In the early days of the internet, freedom of information and expression were the original values of the web, which was built to be a place where people could exchange ideas and information freely without worrying about third-party interference.
It wasn’t intended to be a place dominated by powerful organizations and centralized companies, nor was it meant to be tightly regulated or controlled. At the heart of the technology were freedom, autonomy and anonymity.
However, over time, the power balance has shifted, with centralized giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and others now controlling huge swathes of the internet, leaving users almost entirely at their mercy.
People are now starting to be aware of the problem; with scandals over data usage and more hacks being discovered constantly, the issue has moved forward in the public’s awareness. But there are solutions being worked on to oppose the challenges of centralization, with blockchain projects at the forefront, attempting to bring forward a decentralized way of organizing and managing digital landscapes.
The Problems With Centralization
On its own, centralization isn’t inherently bad. It can serve a specific function and may often be the only way to run a unit such as a society or an organization. For decades, centralized institutions have been the only systems of governance on which everything has run, and in large part, this continues today.
The problems with centralization come about when it’s taken to extremes. When one organization, unit or person has too much control and power, the system turns tyrannical and, if attacked, can lead to harm. This has always been the case and holds true today as we’re seeing with the centralized leaders of the internet. Undoubtedly, over-centralization can have some serious and adverse effects.
For example, security networks with a single point of failure are much more vulnerable to hacks and breaches. One high-profile example of this is the Equifax breach, which saw tens of millions of people’s financial data stolen. A single point of failure also leaves networks far more open to attacks like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) and ransomware.
Then there’s the Ashley Madison breach, which revealed the identities of unfaithful partners who had used the site for infidelity. Because the site had retained details of its users, the hackers were able to hold the site for ransom and threaten to expose the cheaters, potentially destroying thousands of marriages and reputations.
That brings us to a second point — privacy. It isn’t just people locked in extramarital affairs who need to worry here. Facebook made global headlines this year by sharing confidential user data with third-party companies, who then used it in political campaigning.
The problem is that with excessive centralization, third-party companies have a disproportionate amount of power. People are getting (rightfully) more and more worried about these third parties gaining insights into our personal lives and behaviors and how they might be using that information.
Even worse, a centralized internet is less democratic, so unsympathetic voices, opinions and views can be censored by the network as they see fit. Aside from censorship, people also can’t share their content, sell their products or develop software without a third party taking a big slice of their profits, which is largely how companies like Google and Facebook have accumulated so much wealth.
So, how do we shift to a more decentralized web and solve many of these problems?
Blockchain technology and decentralized applications (DApps) could be the future, if we can support them and help them become established.
These are applications and platforms with no central point and no third party in charge. They offer security, freedom, anonymity, privacy and fairness for developers and content creators alike, which are features that centralized systems cannot provide.
However, for them to move into the mainstream, we need to make it easier for people to access this decentralized technology.
Right now, centralized services are popular because they’re more established, widely known and easily accessible. We need to raise awareness of DApps and encourage their usage and adoption by regular users, driving uptake and pushing the industry into the public eye.
Platforms like Cardstack are doing this by making it possible for users to access, sample and consume DApps in one place without having to install multiple applications. Unlike traditional approaches in which users must install different apps for different services, the Cardstack model allows integration of Dapp interfaces into an already existing infrastructure. This means that users can access multiple functions through the same interface.
For instance, a developer building a new decentralized smart-home insurance network can link up with other Dapps in the smart-home category and offer them a widget to incorporate in their workflows. This means that users seeking smart-home services can go in and out of the insurance network without having to install a new app.
Even better, the widgets are open source, meaning that the network participants can improve them at any time. Developers get rewarded for individual features, and users can mix and match what they want without being tied to the entire app. Cardstack’s infrastructure ensures that all this happens securely and transparently.
Another project, known as Casper (not to be confused with Ethereum’s Casper protocol), is working on a solution to make cloud storage more accessible and affordable for data used by DApps. Unlike centralized cloud storage, Casper’s decentralized approach is three times cheaper, more secure and highly transparent. Also, it is compatible with different blockchains, so it can integrate with different networks.
There are several other solutions out there aiming to boost the adoption of DApps. As we continue to get deeper into the era of decentralization, more possibilities will be brought forward, hopefully helping users protect their data in an easy and accessible way, lessening the problems of centralized authority and access.
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