Over the years computers grew in numbers and a logical step in their evolution was to connect them together to allow their users to share things. Little networks grew into huge networks and some computers gained more power than the rest: they called themselves “servers”. Today millions of people are connected online at the mercy of middleman who control the servers of the world.
This is not an introduction to an dystopian fantasy world but an excerpt from a promotion video for Opera Unite, a framework that allows users to host information from their home computer. It was a bold attempt to change the centralized architecture of the Internet. A number of smart people have been pondering this idea even before Opera’s experiment failed miserably.
And the concept of a decentralized web is gaining traction: more and more people realize something has to change. The cause for this trend is obvious: the number of data security and privacy disasters that were made public has spiked in recent times . In April ’11 for example an update to the security terms of service of the widely used Dropbox tool revealed that contrary to previous claims, Dropbox Inc. has full access to user data.
With more and more of our personal data moving to centralized servers or “cloud services” – a term that should be used as an euphemism – we’re no longer in control. But there is hope in sight: there are dozens of projects out there that try to stop the trend of centralization and data consolidation.
The most popular of the lot is probably Diaspora. The project got a lot of attention in April 2010 when they managed to raise about $200.000 from almost 6500 supporters. The software looks and feels very much like Facebook or Google+. The innovation is that users are allowed and even encouraged to set up their own Diaspora node. This essentially means allowing users to set up their own Facebook server at home (or wherever they want). The Diaspora nodes are able to interact with each other to form one distributed social network. Furthermore, instead of users having to log in to one central server, they may choose one of many servers administered by different entities. In the end they can decide whom to trust with their data and there is no one entity that has access to all the data.
A social network project that is also worth mentioning follows the same principle. Its name is Buddycloud. The main difference between Buddycloud and Diaspora can be found in their implementation details: Buddycloud builds upon XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), a more than 10 year old and often implemented specification for “near-real-time, extensible instant messaging, presence information, and contact list maintenance”. There are many unknowns in this area so building on such proven protocols instead of defining new standards might proof to be an advantage. But there are many more social networking projects out there. Wikipedia has a nice list.
The Unhosted project implements another concept. Instead of providing a specific decentralized service it aims to be a meta-service. And after talking to Michiel de Jong I have the impression his plan is even more crucial. He aims to create something fundamental, a protocol, an architecture, a new way of writing web applications. The idea is the following: the traditional architecture of a hosted website provides both processing and storage. An unhosted website only hosts the application, not the data. Unhosted wants to separate the application from the data. By storing the data in another location and combining both application and data only in the browser, the application provider can never access the data. An ingenious and very ambitious idea. I hope they succeed!
A project that aims to replace Dropbox is ownCloud, an open personal cloud which runs on your personal server. It enables accessing your data from all of your devices. Sharing with other people is also possible. It supports automatic backups, versioning and encryption.
The Locker Project has similar goals. They allow self-hosting (installing their software on your own server) and offer a hosted service similar to what Dropbox provides. The service pulls in and archives all kinds of data that the user has permission to access and stores this data into the user’s personal Locker: Tweets, photos, videos, click-streams, check-ins, data from real-world sensors like heart monitors, health records and financial records like transaction histories (source).
A third project worth mentioning is sparkleshare. It is similar to the other projects in this category but allows pluggable backends. That means you can choose to use for example Github as backend for your data or of course your personal server. Awesome!
Freedom to the Networks
Projects such as netless carry the idea even further because after the data is liberated, the connection itself is a soft spot. Network connections should be liberated from corporate and government control by circumventing the big centralized data hubs and instead installing a decentralized wireless mesh network where everyone can participate and communicate.
The adventurous netless project plans to use the city transportation grid as its data backbone. Nodes of the network are attached to city vehicles – trams, buses, taxis and possibly – pedestrians. Information exchange between the nodes happens only when the carriers pass by each other in the city traffic. Digital data switches its routes just the same way you’d switch from tram number 2 to bus number 5. Very inspiring.
Another idea is to utilize networks of mobile phones to create a mesh network. The serval project is working on this. And they have a prototype for the Android platform ready.
The German Freifunk community pursues a similar goal. It is a non-commercial open initiative to support free radio networks in the German region. It is part of the international movement for free and wireless radio networks (source).
A purely software based project is Tor. It is free software and an open network that helps its users to defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy as well as confidential business activities and relationships.
Peer to Peer Currency
One integral thing this article did not talk about yet is money. Bitcoin, a peer to peer currency, might be the missing puzzle piece. The Bitcoin system has no central authority that issues new money or tracks transactions – it is managed collectively by the network.
A major problem of digital currency has been preventing double-spending. Digital money can be copied multiple times so a mechanism is necessary to forbid spending money twice. Bitcoin refrains from having actual digital coins. The system is merely one large transaction log that tracks what money was transferred where.
Each participant has a pair of public and private keys to sign transactions and to allow others to verify transactions. The transactions are entered into a global ever running log that is signed in regular intervals. The signing of the log is designed to require extensive computation time. The entire network of participating users is required to sign the log.
This protects the entire system from false signatures and from anyone tempering with the log and modifying past transactions. An attacker would have to have more computational power at his disposal than the entire Bitcoin network to forge transactions.
Users that give their computing time to the network are rewarded with Bitcoins for their troubles. This is also how the money is generated in the first place. In addition, participants that transfer money are free to include a transaction fee in their order. This extra money is given to the particular user signing the transaction.
A considerable number of sites have emerged that accept Bitcoins in exchange for services or goods. You can buy for example socks online or even pay for your lunch at a burger restaurant in Berlin.
In closing, I find it encouraging, that so many people feel that things have to change and are developing ideas and projects to make it happen. We will see many exciting things in the future and despite the overwhelming might of well-established products, I am hopeful.