Op Ed: How the Blockchain Will Help Fix the Internet


A couple weeks ago, AWS (Amazon Web Services) experienced a failure that impacted a large swath of popular services that we increasingly depend on to manage our digital lives. Consider the online collaboration service Slack; many people belong to several Slacks channels. When Slack promises instant archival and recall of important information, but depends on Amazon for storing these attachments, these expectations are shattered when the fragile underlying infrastructure is compromised.

And while “cloud” services like Amazon, Azure and Google offer fixes to the problems of scaling for millions of users, several other important problems remain unaddressed, especially as we transition to an age where even the lowly web browser is capable of video calls via peer-to-peer technology.

This is a concept Skype first introduced to the internet before their eventual purchase by tech giant Microsoft. Today, Skype is much more centralized and thus vulnerable as a target to would-be attackers. The original vision of Skype is not dead; rather, it is no longer restricted to the desktop. Instead, it can exist purely on the web.

Technological decentralization is beneficial for a variety of reasons based on resiliency. Beyond simply having more servers to interact with should some go down, having geographical diversity is important for the purposes of free speech. If the future is to be driven by partially connected devices then we should not expect bigger and fatter cellular towers to support these devices, but rather the devices should begin communicating with themselves and sharing information in a spread-out mesh.

What if you traveled to a new country and instead of buying a SIM card, your phone could just ask nearby phones to relay a few KB of data for a fraction of a penny? This would lead to a much more fluid interaction (happening in the background) and lead to a world where everyone is a buyer/seller of data, not just the telecom and internet providers.

So far, all signs point to the magic of what we call “blockchain technology.” Problems with the spread of information are directly addressed by the peer-to-peer protocols that underlie Bitcoin, Ethereum and others. Problems with synchronization speak directly to the timestamping that blockchains provide, giving us a shared source of state. And thanks to Satoshi Nakamoto and countless other blockchain developers, we know that virtual tokens empower us each with native value transfer.

Indeed these technologies have been highlighted in alternative projects like Namecoin and Bitmessage. In the case of the former, the idea of using a blockchain for name resolution was brought to fruition. And while the project lives on, it lacks the user and developer following sufficient to sustain a separate blockchain requiring separate security. Merge-mining the native coin for this blockchain lends some of Bitcoin’s superior security to Namecoin, but then it continues to suffer the problem of portability: Bitcoin doesn’t have any way to take advantage of Namecoin or vice versa. Essentially, a separate overlay protocol or bridge would be necessary to maintain.

If this sounds complex and convoluted, it is — even for technologists like myself. And this is a key reason that platforms like Ethereum have come to life. Borrowing from Bitcoin and other innovations, Ethereum allows for an integrated app-like experience that is as decentralized as its underlying blockchain. Governance of the protocol becomes a separate issue at this stage and appears to be a continually evolving topic of debate.

Keen eyes have been watching the Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dash communities and drawing informed conclusions as to what the future might hold, given how these different communities govern themselves. But at its core, Ethereum’s target users are developers wanting a more robust framework than Blockchain 1.0.

Thinking back to the early days of digital currencies before “app platform on blockchain” was a prevalent concept, I think it was clear that a series of protocols could be integrated into a digital wallet to allow for basic address book functionality, something common to even the earliest of electronic devices.

What if we took the idea a step further and allowed users to message each other? What if those messages contained an attachment of BTC? Wendell Davis, the visionary behind Hive (an early digital currency wallet), saw these possibilities and set out to build an experience that we could be proud to show Mom and Dad. It was during my time working on this project that I started to understand some of the fundamental UI and UX problems our community has, the fixing of which would be a requisite for global adoption.

Some of these problems are getting easier to solve due to complementary infrastructure being built up and around Bitcoin. But really, we haven’t even yet begun to scratch the surface of integrating blockchains into the fabric of the internet. Yes, we can use blockchains for money — that much is clear. But there are many other applications of the state-tracking and information delivery system of blockchain technology that can benefit other critical parts of the internet.

It begins with an alternative for the Domain Name System (DNS). Although Namecoin was a great first experiment, the benefits of an integrated system like Ethereum are also becoming more clear. The Ethereum Name Servicejust launched, which can both replace how DNS works and integrate along with it. This approach — to be innovative but plug into existing infrastructure — will be critical to begin baking blockchain technology into the bones of the internet.

Soon, we can expect to see decentralized apps being deployed in a variety of locations, from the app stores (centralized) to the traditional web (somewhat decentralized) to IPFS or Swarm (more decentralized). Already, at least two Ethereum-based mobile apps are in development: uPort for identity and as a chat and dapp client. Add to that the handful of games and betting sites on the web, plus browser integrations like Mist and Metamask, and already we see emergent behavior that is likely indicative of the future.

Need further proof? The alternative browser Brave already integrates Bitcoin. As these core pieces move into place, better and better dapps will be expected to build upon their predecessors, just as iPhone games today are better than the original crop in 2009. So too will dapps down the road be able to give us an improved version of Skype or Slack, but it will happen natively in our browsers.

So what will it take for blockchain technology to help fix the internet? The answer is devilishly simple: Just use it. Download some dapps, get some digital currency and participate in this new economy. Play some games, help organize community projects, or participate in rigorous discussion that will unfold on these new decentralized platforms.

If we cease to make use of those old and outdated protocols, and instead opt for open-source technology that encourages free speech and enhances the privacy of its users, half the battle is already won. When we show the world there is not only a demand for decentralized apps, but ones which allow us to maintain control of our own digital identities and rights, we can expect a new wave of developers to flock to “blockchain technology” to cash in on this new app rush.

Who will the beneficiaries be? Content creators will get a bigger slice of the consumer pie, and consumers will be able to more selectively pay for content or opt out of ads without forking over a large percentage of the funds to a vague publishing entity. If you’re a writer, musician, illustrator, videographer or one else that can produce works digitally, you stand to benefit hugely from a new smart contract economy where rights are tracked and fees instantly remitted.

People who send money to family and friends will have access to faster and cheaper services that operate around the clock, thanks to the resiliency of Bitcoin. And if we don’t screw up too much, just maybe we can begin to integrate this newfangled blockchain technology into the underlying infrastructure of the web.