Tech Giants Have Hijacked the Web. It’s Time for a Reboot.

Tech Giants Have Hijacked the Web. It’s Time for a Reboot.

While Washington looks to combat online monopolies, some innovators are developing new internet platforms to prevent monopolies from forming in the future

By Paul Vigna Oct. 26, 2019 12:00 am ET
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said, in a speech last week at Georgetown University, that his social media megacorp and its Big Tech peers “have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands.”
That sounds comforting and egalitarian, but a lot of people worry these days that they’ve actually centralized power—around themselves. This has become ever more obvious since Russian agents used Facebook in an attempt to manipulate the U.S. public in the 2016 election. It’s clearer every time somebody searches or posts about dogs, only to find their feeds inundated with dog food ads.
Capitalizing on the oceans of data produced by the web has turned Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google into empires, but it hasn’t made the internet a more open place, said Christian Fuchs, a media professor at the University of Westminster in London. “The internet is a corporate monopoly today,” he said, “and monopolies are always a danger to democracy.”
While lawmakers try to combat the concerns by talking about antitrust and regulation, a cottage industry of true decentralizers is emerging in the computer space. They want to recapture the original promise of the web, to create a platform where information isn’t siloed by private companies or monitored by police states.
It’s a stiff challenge. The apps and websites that run on top of the internet—Facebook’s, Amazon’s, etc.—are managed from centrally controlled servers. To run efficiently, those programs and servers capture and manage all of the data that is created. When you write something on Facebook you are writing from your device, but the data is captured on Facebook’s servers.
To be clear, no website or company controls the internet. And people using the internet spread their personal information across strings of different sites and servers. But still, the key for most web companies is controlling as much data as possible.

“The key is centralization of information,” said David Chaum, a computer scientist who built the first working digital currency in the 1990s and today is building a new internet platform called Elixxir. “You don’t have to control things to exert power in the information space. Just knowing a lot about everybody lets you manipulate the whole situation.”
Platforms like Elixxir are using the somewhat heady idea of linking everyone’s computers together to share data and, in some cases, even processing power. Websites and apps might look the same—and still be connected to the internet that we know—but companies wouldn’t be able to amass data, and they might not even need to build massive cloud-server centers just to run their sites.
One proponent of this approach is the creator of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. Thirty years after he launched it, the “perverse incentives” and unintended consequences of the original design have people wondering “if the web is really a force for good,” he wrote in a letter this year.
He is trying to improve his creation on several fronts. The nonprofit World Wide Web Foundation he leads launched a “Contract for the Web” movement, a sort of Bill of Rights for the online world. Privately, he co-founded Inrupt, a company developing a protocol called Solid.
Solid’s core concept is the POD, for “personal online data,” which the company compares to a secure, though virtual, USB stick. All of your personal data is stored there, along with data verifying your identity.
Say you were sharing photos through a social-media site. The photos could be viewed on the site, but the photos wouldn’t be stored on the site’s servers, they’d remain in the POD. The user, not a company, would have control over all his or her data.
“We want to introduce a midcourse correction to the web,” said John Bruce, co-founder of Inrupt, “one that moves it away from a centralized web to a decentralized web. We like the term ‘me-centralized.’”
This approach might also remove the incentive to build massive cloud data-storage facilities that help monopolists maintain a grip. Muneeb Ali, a Princeton-educated engineer, co-founded Blockstack, which approaches this using a distributed computing system known as blockchain. Rather than each company maintaining its own servers, computing power is shared across the network.
“People’s computers and phones are very powerful,” he said. “They can do most of the work.”
Blockstack would provide the overarching platform, a new version of the World Wide Web, but it would only exist as software on everybody’s devices. Developers would build on that network, and also contribute computing power to help maintain it. This shared model theoretically lowers the overall costs needed to run an app.
The computing costs for developers would be further lowered because of the way in which Blockstack’s platform handles user data. As with Solid, all the data created by users is stored on their own devices—what they read, what sites or apps they use, what they buy.
Mr. Ali believes users could eventually monetize their own data. He envisions them joining cooperatives that negotiate with advertisers. If a burger chain wanted to promote something it could offer to pay the users directly for access. “That’s the biggest potential,” he said. “We can not only enable users to be in control, but to really plug into the internet economy.”
Mr. Chaum’s Elixxir focuses on handling the “metadata.” When you write a text message, for instance, a string of information is created—where you are, what internet service you’re using, etc.—and attached to the words you type.
In something of an irony, Elixxir takes all that data and centralizes it in one giant blob. From there, though, it uses a system Mr. Chaum developed to slice that information up, separate the bits and encrypt them, then run them through myriad different nodes.
The message you write out gets received intact on the other side, but all the data underneath it is impossible to reassemble.
“It’s all spread out in tiny pieces,” Mr. Chaum said, likening it to a shredder. “It’s completely useless.”
This would blunt the data-collection efforts of big web companies, which underpin their business models. There’s also a theoretical security benefit: In a centralized web, hackers can get data on millions of users by focusing on one target, such as a server site. In a decentralized web, they potentially would have to go from user to user individually.
This in itself might pose a regulatory challenge, however, since it would enable anonymous interactions online. Law enforcement’s job is easier when dealing with companies and centralized data, not individuals. For example, the U.S., U.K. and Australia jointly asked Facebook to delay adding encryption to its messaging services.
That’s just one more hurdle for the new internetters, who are playing David to the entrenched Goliaths. The task of building a completely new community of users is hard. Weaning them off existing networks could be even harder, not least of all because the companies that have centralized computing power and data stores won’t give them up without a fight. Also, there’s no guarantee some Goliath won’t find a way to monopolize these new networks.
“We need a web of the people, not a web of the corporations,” said Prof. Fuchs. While he worries about the current web, he is optimistic about the odds of improving it: “There’s now more public awareness, and that’s the foundation of changing things.”


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