Is Decentralizing the Internet the Answer?
Bitcoin, crypto, blockchain... what does it mean, and is anything coming from Big Tech really “revolutionary?”
In These Times Editors
de•cen• tral•ized in•ter•net
1. a way to democratize we access and break Big Tech monopolies
Is the internet really “centralized” right now?
Not in the sense that any single entity “owns” the internet, but a handful of corporations do exercise enormous control over the bulk of the internet’s physical infrastructure and the data and commerce that takes place online. “Decentralized internet” is an umbrella term, but the basic idea is to circumvent mass surveillance and prevent giant companies (like Facebook, Google and Twitter) from having any single internet kill switch, largely by running the internet on peer-to-peer networks.
Does this all have something to do with Bitcoin?
Some cryptocurrency enthusiasts envision a decentralized internet built around crypto and blockchain infrastructure, which they’re calling “web3.” (Web 1.0 generally refers to the development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, while web 2.0 refers to the internet’s shift toward mobile and social platforms over the past couple of decades.) Web3 is a vision of the internet free from the control of corporate gatekeepers and government regulators.
Like much else in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to pin down exactly what web3 “really” is or how it would work, because it’s more of a grand vision than a specific proposal or technology. Of course, that isn’t stopping venture capitalists from pouring billions of dollars into the idea.
Do we really want an unregulate-able internet, though?
Probably not. A lot of cryptocurrency activity, for example, looks a lot like an evasion of financial regulation (which is to say, money laundering). And while decentralization might help break corporate control over our lives and protect us against government censorship, it’s not necessarily a panacea. We know that white supremacists, for example, have been relying on peer-to-peer messaging networks to continue organizing out of public view.
Should the Left support a decentralized internet?
We should want a more democratic internet, at least. According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of American adults use the internet, so the question of who mediates those interactions is important. We need net neutrality and regulation (or nationalization!) of major tech companies and service providers, and opensource platforms to provide alternatives in the meantime. But these are political challenges more than technological ones — and, as usual, it’s best not to rush into buying whatever Silicon Valley is selling.