Startups have been working on projects to decentralize the web for years—it was even a plot point in the last season of HBO’s Silicon Valley—but tongues really began wagging when the father of the World Wide Web, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, announced he, too, wants a decentralized web.
To this end, Berners-Lee has a new startup, Inrupt, which is working on an open source platform called Solid, allowing users to store and exchange information without an intermediary like Amazon, Facebook or Google.
The internet is like a high-tech cake made up of layers of wires, software and protocols that transmit information. The web, on the other hand, is sort of like the frosting on top that serves as a user-friendly interface. But, like apps from platforms such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, it runs on servers alongside user data and has limitless access to said data.
Decentralized networks, on the other hand, want to change how apps work. Instead of storing data on application-level servers, they use lower layers of the internet—going deeper into the cake, if you will. This allows users to run new, specially created apps on their own devices—where apps can only access the data they have permission to use.
The big selling point is it gives users control of their data. And this, in turn, would end privacy concerns—and maybe even upset the digital advertising applecart once and for all.
Dewayne Hendricks, chief executive of Tetherless Access who is also known as the Broadband Cowboy, likened this to a public commons that users control. “But you can allow other people to see it and do things with it if you want—people that you trust will have access to data in this commons,” he added.
Here’s where it gets complicated: The web and the internet are technically already decentralized because users can do plenty of things like publish a blog post or a podcast on their own domains instead of a platform.
“But a lot of people move to platforms because they’re easy,” said Doc Searls, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s easier to see it as re-decentralization because it’s always been decentralized, but it’s kind of like going out into the wilderness and making it happen.”
And, in the wilderness, there is no Facebook or Google.
“We’re historically at a point right now where the pendulum has swung in the direction of centralization to an extreme, and it’s starting to swing back the other way in lots and lots of different ways,” he added.
And that means decentralization—or re-decentralization—could pose a genuine threat to the duopoly. (Or it could be the duopoly is its own biggest threat.)
Remember: As it stands, apps run on servers with user data, which the apps can access.
“But now we have this thing where people control their data and all of a sudden, what do the apps have to work with? If people don’t make it accessible, the app won’t be able to do much of anything,” Hendricks said. “Let’s say Facebook made a new messaging app that works with the model [Berners-Lee] has come up with and people say, ‘Screw you, Facebook—I’m not making my data part of your thing.’ Because right now, when you sign up to Facebook, they own you. Now you have a new model where everyone owns their own data—it’s a whole new world. If this does become more pervasive, advertising as we know it is done.”
But, Hendricks added, only then will Facebook and Google be scared. (They did not respond to a request for comment.)
Hurdles a decentralized web must overcome
First, however, the decentralized web must attract developers and put out a product people want, Searls said.
Per Hendricks, those developers then need to come up with new apps.
“So if you want to have a messaging system that’s like Facebook’s Messenger, it’s going to have to be developed for this new data model,” he added. “That’s another obstacle—it’s an entirely new set of apps that have to be developed that work in this environment. That’s a big ask.”
User behavior would also have to change.
“When things are given to them—and given to them basically for free—they like that. It enforces the consumer model,” Hendricks said. “The whole decentralized thing is about—you’re no longer a consumer, you’re a protector, an individual responsible for protecting your rights. This is something people are not used to. Most people don’t vote because it’s too hard.”
Sargi Mann, evp of digital strategy and investments at Havas Media Group, agreed it will require a lot more attention from consumers to manage relationships and access.
“Technology is there to make our lives easier,” she said. “That’s where I see some friction from the consumer standpoint.”
And so there’s skepticism.
“It’s easy to go to the Dark Side, but to become a Jedi, you have to train for years to develop a set of skills,” Hendricks said. “That’s what [Berners-Lee] is asking people to do—to become Jedis. It’s easy to click, but it’s not easy to learn how to use a lightsaber.”
Ad tech’s future is in peril
If/when a decentralized web takes off, the prognosis for ad tech is not good.
That being said, advertising could become more effective on the decentralized web if digital advertisers learn how to listen for signals from individuals who have control over the flow of advertising into their browsers, apps and devices and send signals of interest and disinterest to companies and markets, which are “much better signals than tracking-based ad tech can ever guess at,” Searls said.