If you like cryptocurrencies or blockchain, chances are you don’t have to detail the benefits of decentralization. You are a first-generation user of a technology that will increasingly define the future of the Internet, and you have a front-row seat to the world premiere of Web3.
The use and control of the Internet was always as centralized as we see it now. In the early days, under the direction of the United States Department of Defense, the network did not need to rely on a central computer. What if a terrorist attack or missile attack brought down the main node? The individual parts of the network had to communicate without relying on a single computer to reduce vulnerability.
Later, the unincorporated Internet Engineering Task Force, which facilitated the development of all Internet protocols, worked tirelessly to prevent private companies or particular countries from controlling the network.
Today, centralized application nodes are controlled and operated by the richest organizations on the planet, collecting and storing billions of people’s data. Private companies control the user experience in apps and can incentivize and manipulate behavior. From a reliability standpoint, billions lose their primary means of communication when centralized nodes go down, such as in recent incidents with Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger in October 2021.
We have also seen how little the tech giants think about our privacy when dollar signs appear in their eyes: they harvest and sell our data on an industrial scale. After more than 10 years of using people as advertisers’ products, Mark Zuckerberg has brazenly appropriated the metaverse. Google and Apple, meanwhile, continue their relentless mission to enter every corner of our lives.
Related: The data economy is a dystopian nightmare
We also know what happens when authoritarian governments knock on the doors of these centralized data megastores, powered by our devices that function as a surveillance army. We have seen in Ukraine the terrible large-scale violence that can be excused or hidden when the media and military power come under authoritarian control. In some countries, the state has unprecedented access to all aspects of citizen behavior, monitoring everything from Internet search history to minor social infractions. Systems that would horrify even George Orwell are only made possible by centralization.
Even in Silicon Valley, ensconced within Western notions of freedom and individual rights, tech empires rarely take a principled stand on a large and lucrative market. When centralized powers like Moscow, Beijing or Istanbul ask for censorship and control, they usually get it. Fundamentally, we can’t trust the tech giants with the most intimate details of our lives; the centralization of control over the Internet is undermining or preventing democracy everywhere.
Taking back our power
It should come as no surprise that the tech giants have become the natural enemies of decentralization: centralization is a natural instinct for those in control. Until the advent of the internet and blockchain, centralization often meant convenience and simplicity. In the Middle Ages, a distributed system of vassal lords meant that the monarchy lacked control and money seeped through the cracks of corruption.
Given that time and distance are no longer an issue in the Internet age, Big Tech’s push toward centralization is less surprising. Can we wonder at the dire results of algorithms that draw attention, such as attempted genocide or political manipulation based on psychometric analysis of user data? Centralization has consequences.
Distributed ledger technology provides a practical alternative. Social networking, messaging, streaming, searching, and data sharing on the blockchain can be made fairer, more transparent and accessible, and less centralized. On the contrary, this does not mean that the data has to be less private.
In the case of XX Messenger, which my team and I launched in January, XX Network nodes process anonymous messages around the world, shredding recipient metadata and timestamps. With XX, there is privacy and decentralization. Subsequently, this new paradigm of communication and information exchange makes possible an important extension and reinvention of democracy.
Related: Blockchain-Based Decentralized Messengers: A Privacy Chimera?
There are moments in history when two separate events combine to tell a greater truth. In 2008, when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed after the Great Recession, it seemed to be the death knell for centralized financial institutions, despite the economic pain it would herald. Then, just over a month later, Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin (BTC) white paper, the revolutionary blueprint for modern peer-to-peer currency. There is an important connection between these two momentous events, however, the words “Bitcoin”, “blockchain” and “cryptocurrency” attract the attention of those who misunderstand the problems of centralization.
The fall of 2008 presented an opportunity to start telling a story: It’s up to us cryptographers, privacy lovers, merchants, developers, activists, and converts to carry the torch for decentralization and democracy. If ever there was a story worth telling, from start to finish, this is it.
Join me in telling it.
This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should do their own research when making a decision.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
david chaum is an early blockchain researcher and a world-renowned cryptographer and privacy advocate. Known as “The Godfather of Privacy,” Chaum first proposed a solution for protecting metadata with mixed cascading networks in 1979. In 1982, his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley became the first known proposal for a blockchain protocol. Chaum developed eCash, the first digital currency, and made numerous contributions to secure voting systems in the 1990s. Today, Chaum is the founder of Elixxir, Praxxis, and XX Network, combining his decades of research and contributions in crypto and privacy to offer state-of-the-art blockchain solutions.