminals would move their wares from one unsuspecting newsgroup to another – all the while taking advantage of the inherently decentralized nature of Usenet for cover.

Peer-to-Peer Brings a Torrent

Rapidly increasing Internet speeds soon changed the game toward the end of the century, as it finally became practical to download video content and other large files. The predominant decentralized offering during this era was BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing protocol that enabled anyone to share files with anyone else.

By 2004, BitTorrent was responsible for one quarter of all Internet traffic, according to Wikipedia – mostly pirated videos, pirated software aka ‘warez,’ child pornography, and other illegal content catering to a wide range of tastes.

BitTorrent, however, did not provide a mechanism for providing its users either security nor anonymity, nor did it offer a payment infrastructure. As such, it was better suited for people sharing illicit content with each other rather than setting up businesses for that purpose.

In other words, BitTorrent was better suited for disorganized rather than organized crime.

The Dark Web is Born

Where there is a gap in the marketplace, somebody is bound to fill it – and lo, Bitcoin was born. Bitcoin gave the criminals struggling to build illicit businesses on technologies like BitTorrent the economic infrastructure they needed to build bona fide crime syndicates.

Even Bitcoin is not truly anonymous, however – and thus Monero and other even more crime-friendly cybercurrencies came along, fleshing out what had been a scattered bunch of lowlifes sharing warez with their friends into a full-fledged global black market we now know as the Dark Web.

Adding commerce to a decentralized, P2P web like BitTorrent opened up new contraband opportunities, and today illegal drugs are the most popular goods on the Dark Web.

What hath the Decentralized Web wrought?

The Intellyx Take

Placed into its historic context, today’s Decentralized Web movement is either woefully naïve or simply a front for further organized crime activity. The world doesn’t need yet another way to share content in a decentralized way, unless you count criminals who continue to seek new ways to avoid getting caught.

The moral of this story is clear. Illegal content is the original and most nefarious raison d’être of the Decentralized Web. In spite of whatever altruistic motivations you might have, any effort to create a Decentralized Web will call upon our basest nature and thus play into the hands of organized crime.

We are thus sandwiched between two evils: a Web dominated by a few major Internet players, and one where criminals run rampant.

We need a better answer. We desire an Internet where any two people can converse and conduct commerce with each other with no restrictions on free speech or freedom of action, and yet we also want to live in a society where we bring criminals to justice, while deterring others from crossing the line.

This conundrum may very well be the primary challenge of our age, as the Internet is the most important enabler of the Digital Era. I don’t have the answer. Neither does Tim Berners-Lee. Do you?

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Massacre.

More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is a leading IT industry analyst, Forbes contributor, keynote speaker, and globally recognized expert on multiple disruptive trends in enterprise technology and digital transformation. He is ranked #5 on Onalytica’s list of top Digital Transformation influencers for 2018 and #15 on Jax’s list of top DevOps influencers for 2017, the only person to appear on both lists.

As founder and president of Agile Digital Transformation analyst firm Intellyx, he advises, writes, and speaks on a diverse set of topics, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, devops, big data/analytics, cybersecurity, blockchain/bitcoin/cryptocurrency, no-code/low-code platforms and tools, organizational transformation, internet of things, enterprise architecture, SD-WAN/SDX, mainframes, hybrid IT, and legacy transformation, among other topics.

Mr. Bloomberg’s articles in Forbes are often viewed by more than 100,000 readers. During his career, he has published over 1,200 articles (over 200 for Forbes alone), spoken at over 400 conferences and webinars, and he has been quoted in the press and blogosphere over 2,000 times.

Mr. Bloomberg is the author or coauthor of four books: The Agile Architecture Revolution (Wiley, 2013), Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (Wiley, 2006), XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996). His next book, Agile Digital Transformation, is due within the next year.

At SOA-focused industry analyst firm ZapThink from 2001 to 2013, Mr. Bloomberg created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011.

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting), and several software and web development positions.

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