The Decentralized Web Could Help Preserve The Internet's Data For 1,000 Years
Author: Carson Farmer
As of 2019, there were over 4.13 billion internet users generating more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. By the end of 2020, there will be 40 times more bytes of data than there are stars to observe in space. And all of this data is powering a digital revolution, with the data-driven internet economy already accounting for 6.9% of U.S. GDP in 2017. The internet data ecosystem supports a bustling economy ripe with opportunity for growth, innovation, and profit.
There's just one problem: While user-generated data is the web's most valuable asset, internet users themselves have almost no control over it. Data storage, data ownership, and data use are all highly centralized under the control of a few dominant corporate entities on the web, like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. And all that data centralization comes at an expensive cost to the ordinary internet user. Today's internet ecosystem, while highly profitable for a few corporations, creates incentives for major platforms to exercise content censorship over end-users who have nowhere else to go. It is also incompatible with data privacy, insecure against cybercrime and extremely fragile.
The web's fragility in particular presents a big problem for the long-term sustainability of the web: we're creating datasets that will be important for humanity 1000 years from now, but we aren't safeguarding that data in a way that is future-proof. Link rot plagues the web today, with one study finding that over 98% of web links decay within 20 years. We are exiting the plastic era, and entering the data era, but at this rate our data won't outlast our disposable straws.
To build a stronger, more resilient and more private internet, we need to decentralize the web by putting users back in control of their data. The web that we deserve isn't the centralized web of today, but the decentralized web of tomorrow. And the decentralized web of tomorrow will need to last the next 1,000 years, or more.
Our team has been working for several years to make this vision of a decentralized web a reality by changing the way that apps, developers, and ordinary internet users make and share data. We couldn't be doing this today without the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS)—a crucial tool in our toolbox that's helping us tear down the major technological hurdles to building a decentralized web. To see why, we need to understand both the factors driving centralization on the web today, and how IPFS changes the game.
In fact, I want to make a bold prediction: in the next one to two years, we're going to see every major web-browser shipping with an IPFS peer, by default. This has already started with the recent announcement that Opera for Android will now support IPFS out of the box. This type of deep integration is going to catalyze a whole range of new user and developer experiences in both mobile and desktop browsers. Perhaps more importantly, it is going to help us all safeguard our data for future net-izens.
With the way the web works now, if I want to access a piece of data, I have to go to a specific server location. Content on the internet today is indexed and browsed based on where it is. Obviously, this method of distributing data puts a lot of power into the hands of whoever owns the location where data is stored, just as it takes power out of the hands of whoever generates data. Major companies like Google and Amazon became as big as they are by assuming the role of trusted data intermediaries, routing all our internet traffic to and through their own central servers where our data is stored.
Yet, however much we may not like "big data" collecting and controlling the internet's information, the current internet ecosystem incentivizes this kind of centralization. We may want a freer, more private and more democratic internet, but as long as we continue to build our data economy around trusted third-party intermediaries who assume all the responsibilities of data storage and maintenance, we simply can't escape the gravitational pull of centralization. Like it or not, our current internet incentives rely on proprietary platforms that disempower ordinary end users. And as Mike Masnick has argued in his essay "Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech", if we want to fix the problems with this web model, we'll have to rebuild the internet from the protocol layer up.
IPFS uses "content-addressing," an alternative way of indexing and browsing data that is based, not on where that data is, but on what it is. On a content-addressable network, I don't have to ask a central server for data. Instead, the distributed network of users itself can answer my data requests by providing precisely the piece of data requested, with no need to reference any specific storage location. Through IPFS, we can cut out the data intermediaries and establish a data sharing network where information can be owned by anyone and everyone.
This kind of distributed data economy undermines the big data business model by reinventing the incentive structures of web and app development. IPFS makes decentralization workable, scalable and profitable by putting power in the hands of end users instead of platforms. Widespread adoption of IPFS would represent the major upgrade to the web that we need to protect free speech, resist surveillance and network failure, promote innovation, and empower the ordinary internet user.
Of course, the decentralized web still needs a lot of work before it is as user-friendly and accessible as the centralized web of today. But already we're seeing exciting use cases for technology built on IPFS.
To get us to this exciting future faster, Textile makes it easier for developers to utilize IPFS to its full potential. Some of our partners are harnessing the data permanence that IPFS enables to build immutable digital archives that could withstand server failure and web decay. Others are using our products (e.g., Buckets) to deploy amazing websites, limiting their reliance on centralized servers and allowing them to store data more efficiently.
Textile has been building on IPFS for over three years, and the future of our collaboration on the decentralized web is bright. To escape the big data economy, we need the decentralized web. The improvements brought by IPFS, release after release, will help make the decentralized web a reality by making it easier to onboard new developers and users. As IPFS continues to get more efficient and resilient, its contribution to empowering the free and open web we all deserve will only grow. I can't wait for the exponential growth we'll see as this technology continues to become more and more ubiquitous across all our devices and platforms.
Carson Farmer is a researcher and developer with Textile.io. Twitter: @carsonfarmer