Every day the Internet becomes more embedded in our daily lives, to the point now where we can hardly imagine a day without it.
To satisfy our ever growing demand for technology while making life easier, online companies provide services like email, file backups and storage because many users don’t want to do it themselves; an outsourcing of sorts. We use services like Google and Dropbox without a second thought, trusting them to protect our data for us. As we all know, the problem with outsourcing is that you lose control. The issue is that now we have lost control of the data that defines our online lives.
The web started as a free place without borders, an intention its creator Tim Berners-Lee is urging us to remember. The Internet was designed to resemble a community that could survive partial failures or attacks, which is not surprising considering early research was undertaken by the American military during the Cold War. The problem is today far too many web services are designed in the opposite fashion, scaling millions of people into one service like high-density housing would. This is a gold mine for cyber criminals and national security agencies, however a few important projects are rethinking web services in the same distributed fashion as the physical network.
One of these decentralised projects is Bitcoin, a global currency that is free from any bank or government, impossible to forge and free from taxes. Fundamentally, Bitcoin is completely distributed among its users, with cryptographic maths used to ensure that currency is not duplicated and a steady number of ‘coins’ are created in a process called mining. As you can imagine, many governments are suspicious of Bitcoin’s ability to evade tax and support organisations against government will. Due to this concern held by groups in power, the currency has been restricted in many countries, such as China. One benefit is that there are no transaction costs between users because of the lack of an authority. The collapse of a government or bank will not impact its use, and this separation from an authority makes it perfect for worldwide trade to bring the world closer together, just like the Internet did for information.
We trust our files to large companies and download large software updates which slow to a crawl, but an elegant technology could make this faster while not having a single point of failure: BitTorrent. This is not the first thought that comes to mind, but the technology behind BitTorrent itself is not illegal; in fact Twitter and Facebook use it internally to update their web-servers around the world. To date however, BitTorrent’s largest use has been for piracy, simply because of its resilient operation.
BitTorrent works by creating a miniature web server for each and every downloader. Each user sends the parts of the files they already have to other downloaders, making the process faster for everyone, whilst simultaneously navigating censorship. BitTorrent Inc even developed a protocol called uTP so that downloads could react to congestion in the network, and then open-sourced it for all to use, improving the function of the Internet. The BitTorrent technology is now making its way into more useful products that give the user independence, like Sync, a Dropbox alternative. BitTorrent shows that a technology originally used for illegal file sharing can offer advantages for all web services.
Even though massive companies control more and more of our personal data, there is hope yet for an open, decentralised web where the users have the option to reclaim their control.
Jake Coppinger, 2015
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