If you’re into cryptocurrency or blockchain, there’s a good chance I don’t have to spell out the benefits of decentralization. You’re a first-generation user of a technology that will increasingly define the future of the internet, and you have front-row seats to the world premiere of Web3.
The internet’s use and control were always as centralized as we see now. In the early days, under the stewardship of the United States Department of Defense, the network needed not to rely on one core computer. What if a terrorist attack or missile strike took down the principal node? Individual network parts had to communicate without relying on a single computer to reduce vulnerability.
Later, the unincorporated Internet Engineering Task Force, which facilitated the development of all internet protocols, worked ceaselessly to prevent private companies or particular countries from controlling the network.
Today, centralized app nodes are controlled and operated by the planet’s richest organizations, collecting and storing billions of people’s data. Private companies control the user experience on apps and can incentivize and manipulate behavior. From a reliability standpoint, billions lose their primary means of communication when centralized nodes go down — as in recent incidents with Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger in October 2021.
We have also seen how little the tech behemoths think of our privacy when dollar signs appear in their eyes: They harvest and sell our data on an industrial scale. After 10-plus years of using people as advertisers’ products, Mark Zuckerberg has brazenly co-opted the metaverse. Google and Apple, meanwhile, continue their incessant mission to enter every corner of our lives.
Related: The data economy is a dystopian nightmare
We also know what happens when authoritarian governments come knocking on the doors of these centralized mega-warehouses of data, fed by our devices that function as a surveillance army. We’ve seen in Ukraine the awful, large-scale violence that can be excused or hidden when media and military power comes under authoritarian control. In some countries, the state has unprecedented access to every aspect of citizens’ behavior, monitoring everything from internet search history to minor social infractions. Systems that would horrify even George Orwell are only possible because of centralization.
Even in Silicon Valley, ensconced within Western notions of freedom and individuals’ rights, tech empires rarely choose a principled stance over a large, lucrative market. When centralized powers such as Moscow, Beijing or Istanbul ask for censorship and control, they usually get it. Fundamentally, we cannot trust the tech giants with the innermost details of our lives; the centralization of control over the internet is undermining or forestalling democracy everywhere.
Taking our power back
We should not be surprised that tech behemoths have become the natural enemies of decentralization: Centralization is a natural instinct for those in control. Until the advent of the internet and the blockchain, centralization often meant convenience and simplicity. In the Middle Ages, a distributed system of vassal lords meant the monarchy lacked control, and money seeped through the cracks of corruption.
With time and distance no longer problematic in the internet age, Big Tech’s drive toward centralization is less surprising. Can we be astonished by the horrific results of attention-grabbing algorithms, such as attempted genocides or political manipulation based on psychometric analysis of user data? Centralization has consequences.
Distributed ledger technology provides a practical alternative. Social media, messaging, streaming, searching and data-sharing on the blockchain can be fairer, more transparent and accessible, and less centralized. Conversely, this does not mean data has to be less private.
In XX Messenger’s case, which my team and I launched in January, XX Network nodes process anonymous messages worldwide, shredding metadata for recipients and timestamps. With XX, there is privacy and decentralization. Later, this new paradigm of communications and information-sharing makes a significant extension and reinvention of democracy possible.
Related: Blockchain-based decentralized messengers: A privacy pipedream?
There are moments in history when two separate events combine to tell a greater truth. In 2008, when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. crashed in the wake of the Great Recession, it seemed to be the death knell of centralized financial institutions, despite the economic pain it would herald. Then, little more than a month later, Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin (BTC) white paper, the revolutionary blueprint for modern peer-to-peer currency. There’s an important connection between these two momentous events, yet the words “Bitcoin,” “blockchain” and “cryptocurrency” draw eye-rolls from those who misunderstand centralization’s issues.
In the autumn of 2008 was the opportunity to begin telling a story: It is up to us — the cryptographers, privacy lovers, traders, developers, activists and converts — to carry the torch of decentralization and democracy. If there was ever a tale that deserved to be told, beginning to end, it is this one.
Join me in telling it.
This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should conduct their own research when making a decision.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
David Chaum is one of the earliest blockchain researchers and a world-renowned cryptographer and privacy advocate. Known as “The Godfather of Privacy,” Chaum first proposed a solution for protecting metadata with mix-cascade networks in 1979. In 1982, his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley became the first known proposal of a blockchain protocol. Chaum developed eCash, the first digital currency, and made numerous contributions to secure voting systems in the 1990s. Today, Chaum is the founder of Elixxir, Praxxis and the XX Network, which combine his decades of research and contributions in cryptography and privacy to deliver state-of-the-art blockchain solutions.