The rise of the internet in the 1990s gave birth to the Age of Information. It has provided users all over the world with unprecedented access to knowledge and communications, but have also put them on their guard against the manipulation of these very benefits. Like all technologies, it is a double-edged sword that is more significant as a moral gauge than as a tool for productivity.
Recent events might have us scoring low on that gauge. From state-level political scheming to commercial abuse of user data, the internet has been become a potent tool for controlling the masses. Censorship is an equally worrying problem; opposition to net neutrality heralds a world where the government and service providers decide what and how we can do something on the internet. But rather than outright censor the internet, censorship is being used against us to control our minds, a propagandistic tool that is both ideological and economical.
For many years, this siege against our freedom has been defended against by active individuals with strong political will. Now, however, with the advent of blockchain technology and projects like Skywire, we have a technological solution to the dangers and disadvantages of the internet.
But how did the internet come to this troubling point? Was it not invented with the hope of connecting people all over the world for the betterment of knowledge, understanding and cooperation?
In the late 1980s, Tim-Berners Lee, the father of the internet, established the first computer-to-computer connection over the web. It was his research and ideas that laid the foundation for the internet to become a universal communication medium.
In his book Weaving the Web, he envisions the maturation of the internet differently:
The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner.
A long time has passed since he gave the world the web. Sadly, Lee’s morals did not seem to accompany the World Wide Web’s explosion to a network populated by billions of users. In that time, the internet has turned from an information repository and an imaginative playground to a fight for our minds. In a way, the growth of the internet reflects our human nature.
The Internet Has Become a Weapon
Following Lee’s establishment of the Internet’s protocols, which we still use today, the internet grew in convenience and capability. We can see a similarity here with cryptocurrencies: the dot-com bubble has parallels with the cryptocurrency market. The potential is talked about endlessly, but the convenience and capability is yet to be fully realized.
Around the year 2000, the internet transformed from simply a repository of information into the go-to medium on which we could conduct our personal, professional and commercial lives. The vastly increased capabilities of the internet drew in a global audience, and consequently introduced corruption from authoritarian governments, monopolizing tech giants, self-serving advertisers and sociopathic individuals. The war for the individual’s mind had moved from newspapers and television to the online world.
The motivation for bad actors is openly evident. Virtually every part of our lives has a connection to the internet, cornering us in a terrible spot of constant vigilance against misinformation and increasingly sophisticated emotional button-pushing.
The economic incentive for underhanded tactics exist and invite greed. Global political operations, which have always been in operation but until now been limited to the offline world, now execute their agenda over cyberspace. In all of these scenarios, it is us, the public, that suffers the most.
Years later, in a blog post, Lee would say:
When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going end in the USA. … Democracy depends on freedom of speech. Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.
This war of the internet boils down to a war against our personal rights and choices. In truth, we have always resisted censorship, malicious influence and invasions of privacy on the internet – the public, valuing the web so much, has used the internet itself to band together and oppose what is an assault on human rights.
However, the difference is that this time, we can defend our values with another democratic technological revolution: the blockchain.
Blockchain Changes Everything
We are in, what many people call, the second generation of the internet – “Web 2.0”. This second generation of the internet is an upgrade, with an appealing appearance and ease-of-use, more than just documents of text. It is interactive, collaborative, entertaining and supportive of new endeavors and possibilities.
It is also sinister, deceptive, criminal and materialistic – a tempting deal with the devil. In exchange for our innermost thoughts and motivations, we are granted whatever pleasures the online world can afford us, which grows in pleasure and material possibility by the day.
At the same time, the unfair economic and structural model of the internet has brought out the worst in us. The power is squarely in the hand of service providers – not just ISPs, who control the information we can access and how much we pay for it, but the gateways of the internet that are Google, Facebook, Amazon and others.
Concerning content distribution, for example, this latter group takes a disproportionate amount of the revenue related to advertising. The case of the 2016 U.S. elections also showcase how much power social media has in influencing the minds of the people, and how a platform like Facebook can control what millions of people absorb and hold to be the truth.
With the way power is concentrated in the digital space, those with money and authoritative influence reign supreme and inequality is encouraged. As with land in the feudal era, so is cyber-influence unevenly distributed in the modern age.
Today, we rely completely on our ISPs to gain access to the internet, which works on aging protocols that are extremely vulnerable to snooping, and influenced by those with authority and money. In a time where our data and lives are increasingly online, the stakes of using Web 2.0 become increasingly risky.
Blockchain, however, addresses many of the faults of the current web architecture and may usher in the next generation of the internet, “Web 3.0”.
Blockchain technology has the potential to fully realize the original democratic vision for the internet. By its very nature, blockchain encrypts data on its network and protects it from prying eyes. It removes our reliance on our ISP providers, instead working with our fellow users to support the internet. It takes the idea of connecting people to a very literal level.
Mostly importantly, blockchain encourages us – as individuals citizens and not centralized entities – to put resources and effort behind that which we think deserve it, and suppress that which goes against our morals. Unlike today’s internet, however, we decide that collectively and truly have a voice in decisions.
There is now an realizable hope to build a world where our digital lives are truly our own. It is not just around the corner, but arriving with a gathering speed.
Skywire is Building an Internet We Can Trust
The internet harbored the spirit of democracy but, for the aforementioned reasons, has lost its way. Decentralization, which also embodies the spirit of democracy, is the necessary base that can facilitate true democracy, from the internet to computing power distribution, through its removal of centralized entities.
But how can it specifically improve the current situation? What about performance on a decentralized network, which continues to receive criticism? How do we pay for usage?
These are the questions that the Skywire project has addressed while building an architecture for “Web 3.0”.
A Network by the People, for the People
The net neutrality debate has made it all too clear how much power ISPs have over the content users receive. It is a game of money, with providers holding very little accountability for their actions.
This is especially troublesome given the fact that the internet is now an essential utility, like electricity and water supply. Imagine the chaos and injustice if governments were able to dictate who gets either of those resources and how much, and for costs that can constantly be increased and thus put out of reach for some economic classes. This is how net neutrality could affect internet services, and this is why we must create a solution.
We have heard of how Bitcoin eliminates our need to rely on banks for financial transactions; that same decentralization logic can be applied to internet usage, and Skywire intends to do so with the mesh network.
The mesh network is designed such that users pay, through Skywire’s currency Skycoin, for the amount of bandwidth they consume – nothing more, nothing less. The price will neither increase, as it does with traditional ISPs, nor will it be subject to a contractual period of any length. You pay based on how much bandwidth you need and consume.
Traffic Protocols for the Modern Age
The Skywire team notes that the TCP/IP protocols don’t fit the decentralized paradigm. Inefficient and weak with regards to security, the TCP/IP protocols have served their purpose as a transitional mechanism towards a more refined and democratic internet.
As opposed to this outdated protocol, the Skywire project operates on what is called a “mesh network” – which is just another way of saying that internet traffic is routed through the users of the network. The mesh network is not a new idea, but previously lacked the economic incentive for sustained use. Blockchain technology answers that problem and gives users motivation to help build a new internet.
The upshot of the mesh network is that there no central point of failure – should one node go down, the many other nodes still stand to support the internet.
The performance benefits are also significant. Skywire utilizes Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) to achieve scalability and performance. While current protocols run through a long chain of IPs before reaching its destination, the mesh network finds the optimal path to the destination, which increases speed while reducing network load.
Additionally, the communication protocol used ensures that the data is encrypted and that it is only the sender and receiver who can view the data. It is possible for snoopers to view routed data by piecing individuals packages together – not so on the Skywire network.
Getting Paid for Participating in a Better Web
The question of why this mesh network should succeed might arise in one’s mind. In previous iterations of the mesh network, user participation has always been an obstacle; this time, Skywire offers economic incentive for users to take part in their network.
Users are incentivized with the native cryptocurrency, Skycoin, to help support the network. A payment protocol is embedded into nodes, allowing them to meter, bill and settle payments for their part in running the network.
Skycoin is used to pay for bandwidth. Those who use bandwidth must spend their Skycoins to do so, and those who run nodes, which enables the traffic to be forwarded over the internet, earn coins for doing so. This is Skywire’s counterpart to mining and will be the way that most early users will earn Skycoin. As we mentioned, mesh networks require an economic incentive, fuel to keep the system going, and that’s exactly what Skycoin is.
Another payment mechanism is Coin Hours, which can be earned by holding Skycoins. Every address that holds a number of Skycoins for an hour earns an equivalent number of Coin Hours. Users can utilize their earned Coin Hours to pay for services on the Skycoin platform.
This system leads to a critical change that is probably not on the minds of many: your data will no longer be sold to third parties.
Gone will be the times when you receive targeted advertisements pushing you towards purchases. Tech giants will no longer receive the funding they need to gain an increasingly monopolistic position by selling power to those of their choosing. Your data is your own.
This new economic model for internet usage introduces a fairer, more equal world.
The New Internet Can’t Start Empty – It Needs Services, Apps and Content
Getting a system such as this running is an achievement in and of itself, but it stands a good chance of failing as an innovation if it does not meet the requirements of an increasingly digital-savvy society.
That is, we cannot expect mass adoption of this new internet if it lacks the things we use the internet for. If services, applications, social media, e-commerce and games did not exist on the internet, we would have very little reason to use it. Unless it meets this ever-expanding base set of needs, a technology will not reach a critical level of adoption.
To that end, Skycoin has been working on a variety of mini-projects, including decentralized applications, a VPN, an encrypted messaging service, a BBS social media platform, cloud storage and a flagship video game.
The idea is to make the transition from the old web to the new as frictionless as possible — everything you use the internet for will be available on the new one immediately.
A New Web is Inevitable
The world is heeding the demands for a better internet. It is time for the web to grow up, and projects like Skywire are leading the parenting lessons, offering more freedom but tempering it with positive or negative reinforcement.
Blockchain won’t solve all of our problems. Human nature rather dislikes change and the powers that be will certainly run through a decentralized internet with a magnifying glass.
However, it sets the stage for a more equal digital space – one that rewards us for the services we want, while asking us to pull our weight in supporting that network. If we cannot trust the government, or any central authority, we must turn to ourselves. We now have reliable platforms that allow us to do so.
It is hard not to imagine a future where users participate in a network like Skywire, with its decentralized applications, communication features and cloud storage services. The potential here is enormous and the bevy of services indicate that they are serious about creating a comprehensive solution that will indeed enable the Skywire network to act as replacement for the current model of the internet.
Time will tell how it will play out, but we can be assured that blockchain has not had its final say in influencing the internet. We are being given the tools we need to help create the internet we want. The rest is up to us.