Are We On The Verge of a Resilient and Decentralized Internet?

Is the internet as decentralized as Bitcoin?

Just like crypto and public blockchain networks, the internet is meant to be decentralized, openly accessible, and permissionless.

In many aspects, the global ecosystem has managed to maintain these qualities throughout its history. While there are still areas yet to be reached by land internet infrastructure, you can access the web in most jurisdictions without requiring permission from a higher authority (like the government). You only need a compatible device, an established framework by local providers, and a contract with your ISP to get started.

In most cases, you can participate in all kinds of (legal) activities and interact with other users without restrictions (other than company policies). At the same time, due to the more or less decentralized infrastructure, there is no global “internet kill switch” that can shut down the whole web (and it’s even super hard to achieve this goal on the local level in most jurisdictions).

However, with the rapid advance of technology in the last few years, there have been multiple developments that facilitated centralization and censorship on a global level as well as partial or complete isolation of some local networks.

Internet Governance

In the early years of the internet, governance was rather centralized, especially in the case of state research projects like the ARPANET.

Furthermore, the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) initiative between 1985 and 1995 was sponsored by an independent agency (NSF) to promote and coordinate internet projects and establish a backbone in the United States. In addition to the initial centralization of the infrastructure, the NSF only allowed government agencies and universities to use its network until 1989 (it removed all access-related restrictions in 1991).

During this period, there were quite some controversies due to the centralized operation of the internet backbone, which included the concern of stakeholders regarding some web firms gaining a competitive advantage over others by leveraging federal research funds.

That said, the NSFNET played a crucial role in kickstarting the internet backbone’s development (especially in the US and the North American region). Eventually, the NSFNET was privatized in 1995, which facilitated the increased decentralization of the global physical internet infrastructure.

As of today, the internet operates as a globally distributed network that consists of numerous voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks. In this way, it is similar to a public blockchain like Ethereum, which has thousands of apps and layer-two chains built on top of it by developers.

While the global internet has no central governing body, each autonomous network can set and enforce its own policies. The stakeholders of independent networks – that range from members of civil society and academic and research communities to the private sector, governments, national and international organizations – joined their forces and created a decentralized and global multistakeholder system to govern the web.

Cooperating with each other, stakeholders create shared policies and standards to ensure global interoperability.

However, despite its decentralized architecture on the global level, some caveats could lead to increasing centralization and the authority of some organizations. For example, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees how globally unique internet identifiers are assigned (e.g., IP addresses, domain names, application port numbers, transport protocols), has been involved in quite some controversies.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, the ICANN has been under US oversight by the United States Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) until October 2016. The contract between the two organizations was meant to be a temporary measure in 2009. Still, it remained in force until 2016, potentially allowing the US state to exercise increased control over the internet. However, the 2013 NSA surveillance scandal facilitated the decentralization of the internet, eventually handing over the oversight of the ICANN to the global community.

Now, while it has been criticized in the past for its rather secretive and inefficient decision-making process, the ICANN seeks to remain impartial even in times of crisis to ensure the stability of the internet. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict serves as an excellent example here as well. Regarding that, the ICANN rejected Ukraine’s request to revoke Russian top-level domains like “.ru” and “.su,” with the organization citing its policy to maintain neutrality in support of the global internet whose governance is largely decentralized.

Other than the ICANN, many other international multistakeholder organizations are managing different aspects of the web’s governance, such as:

  • Internet Research Task Force (IRTF): Promotes research around the evolution of the internet via the creation of focused, long-term research groups.
  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): Founded in 1994 and led by Tim Berners-Lee, the W3C creates standards for the web enabling open web platforms with a focus on accessibility, internationalization, and mobile solutions.
  • Internet Society (ISOC): An organization responsible for assuring the internet’s open development, evolution, and utilization for the benefit of all citizens worldwide.
  • Internet Governance Forum (IGF): A multistakeholder forum where dialogue is held on issues of internet governance policies.
  • Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): With their technical documents influencing how the world’s population uses, designs, and manages the internet, the IETF is a group that develops and promotes a wide variety of internet standards, with a primary focus on the TCP/IP protocol suite.

In addition to the above groups, there are many other independent internet governance organizations as well as a few United Nations bodies that are primarily centered around the open discussion of important issues concerning the web and its future.

In summary, while there are still some caveats in this field, the internet’s governance remains increasingly decentralized, with no person, business, government, or other organization having the authority to control, manipulate, or shut down the global web.

At the same time, past scandals and controversies later revealed to the public that the decentralization of the internet may be the way to go. 

Censorship, Government Control, and the Rise of the Splinternet

Despite the decentralized governance of the global internet, some states – primarily the ones ruled by authoritarian regimes – have been trying to increase their control over the local internet.

Often citing reasons like protecting citizens from hate speech, harassment, or disinformation, these governments censor content, limit access to different websites or even the global internet, and utilize technology that breaches citizens’ privacy to exercise increased control over the population in both the physical and online worlds.

In the past few years, the world has witnessed numerous incidents where authoritarian decisions impacted citizens and their access to the local internet. According to AccessNow, there were 50 internet shutdowns between January and May 2021, of which 24 affected the whole country or a significant part of the nation.

The organization’s data shows that regimes have been restricting citizens’ web access in the attempt to resolve political instability, end communal violence, silence protests, rig elections, or even prepare for religious holidays or prevent students from cheating on exams.

In a few cases, governments had no ill intentions with the above actions. However, shutting down the internet in the whole nation or in some regions can lead to dire consequences. These can include significant losses to the economy, preventing the spread of crucial information, restricting communications as well as entirely disabling activities like online education and services such as digital banking.

In other nations, governments have dedicated many of their resources to “detach” their citizens from the more decentralized global web, creating a more or less isolated “sovereign” network where they can enforce their own rules and control over their citizens’ internet activities.

An increased number of jurisdictions developing their own versions of the internet will eventually lead to the creation of the splinternet. This is the idea that the global web is connected by utilizing a collection of fragmented networks operated and controlled by either governments or corporations.

According to the Freedom House’s Internet Freedom Score ranking, 21 countries classified the web as “not free” in comparison with 18 that deemed it as free. As for the organization, it considered the state of the net in most jurisdictions to be “partly free.”

In countries where the local internet is viewed as a sovereign, government-controlled network, it’s common to see massive amounts of censorship. Often conducted by dedicated state agencies, these measures seek to limit the ability of citizens to access independent news sources as well as social media platforms and other (mostly international) websites that fall out of the reach of the ruling regime.

Let’s revisit the case of North Korea here. As part of more extreme measures in this field, the government disconnected most individuals and organizations within the nation from the decentralized global internet. While the latter is only accessible for a small group of foreigners and government personnel with special authorization from the state, those without one have to utilize a domestic-only intranet called Kwangmyong.

Except for extreme cases like North Korea’s, citizens utilizing restricted variants of the more decentralized global internet can alternatively leverage a virtual private network (VPN) service, anonymous proxies, and other privacy-focused solutions to circumvent local state censorship. Although, if such actions are deemed illegal in the jurisdiction, citizens could face severe punishment if caught by authorities.

Considering all this, while there are multiple local trends to restrict access to specific websites, content, and web services, the global internet, which is growing to become more decentralized, remains intact without getting severely affected by sovereign movements. On the other hand, internet censorship exists in some form in many countries.

And even in jurisdictions where the state does not actively seek to control the web, local laws and regulations require providers to censor some forms of illicit or copyrighted content.

At the same time, online service providers like social media platforms have been practicing self-censorship. They remove or restrict access to content that is illegal, violates their rules, or goes against their policies.

Cloud Services and the Domination of Tech Companies

Regarding social media platforms, it’s important to discuss the increased authority of tech giants, such as Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft over the web.

While they don’t have greater control over the physical decentralized internet backbone, tech giants have full authority over their own ecosystems, which they leverage to set and enforce their own rules.

The solutions of these companies play such a crucial role on the web that most people and organizations can’t bypass most or all of them without significantly sacrificing user experience, stability, or hurting profitability.

For example, the Apple-owned iOS and Google-sponsored Android are the two smartphone operating systems dominating the market. As a result, it’s super hard and inconvenient to circumvent the two companies and the policies they enforce within their ecosystems. At the same time, the two firms exploit their increased authority to censor content, charge hefty commissions for app developers, and introduce geographical blocks for users.

As we spend nearly two and half hours a day on social media, the centralized management of these platforms has led to numerous critical issues. In addition to censorship and controversial company policies, there were multiple security incidents and privacy scandals related to tech firms and their social networks (e.g., Facebook’s infamous Cambridge Analytica case and the 2012 LinkedIn hack).

On the physical infrastructure level, the services of cloud providers like Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure have become increasingly popular among businesses and individuals alike.

And for a valid reason. Cloud computing offers on-demand availability of computer system resources, such as data storage and computing power, without customers’ direct active management. Compared to running your own servers to host your website, application, or any other piece of software, the cloud presents a highly convenient and cost-efficient alternative.

As a result, 94% of enterprises used the cloud in 2019. With such high penetration of this technology, it’s also important to take a look at its caveats.

In exchange for convenience, cloud services increase the centralization of the internet and on the flip side make the internet less decentralized. Only a handful of tech giants are responsible for serving most of the world’s businesses with an online presence. This opens the door for censorship (example) and increases the risk of a single point of failure.

In terms of the latter, a simple misconfiguration during a routine maintenance process in 2021 led to Meta’s data centers getting disconnected from the decentralized global internet. As a result, in addition to the company’s social media platforms, applications and web services utilizing Meta’s services experienced major disruptions.

To sum it up, in terms of web services, the internet infrastructure is rather centralized than decentralized due to the domination of tech giants and the penetration of cloud solutions.

Promoting a Resilient and Decentralized Internet Infrastructure

Throughout its history, the internet has gone through massive development.

Compared to the slow and unstable dial-ups, optical fiber- and 5G-powered broadband connections offer customers a reliable and high-speed service. Furthermore, the initially centralized, government-sponsored web infrastructure was later privatized and managed via an international multistakeholder system.

However, while ISPs have access to numerous technologies and the internet backbone has remained resilient globally, there are still areas underserved by providers, especially in developing nations.

At the same time, natural disasters and human actions have caused numerous outages on the local level that effectively limited access to the web for the population.

The same goes for the internet’s decentralization. While the web’s governance is more or less decentralized globally, governments feature increased control on the national level. This presents a great issue for citizens living under authoritarian regimes that leverage this authority to limit or completely prevent their access to trustworthy sources, international services, as well as websites and applications falling out of the reach of the state.

At the same time, the crucial role of tech giants’ services has led to the increased centralization of the entire Web 2.0 ecosystem. Through their control over social media platforms, cloud computing solutions, and digital marketplaces, large technology companies have the authority to censor content, enforce controversial policies, and limit users’ privacy.

Overall, while the internet infrastructure managed to maintain a decent level of decentralization and resilience over time, these qualities have to be promoted and strengthened.

For example, tech giants’ rule can be challenged via the widespread usage of Web3 technology, which aims to decentralize the World Wide Web via blockchain technology. Moreover, the increased importance of privacy and a change in consumer sentiment towards decentralization could accelerate this process.

Furthermore, innovation and continued development in regards to the physical internet infrastructure could reduce the digital divide and make the web more accessible and affordable for populations that remain disconnected.

Simultaneously, innovative solutions like SpaceX’s Starlink project, as well as a more diverse range of web solutions, can also enhance the resilience and decentralization of the internet even in times of crisis.

In the end, a more decentralized, open, and resilient internet will make crypto stronger and allow more people to harness the benefits of permissionless money as an alternative payments system, a store of value, or an asset that enhances human rights.

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