The internet was built on principles of openness, freedom and decentralization, but the current configuration frequently falls short of these standards. In practice, there are many instances in which access to the internet is contingent on de facto gatekeepers: in one example, the ongoing battle over net neutrality highlights the power that internet service providers have over the free flow of data; as another, the massive cyberattack against DNS provider Dyn last year, which left internet users in much of Europe and North America unable to access Twitter, Netflix, Reddit, and many other sites, shows that the centralized nature of the domain name resolution system introduces critical points of failure into what we think of as a globally distributed network.
That's why in a small but growing movement, some startups are trying to imagine what the next iteration of the internet might look like, and how it should be built. Among these is Blockstack, a decentralized internet platform which is launching a new browser and developer pack today so that programmers can start experimenting with a new blueprint for what the web could be.
Blockstack is trying to tackle three problems with the architecture of the internet as it currently exists: One, reliance on a small handful of domain name servers to map human-readable URLs to the IP addresses of websites; two, the client-server model of web applications which relies on potentially untrusted remote computers to do the information processing; and three, an increasingly siloed internet which gives control of a huge amount of user data to a small number of dominant companies.
Part of Blockstack's alternative to this uses the same kind of technology that underpins Bitcoin—a "blockchain" database that is shared and synchronized between many different computers—to implement a new name system that does not require any central authority to assign and validate website addresses or user identities on the network. For online services, the Blockstack system also separates data storage from the function of the application—so rather than a model where using Facebook.com means that all of your data is stored and owned by Facebook Inc., data resides with a storage provider like Dropbox and only connected to the web service when accessed from the user's computer (with the data split into parts and encrypted so that it cannot otherwise be read by whichever provider holds it).
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"What we're really trying to do is both protect consumers by giving them more security and safety, and also give them more freedom through the ability to access better software, different types of software," said Ryan Shea, co-founder of Blockstack, in a call with Motherboard.
Fellow co-founder Muneeb Ali also explained that the system should make life easier for developers too:
"[With Blockstack] developers actually need to write less code," Ali said. "Users are bringing their own identity and data is being stored with the user, so developers don't need to worry about a lot of additional infrastructure, they can actually get up and running faster than when writing traditional applications."
With the release of the new developer package the founders are hoping to encourage more people to innovate with the system they've created, and say that their priority is to support individual developers or small-scale organizations first before reaching out to larger companies. Though it will take time to shift our expectations of how web services should function, concerns over surveillance and the scare of high-profile data breaches are creating a market for alternatives that has considerable room to grow.