Since WWW becomes mainstream, there are always some people believe a decentralized Web is the future. Especially nowadys when a few giant tech companies consume the major Internet traffic, more and more voices over decentralization appear. And when most people talk about decentralization, they are referring to blockchain technology.
And the price of Bitcoin in recent years has driven frantic enthusiasm into cryptocurrencies, and they try to convince others or even themselves that those digital numbers have value because they are witnessing a new decentralized era, Web 3.0. Their words can not be trusted, because most of them are just crazy over the prices.
Our society is decentralized, the most underlying protocols of Internet, including IP, TCP and UDP, are also decentralized. Even the protocol of Web, HTTP, is decentralized, and it iterates very fast from version 2 to 3, even faster than Bitcoin or Web3 Foundation’s Ethereum, especially considering their scales. Besides Web, other popular application level protocols, e.g. SMTP of email, are decentralized too.
The Real Problem
The problem of Web is never centralization from technology aspect, it’s that these giant tech companies trample our privacy to make huge revenue. The social network abuses our privacy, the search engine sells our privacy, and that dumb artificial intelligent assistant mines our privacy.
So how could blockchain technology behaves better than current Internet stacks? Obviously blockchain is much slower. And all blockchain data is open to the world, they can’t protect our privacy. And those applications in Ethereum have proved that monopoly is common in blockchain world too.
Yes blockchain provides no solution better than current Internet stacks, for the core problem of current Web. So those blockchain enthusiasms try to invent something to fix blockchain. Why not fix the issue of current Web stacks? Of course they need a story to support the value of their digital numbers.
A funny thing about this story is the famous series Silicon Valley, in which Pied Piper creates a powerful distributed network and nobody uses it, then the evil guy develops a game in that network to mine users’ data, and people love it. Even finally they shut down their successful distributed Skynet for good, because it abuses the privacy of all, much worse than any tech giants before.
The Real Solution
The problem is around privacy, then our solution should be privacy specific. Encryption can obviously prevent anyone from accessing our data for bad. Like Signal protocol provides true end-to-end encrypted chat service, and none could monitor our messages any more. It also provides reliable and fast experience compared to those blockchain based messengers.
Further more, those tech giants have made progress in encryption. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have cooperated with Signal Foundation to provide billions of users the safety when sending messages, it’s a huge milestone of privacy protection that has never happened in human history.
Facebook is always criticized for its privacy practice, and I do understand they only care about their revenue, It’s natural. Facebook has gained enough data and money, they know the future of Internet much more clearly than crypto fanatics. Facebook has enough data and announces it as privacy pioneer is very similar to environmental protection advocates. They protect mines from illegal mining, control pollution and emission, to make the environment sustainable, but also prevent small and new players competing in the other hand. Because those restrictions require much higher technology barrier and cost much more. Facebook can also utilizes their existing data for deep learning, but others can’t if all future data is encrypted.
Human revolutionizes successfully and totally from bottom to high only when their basic living conditions are destroyed and their lives are threatened seriously. At most time, people fix things, they fix things for higher profit and stronger monopoly.
The main problem of Signal is its servers may be down, or the company may close, then people won’t be able to access the service any more. There is an easy fix, make the service and protocol federated. Matrix is a good example in federated chat, people can run their own chat servers to guarantee service availability, very similar to XMPP or SMTP of email. Email is always online. Matrix doesn’t have good encryption support yet, but could be improved easily.
And to take it further, it’s also possible to make email end-to-end encrypted so that Google can’t analyse our secrets to pour ads in our face any more. It sounds difficult, but still possible, much more possible than make blockchain the underlying technology for Web. Still remember we have upgraded HTTP to HTTPS?
Bitcoin is the first widely used blockchain application, and I believe in it, the best ledger. Because it provides transparency and consistency of all transactions, not the decentralization factor though. Technology is always tied to the human nature, to the society, and no technology is capable of ensuring your financial security. It’s very likely to revert Bitcoin transactions, technically, and discussions around that famous Binance hack has provided enough evidence. It’s the community that prevents Bitcoin transactions from being reverted, not technology. Even the self proclaimed Satoshi needs the court to prove his coins ownership.
The true value of a distributed ledger is that it provides a transparent history, and all hundreds of thousands of nodes have such a copy, which would provide the most inevitable and accurate evidence. Bitcoin witnesses everything about transactions, even when stolen or reverted, that’s the true value.
Smart contracts in Ethereum is a great thing, but it’s not silver bullet. People want it to be the world unstoppable computer for all tasks, that’s crazy madness. A distributed thing can beat a centralized thing only because they do many different tasks concurrently, not because they all do the exact same thing at the same time. Transparent or trusted computation is the goal of smart contracts, and Ethereum does very well in some cases, but it can only fit a very small niche of computation. Don’t try to build the whole world with smart contracts, do the proper things to the best.
IPFS is another hot topic in blockchain. They insist IPFS provides cheaper and more reliable persistent storage for files. But we already have plenty of cloud storage providers, including AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, and thousands of small players. They provide much faster access speed than IPFS, even the smallest cloud provider has better capacity than IPFS. And you can upload your files to hundreds of servers or cloud providers to make it reliable persistent, even better than IPFS. Assume IPFS has hundreds of thousands of nodes, your file can also only be stored in a few portion of them.
Censorship or privacy? Remember our solution? We can have our files end-to-end encrypted in cloud providers. IPFS is cheaper? Of course not, for the same performance, storage price is almost transparent. And storage prices drop every year, even IPFS could prove itself and gain some portion of storage market after many years, those cloud providers have also improved their technology much more and cut the prices a lot.
Decentralization is never the goal, because the Internet is already decentralized. What people actually want is the good consequences of technology, not the technology itself.