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Bitcoin Internet: The Plan for a Decentralized Web that Runs on Cryptocurrency

Decentralisation is in vogue, but MaidSafe has its sights set higher than the next novelty crypto-clone.
April 24, 2014, 3:30pm
Image: Maidsafe

The core defining aspect of Bitcoin—and other cryptocurrencies arising in its wake—is decentralisation. No one person, or no group of people, has control over it, and big companies don’t have power over the individual user, at least in theory. But that idea isn’t limited to currencies; the fundamental concept of a peer-to-peer system that connects people and allows transfer of information without a middleman has broader applications.

Take the internet. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, he purposely made it open, decentralised, and non-proprietary. But things have changed a lot in 25 years, and a few corporations have more control over our online activity than we could have imagined back then. Now, one company wants to change the state of play and “decentralize the entire internet and web.” And yes, the plan involves cryptocurrencies.

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MaidSafe is a Scotland-based company headed by entrepreneur David Irvine, though they list their boss as “logic;” when I spoke to Irvine on the phone this week, he repeatedly referred to their project as the "logical" way for information to be organised and shared. What they're building is essentially an open source program that decentralizes the net by eliminating the need for huge servers in data centres (which are usually owned by the tech giants).

Instead, it uses the spare hard drive space of users' devices. Applications would sit on top of the system so you could use the internet much as usual, but your data wouldn't be stored as complete files on one server or local network. It would be shredded and encrypted, then dispersed in pieces across different computers in the network.

I called Irvine to find out more about what exactly MaidSafe is setting out to do, and how cryptocurrencies fit into the whole idea. The white paper for their decentralised internet system, called SAFE (Secure Access for Everyone) is available on GitHub, and this video is a good starting point to get your head around the idea:

MaidSafe was founded in 2006, which the Bitcoin-savvy will recognise as a couple of years prior to the publication of Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper. Irvine explained his inspiration at the time. “What was happening with the internet was control was being taken off people by corporations and whatnot, and data was being taken off people, and access to that information was being controlled by third parties,” he said. “It seemed quite an unnatural way for things to be.”

The “logical” way for the internet to be organised, in Irvine’s view, doesn’t require massive servers in data centres owned by big companies; they’re an unnecessary middleman. In fact, you don't really need servers. “If you add up all the computers on our desks, it’s much more powerful, with larger storage, and larger CPU than any large corporation,” he said. The SAFE network would be distributed across the hard drives and CPUs of devices linked up to the system—over at Wired, researcher Julia Powles explains it’s a similar idea to the Bitcloud project, which uses the same idea of dispersed "nodes" carrying encrypted data, and includes cryptocurrency incentives. But where Bitcloud was announced as a concept, the SAFE network has been in development for years.

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All the data on the SAFE network would of course be encrypted, too. As well as keeping information freely available and out of the clutches of profit-chasing companies or the eyesight of snoopers, Irvine suggested that using regular devices rather than huge servers could be much more eco-friendly than the current model, given the amount of electricity eaten up by data centres.

“What I thought was, all the computers have to connect to each other and form some sort of large cyber brain machine type thing, so that as humans we just make an account on the system and it’s only between us and the system, no intermediary,” he said. Got that?

Image: Maidsafe

As a user, you probably wouldn’t notice you were using the SAFE network; it’s a platform on which applications are built. You could have, for instance, a Google-like application built on top of it, or a Facebook-like application, and so on. MaidSafe has invited third-party developers to start working on applications, and there are distinct advantages to building on the system. For instance, one developer is working on a Dropbox-type service, but won’t need to invest in infrastructure and buy disk space anywhere. “Everyone’s computer brings resources to the network, so all you do is you build the front end—the storage, the computing is all taken care of by the network,” said Irvine.

This is where the SafeCoin cryptocurrency comes in, because users aren’t expected to contribute their precious disk space for nothing but the good of the system, nor are the open source developers who are working on applications to sit on top of the SAFE network.

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“The idea behind it was that if you have a completely privacy-enhancing, anonymous, and autonomous network, the last thing you can expect is someone puts their credit card in and gives away all of their information,” explained Irvine. “And who would you give that information to? This network’s an autonomous thing.” By that he means that no one is in charge of the network; no one would have to run it once it's set up.

The cryptocurrency aspect allows coins to be deposited in users’ wallets depending on resources they contribute. So you'd earn safecoins just for using the system (MaidSafe calls it "farming" rather than "mining," but it's the same idea), the idea being to incentivize people to get involved. Developers would also be able to use safecoins as a revenue model; they could write wallets in their applications and receive coins according to how popular their application is. MaidSafe actually calls safecoins a “software token” and it works a bit differently than Bitcoin. Irvine said it doesn’t use a Blockchain-like ledger approach, but is more like cash—no one knows you’ve made a transaction except for the recipient.

But before applications are available, the currency has already come into play; people are able to buy safecoins before the launch to help raise funds to get the system started. The company held a public sale this week that saw 10 percent of the total amount of safecoins (just short of 430 million) up for grabs in exchange for bitcoins or mastercoins, at 17,000 safecoins per bitcoin (Coin Desk explains that as safecoins aren't on the Bitcoin blockchain, buyers got them via the proxy token of maidsafecoins, which do work with the blockchain and will be exchangeable for safecoins on a 1:1 ratio). People buying in now are either supporters of the SAFE system and want to see it take off, or see safecoins as a good investment; Irvine said he'd already seen some on exchanges. As there's a limited number of safecoins and they'll require increasing amounts of resources to earn, there's a demand among people who are confident that SAFE might take off.

"The things that we can achieve with a free, secure, and privacy-enhancing internet are beyond what we can even dream of today."

This week's sale was to help raise funds for MaidSafe, and get people involved in the network. MaidSafe plans to use some of the funds to set up international development units, and to seed the network with tens of thousands of computers around the world to start it off.

I asked if the SAFE system couldn’t have been implemented somehow without the need for a cryptocurrency, and Irvine said the idea was to come up with a way that didn’t mean people were limited by a system that only let them use as much resources as they were able to put in themselves. “The problem with that is a lot of people today just have mobile phones and just have tablets; they don’t have resources that would be particularly valuable to the network, like a PC,” he said. The cryptocurrency element means people with limited resources can still use the system in the same way; they just don't get so many safecoins.

Of course, their are other barriers in the digital divide, and MaidSafe is a private company, not a philanthropic exercise. It’s also in very early stages and there are no doubt many questions that need to be ironed out. But the idea is nothing if not ambitious, and Irvine’s not planning to stop with just the web. He threw out other ideas: a global decentralised voting system that’s cryptographically secure, a propaganda-free global news system made by the people and distributed in different countries via avatars speaking their own language.

“The things that we can achieve with a free, secure, and privacy-enhancing internet are beyond what we can even dream of today,” he said. Whether it will ever take off is anyone’s guess, and I’m skeptical that any new system would ever be widely adopted in place of the long-established current model for the internet. Forbes' Kashmir Hill pointed out that it might just be way too soon for such an idea, given that most people don't even understand Bitcoin yet.

At the least, it's refreshing to see a take on the current vogue for decentralisation that has its sights set a little higher than the next novelty crypto-clone.