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What the ‘decentralised web’ movement means for you

Decentralisation: What does it mean?
Berners-Lee, the creator of the Internet, originally intended the system to be completely “decentralised.” This refers to how the web is available for anyone to use and contribute to. Because the Internet’s data is spread across countless servers run by thousands of individuals and organisations, there is no “centre” of the web.
This held true for many years. In the past fifteen years, the internet has become more centralised though. This is due to the rise of increasingly massive companies. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon now control vast swathes of the web, encouraging companies to move their services into giant central server farms.

World Wide Web founder Berners-Lee.

World Wide Web founder Berners-Lee.
Vincent West / Reuters, Reuters

The extent of this trend becomes clear when one of these cloud providers collapses. Thousands of websites and apps including Airbnb, Medium, Netflix, Slack and Trello went offline when part of Amazon’s S3 infrastructure crashed last month.
As the issues around giant hosting providers become more clear, work is underway to return the web to its decentralised roots. As WIRED detailed this month, Berners-Lee is now building an open-source project called Solid. Solid aims to divert the internet’s development down an alternate course, one with true decentralisation and more user control.
Making servers Solid
Solid advocates the network of small, individually isolated servers present during the Internet’s early years. In some ways, it draws on the Linux principles of simple self-containment: services are exclusively responsible for themselves and interconnect with others as required.

A room full of servers

A room full of servers in ‘the cloud’

Services using Solid wouldn’t be operationally different to their Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud powered counterparts. The unique element is in the data storage layer. Rather than saving your information to its server, a Solid app would keep everything on your device or a cloud location of your choice.
This gives you direct control of your personal data. You’d no longer have to share your payment cards, health records and financial data with each provider requiring the data. Instead of copying files to individual services, the apps would be able to share a common dataset stored in a location of your choosing.
Putting your data first
In effect, this turns the web’s centralisation inside out. The internet would transition towards a data-first model, rather than its current service-centric approach. Your data would become the most important element, a principle apps would be required to respect.

Commercial data servers.

Commercial data servers.
Donna Carson / Reuters

This isn’t to say the apps themselves couldn’t remain centralised. Cloud computing comes with significant benefits for developers that can’t be overlooked. Services would continue to run from the cloud but with their data storage mechanisms adjusted to point to your preferred storage system. Berners-Lee likened the idea to the divided storage mechanism used by floppy disk programs.
“It’s kind of like when you had floppy disks and you had one disk for the application and another the storage,” he commented to WIRED.
“That data belongs to me”
Amid the turbulence created by the FCC’s repeal of its broadband privacy rules, a resurgence of interest in the protection of personal data has signalled a change in the public’s attitude on the subject. Berners-Lee expects this trend to continue over the coming months, culminating when people realise they should own and control their digital data.
A full transition to a Solid-based system would take years and may not ever entirely replace the current web. Berners-Lee speculated a “tipping point” could be coming though, leading web users to demand control over their data. He likened the situation to the demise of the first proprietary online services, such as AOL. People ultimately want to be free of the closed walls, able to set their own standards for the use of their data.

File photo: People sit around laptop computers at a cafe in Beijing in 2014.

File photo: People sit around laptop computers at a cafe in Beijing in 2014.
Ed Jones, AFP/File

“You can make the walled garden very very sweet, but the jungle outside is always more appealing in the long term,” Berners-Lee recently said at the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco.
Last week, Berners-Lee was given the Turing Award and a $1 million prize for his work in creating, developing and maintaining the web. His latest project could be even more significant in the long-term, ensuring the web remains an open playing field that puts your interests at heart. By decentralising the server farms, the web’s future could be safeguarded and net neutrality ensured.

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