The majority of our web-based lives are centralized. We talk to websites owned by one company to use apps and services solving our daily needs. This is all well and good until the company goes under or is offline due to an attack. Decentralization is the answer to this problem in a way that allows for a robust network that is free from corporate or government shutdown and lack of access to the main host.
Peer-to-peer is as it sounds. You connect to another user directly. There is no need for a central server to host, upload, download, or serve files. When there is no central server doing all the work, there is no one point of failure. This also eliminates the issue of central servers shutting you down because they don't like what you say or share. This is a huge step in keeping the internet steeped in free speech.
In a peer-to-peer system, a computer will divide a portion of the resources it has and gives them to the network. This can include hard drive space, bandwidth, or processing power. These allocated resources are still the computer but, as with hard drive space, the predetermined amount is used to store information that can be called by other computers on the network. Doing this allows for more space, speed, or processing power to be used than a single computer on the system could hold alone.
Due to this structure, each peer both supplies data and consumes data. With the most common model, we use online today the server does all the supplying while the users on the web do all the consuming. This made the most sense in the early 2000s when the internet was growing, and our personal computers were a fraction of what we have today.
However, now that is not a big issue. Our computers are much more powerful than they were and our internet connections are much faster.
The decentralized model has freedom baked in, such that it is much harder to ban a user and some decentralized networks it's even impossible. Having this freedom prevents shadow banning and censorship. Without a central authority holding all the content of the system or app, free speech is the most open. We don't have to agree with everything everyone says, but everyone should feel safe voicing their opinions. If we don't have this protection, we can never learn anything new, whether it positively advances our understanding or shows us how not to act.
Robustness & Napster
If there was one application that brought peer-to-peer networking out of the woodwork, it was Napster. Napster was a program that allowed people to connect to share music files. Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker founded Napster as a standalone file-sharing platform.
Napster only operated in this manner for about two years ending in July of 2001. The reason Napster shut down, as far as I can tell, is because they had a company that could be strong-armed and they were attacked for copyright infringement to the tune of $36 million.
Any part of a decentralized service that is centralized puts the entire ecosystem at risk. When this happens can we really call the service decentralized? I would say no but luckily most peer-to-peer applications and services made today focus on keeping everything decentralized.
This is the lesson learned from Napster, and as other services fail, we continue to learn more. These failures help us make peer-to-peer systems like BitTorrent.
The reason BitTorrent has not been shut down is that there is no central point such as in a company or a single server. The people that want to wipe BitTorrent off the planet, as they did with Napster, now have to go after every single user.
That is magnitudes more difficult.
We talked about mesh networking in a post in more depth so check that out for more information. Mesh networks are a peer-to-peer way of connecting to other computers and servers. It is a more decentralized form of the internet in that there are no internet service providers.
We still need the ISPs to reach sites on the current web since there is not a worldwide mesh network, but that does not make it impossible. Every town and city could set up their own mesh network and tie into the next city to spread the reach. This kind of system makes it pretty much impossible for any entity to kick a person off the network.
File.Pizza is a quick and easy way to share a file with another person online. After loading up the website, you can tell it what data you want to send, and the site prepares a special unique link. This link allows the person to connect to you without a middleman like Dropbox or Google Drive.
There is never any uploading to file.pizza only to the computer with the link you sent. If you are using Firefox, there seems to be no limit to how big the file can be and the speed at which the other person gets the file is determined by your upload speed and their download speed.
YaCy is a peer-to-peer search engine. Sites like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Duck Duck Go are all centralized search engines. When using a typical website to search the web, you are connecting to their servers and getting information. This means they can track you and chose not to show you something as they see fit.
With YaCy censorship cannot happen. When you search with YaCy, you are connected directly to other users to retrieve the results. It is good too! I was experimenting with it before making this post, and I was impressed by what this system could find. I am talking more than just websites.
Dat & The Beaker Browser
We also covered Dat and the Beaker browser in another post so check that out for more information. What these two do is work together to bring a more decentralized internet to our current model. Dat is the protocol that allows for peer-to-peer connections of any website created using Dat.
The Beaker browser is to access these sites that use the Dat protocol. You don't have to know a website has a peer-to-peer version before you visit. When using the Beaker browser to surf the web if a site has a peer-to-peer version Beaker will let you know. Switching to the decentralized version is as easy as clicking a button.
If you are an email kind of nerd you can sign up for mine here. You can always replay to any of my emails to start a conversation or ask me a question.