The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) has a plan to prevent another Geocities-like data apocalypse. And it's out of this world.
"The web today is highly centralized," IPFS founder Juan Benet wrote in an email. "I find it very concerning that so much of human expression and human communication these days is routed entirely via centralized social networks which may disappear at any moment, bringing down all the data with them—or at least breaking all the links."
"Building an information network that will stay up forever is as modern as it gets."
"Instead," he explained, "we're pushing for a fully distributed web, where applications don't live at centralized servers, but operate all over the network from users' computers…a web where content can move through any untrusted middlemen without giving up control of the data, or putting it at risk."
Founded in 1994, Geocities was the first major platform to offer free web hosting, and millions of users seized on the service as a platform for personal expression (if not, perhaps, professional design). During the height of the dot-com bubble in the late 90s, Geocities was a vibrant online community, and Yahoo! paid $3.57 billion for the company in 1999.
Geocities is gone now (except for a niche presence in Japan), along with all that user-generated content. But the loss of 15 years of websites alarmed internet archivists, who put out a call for a solution to this problem.
Benet thinks IPFS is the answer. IPFS is a transport protocol like HTTP, only instead of a client-server model, IPFS connects to a network of distributed nodes to both serve and request data. All files are version controlled and cryptographically authenticated, and websites will load much faster over IPFS than over HTTP.
It's important to note that IPFS remains experimental, but the potential is exciting. Benet described its potential speed benefits as being similar to BitTorrent—a large file downloading from many seeds will download much faster than a big file from one website.
Last week web hosting company Neocities became the first major site to implement IPFS in production.
"It was a crushing day for me when Geocities shut down," Kyle Drake, founder of Neocities, wrote in an encrypted email. "IPFS gives us the ability to decentralize our content. I think that this will solve the problem with information disappearing. IPFS is easily the best chance for this to succeed, and that's why I'm so excited about it."
According to Drake, Neocities hosts over 50,000 sites, has served around 100 million views, and the infrastructure is in place to serve billions.
"People have this perception that this is a dead 1990s idea," he wrote, "but it's not…this is as bleeding edge and relevant as crypto-currencies (and uses many of the same cryptographic theories and ideas)."
"Let's see the fuckers try to burn down this Library of Alexandria."
In addition to satisfying the cravings of some for Geocities clip-art nostalgia, Drake has more serious plans up his sleeve. He wants to give people the ability to "build web sites that persist forever."
"Building an information network that will stay up forever is as modern as it gets," he wrote. "[IPFS] will pull the internet out of the Dark Ages of fast information destruction, and move us from a short-term tech culture into a tech civilization, maintaining distributed libraries of information that could continue to persist for hundreds or even thousands of years."
IPFS is currently in alpha, but Benet hopes to release a more reliable beta version in a few months. Browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox already let users browse the web over IPFS, and the next step, Benet says, is to establish IPFS as a standard with the W3C and IETF.
While Benet's main goal with IPFS is to prevent information destruction, a side effect of IPFS will be to make the internet more censorship resistant. "With IPFS," he write, "entire classes of attacks are defeated—for example, the Chinese attack on Github is simply not possible, as code could not be injected by middlemen."
IPFS also "layers cleanly" on top of Tor and i2p, he added, making IPFS surveillance resistant.
IPFS even makes possible server-less websites. "In a sense," Benet wrote, "we're doing to websites…what Bitcoin did to money."
Drake is gung ho about the future of IPFS. "The science says it's possible, so we're building it," he said. "And then let's see the fuckers try to burn down this Library of Alexandria."