The Revolution will be Decentralized: Privacy in the ‘dWeb’Sep 17, 2021
Over the past several years, decentralization has rapidly emerged as a crucial force driving the future of digital technologies. Spurred on by the growth of blockchain applications in finance, gaming, collectibles, and many other sectors, decentralized technology is becoming more central to our economy and to the digital infrastructure that underpins it. Taken as a whole, this emerging phenomenon has come to be known by a few different names: Web 3.0, the decentralized web, and the dWeb are the most common. Whatever its name, it will have important implications for many areas of people's everyday lives — not least when it comes to individual privacy.
Status quo: the state of the centralized web
Before exploring the potential of the dWeb, and its implications for privacy, it's important to understand the current state of the Internet and the path that led here.
In the first decades of the 21st century, the power that large tech platforms have over our online lives has been allowed to grow largely unchecked. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others know more about our behaviors than we do: they are the infrastructure that many of us rely on to socialize, earn and spend money, gather information, and much more.
Speaking at Orchid's Priv8 Virtual Summit in March of 2021, privacy activist Edward Snowden stated an inconvenient truth about the evolution of the Internet.
"When I was younger, the Internet was an expression of the aggregate of individual desires of small communities," he said. In the early days of the web, participation in open source technology was standard: "There weren't a lot of commercial interests in the earliest expressions of the Internet."
Today, however, this "creative and cooperative network" has been replaced by "something commercial and competitive." Online environments that were once predominantly open-source have been replaced by centralized platforms competing for our attention, our money, and our data.
This environment has greatly advantaged a small cohort of digital corporate titans. In Snowden's words, "There is an increasing concentration of resources into fewer and fewer hands."
The problems start with today's centralized web infrastructure
Each of these monoliths benefits from a network effect: the more they are used, the more powerful they become—and the less room there is for smaller, independent players. As a result, the Internet is no longer an open landscape that can be freely explored. Instead, it is a series of centralized siloes—colossal "walled gardens" that can track their users' every move.
These platforms also control the physical infrastructure that supports the very existence of the Internet in the first place. For example, one third of all of the world's online content runs on Amazon Web Services. This near-universal reliance on centralized infrastructure allows the companies that own the infrastructure to develop detailed profiles of their users, with dire consequences for personal privacy—and for society at large.
The dominion that these platforms have over our actions and identities extends further than many of us know. "Features" such as the option to "Sign in with Google" or "Like" a page outside of Facebook's ecosystem act as backdoors that platforms use to quietly collect our personal information.
Further, these centralized platforms have an enormous amount of control over what people see and learn online. They have the power to direct traffic toward certain outlets and away from others. This can exacerbate problems including the spread of misinformation and the reinforcement of partisan, regional, and national divisions . Governments can leverage this infrastructure for censorship, and subtle algorithmic changes can result in unintentional curation bias.
Some have proposed that dismantling Big Tech companies could provide a path back towards a free and open Internet. But this is not a permanent solution: without an update to the way that the Internet is designed, new centralized platforms, in time, would likely become just as powerful as their predecessors. Therefore, supporting the rebirth of a fair, more private Internet requires a deeper level of change. The infrastructure of the web itself needs to be rebuilt—and it needs to be decentralized.
What is the Decentralized Web?
To understand how the decentralized web stands to reshape the digital world, it's important to understand a bit about what decentralization itself means on an infrastructure level.
The principles of blockchain-based decentralization were first laid out in the Bitcoin whitepaper in 2008. Since then, teams of developers and entrepreneurs around the world have worked to use blockchain technology to decentralize a growing number of systems, including lending, insurance, art, and collectibles. People have also used the technology to create decentralized voting systems, prediction markets, Internet-of-Things (IoT) networks, and more.
But it's possible to go further. Applying the principles of blockchain to the Internet writ large would result in an entire "decentralized web" — the dWeb. This new digital realm would, in theory, allow people to do all of the things they do online today without relying on centralized platforms and intermediaries. Because of this, the dWeb has the potential to be much more supportive of individual privacy than today's Internet. People could build online communities, work, make purchases, publish content, and gather information without having to go through third parties that can access, monitor, store, or lose their personal information.
The infrastructure of the dWeb
In order to make the theoretical dWeb into a reality, a few things must happen. The principles of decentralization must be applied to three of the Internet's fundamental elements: the physical infrastructure that supports web access, the platforms that users interact with online, and the identities that people use to operate in online environments.
To achieve Internet decentralization on a physical level, the real-world infrastructure that supports the web cannot be in the hands of large centralized platforms. Instead, the machines that handle storage and computing must be owned and operated by individual users. The upshot of this architecture is that the dWeb would be expected to support a far higher standard of privacy than the centralized Internet infrastructure that exists today, since no centralized entity will have the ability to survey users' actions or collect their data.
Additionally, centralized entities would not control the platforms that users interact on within the dWeb. Instead, dWeb platforms would be transparently and autonomously operated by systems of smart contracts. Consequently, no single entity could ever own the rails that would control the rights to publish and access information, interact with digital communities, or purchase goods and services online.
Identity in the dWeb
A truly decentralized Internet would also need to support the creation of decentralized identity.
Decentralized identity allows users to own their personal information. In the fragmented, centralized infrastructure of today's Internet, most people do not have control over their sensitive data. Anytime anyone signs up for a web-based account, they are prompted to share their names, email addresses, phone numbers, government IDs, and more. After this information is shared, it essentially belongs to the platform that collected it, with no guarantee that they can or will keep it private.
Decentralized identity, on the other hand, would allow users to fully own and control their identity. It would provide a means to verify who they are in any online environment without surrendering their personal information to third parties. For example, identity stored in a token or wallet address could interact with smart contracts to autonomously authenticate personal data — a person's age, for instance — without providing the information to a third party.
Crucially, this would eliminate the need for centralized, account-based authentication, which is the predominant form of identity found across the web today.
The current Internet's privacy risks and UX problems
Anyone who regularly uses the Internet — which is to say, most people in the world — likely has dozens of accounts for various websites and web applications, some of which they may visit or use only once. Each new account is a potential point of vulnerability for online privacy: the more websites have access to our data—even in small pieces—the more possibilities there are that it can be compromised.
Not only does account-based verification create privacy risks—it's also a hassle. Users must either meticulously track dozens of unique passwords or store them in a centralized database on computers or browsers, creating more potential problems.
Solutions like "Sign in with Google" can make account-based verification more user-friendly. They are also designed to offer users a sense of security, since Google or another large entity keeps track of our login information and verifies our identities for us. But this is illusory: As recent revelations about Facebook have revealed, concentrating so much power and trust in a single corporation often only increases the risk to users.
In a decentralized Internet, by contrast, users could securely and automatically authenticate themselves on any site or application. Instead of "logging in with Google," blockchain-based identity could eliminate the need to log in entirely. The identity could, for example, be securely kept in dWeb browser wallets and automatically verified by smart contracts embedded in websites and applications, allowing users to seamlessly and securely traverse the Internet in privacy.
Looking ahead: the Giant Global Graph
Privacy through decentralization is likely to become even more crucial as the capabilities of the Internet continue to multiply and become ever more integrated into the physical world, as many predict. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is widely known as the creator of the Internet, described this concept when he coined the phrase "Semantic Web" in 1998. Since then, the concept has evolved and matured into what is today most commonly known as the Giant Global Graph, or GGG.
The GGG, if and when fully realized, would process information in a much more human-like way than today's computers. It would comprise a sort of "global brain" that could connect and understand all of the information it contained, both conceptually and contextually. Users would be able to make queries in the form of fully-formed questions and receive intelligent responses based on analysis and synthesis of relevant information.
Many researchers believe that the advent of the GGG would also blur the boundaries between physical and digital spaces. An intelligent layer known as the "spatial web" would better support augmented and virtual reality, IoT devices and sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more.
Use cases for spatial web technology are expanding as people spend more time in persistent virtual environments that make up the so-called "metaverse." As this phenomenon continues to gain speed, infrastructure designed with privacy as a priority will be more important than ever.
As intelligent devices continue to play more and more prominent roles in people's lives, they have the potential to gain ever greater insight into our behaviors and personal information. This presents a major privacy risk: if they operate on the centralized platforms that typify today's Internet, these devices will be another point of failure through which our data can be harvested and exploited.
Privacy and the future of the Internet
The full implications of the dWeb's emergence for the Internet, and for society more broadly, are enormous and still being determined. What seems clear is that with a fully decentralized Internet, it's possible to build a world where people can engage with information and connect in new and innovative ways, with the potential to secure full rights to individual privacy and freedom in the digital sphere.
Orchid is constantly working to make the vision of a secure, private Internet into a reality, and decentralization is a key technical and philosophical component of Orchid's design. Built on the Ethereum blockchain, and bringing together the services of many different, high-quality VPN providers in a unique marketplace, the Orchid team's goal is to use the power of decentralization to offer real digital privacy to everyone, everywhere.
Orchid's unique, decentralized VPN service allows people to explore the Internet in privacy for as little as $1. Providers stake OXT, Orchid's native digital asset, in order to offer service on the network, and are paid through an innovative system of probabilistic nanopayments. In addition to OXT, people can use other ERM-compatible tokens, such as xDAI, to use Orchid. And with in-app purchases, it's possible to get started in seconds using nothing more than an ordinary credit card. By making online privacy easy, affordable, and reliable, Orchid is working to make a truly private, free, open — and decentralized — Internet a reality.
Download Orchid today to start exploring the Internet freely.