In the HBO show Silicon Valley, protagonist Richard Hendricks and his company, Pied Piper, are trying to change the world with a revolutionary new version of the internet that takes the power out of big companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, and the show’s fictional Hooli, and replace it with a peer-to-peer network where the internet runs off of everyone’s smartphones instead of dedicated servers.
"If we could do it, we could build a completely decentralized version of our current internet, with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying. Information would be totally free in every sense of the word." – Richard Hendricks
But what if Silicon Valley wasn’t just a TV show? What if we really could build a decentralized Internet?
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE INTERNET WE HAVE TODAY?
The internet you know today can be traced back to the 1960s when the US Department of Defence funded the development of ARPANET, a network that allowed multiple computers to communicate with each other. The next big step came in 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, the protocol that introduced the concept of websites and hyperlinks. Today, everything you see online, from websites to social media updates to streaming services uses that protocol. Every online resource has an address; Berners-Lee’s protocol allows you to open a web page, type in that address, and your browser will connect to the nearest server, find out where that address points to, and return its information to you.
We’ve used this system for nearly 30 years, so what’s wrong with it? The problem is that most addresses today are static: they always point to the same servers. And most of those servers are owned by a small number of mega corporations, who essentially control the internet. Companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google operate huge, physical web hosting and cloud computing servers that are responsible for keeping websites, email servers, and social media feeds all online. So what happens when one of those servers goes offl ine?
Amazon isn’t just the world’s largest retailer, it also operates Amazon Web Services, a cloud computing service so large and important that when just one small part of its service briefly went offline in February 2017, it caused major disruption to the internet causing unprecedented and widespread problems for thousands of websites and apps. The centralized internet we have today relies too heavily on these massive server farms. If just one of them fails, the internet fails.
But keeping the internet online is just one issue to consider.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS THE CLOUD, IT’S JUST SOMEONE ELSE’S COMPUTER
Any data you upload to the internet, whether it’s a photo to your Facebook page, a document to Google Docs, or a blog post to your own personal website, is stored on a physical server somewhere in the world. While the internet has billions of GB worth of data on it, there are only about 80 million internet servers worldwide, and more than half of them are located in the US. The majority of the data you upload can be easily accessed, but even if it is encrypted, it is still vulnerable to being hacked. While most major internet server hosts have security protocols in place to combat hacking, they are not infallible. In 2013, Yahoo suffered one of the largest data breaches in history. According to Yahoo, over one billion user accounts were affected, with hackers able to access account names, personal information, and even security questions and answers.
The hackers targeted specific vulnerabilities in Yahoo’s servers. If data was no longer stored in one place, but instead broken up and spread across a large network, a single hack would have a much lesser impact.
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