The Internet’s innate resilience to centralized information monopolies became evident in the mid-to-late 2000s as the failure of the merged conglomerate TimeWarner and AOL proved. Primarily due to the data-agnostic design of the Internet’s core protocols, its radicalism established that it was not so easily prone to walled gardens and centralization as traditional information mediums.
However, the scale of dominance by content distribution and search platforms and their long-term effects on contemporary culture, social organization, and content freedom have come into question. Additionally, major social media platforms collect mass amounts of personal data on their users, leading to consistent data privacy concerns and CEO’s testifying before Congress.
Recent revelations into Facebook’s planned foray into a payment network only exacerbate concerns over the range of data they will have on users. And the looming issue of censorship from tech giants is gaining momentum.
Coinciding with a Congressional hearing on tech censorship featuring Facebook, Google, and Twitter last month, the conversation of more distributed content distribution has become amplified. Will decentralized content distribution become the future of the web in response to a growing clamor for better privacy and content freedom?
Many projects are working towards that goal, and the history of technology tells us that hotbeds of innovation usually precede a competitive environment born from decentralization.
Centralized Walled Gardens Built to Capture Value and its Adverse Consequences
YouTube and Netflix are largely what they have become today because of the polarizing innovation that BitTorrent produced with P2P file sharing. Eventually, YouTube and Netflix utilized the resulting methods for content streaming that allowed them to capture vast amounts of users and generate massive fortunes in ad revenue.
They are enormously successful with many cultural trends, particularly among younger generations, fueled by their existence. But decentralized content distribution may come to disrupt both of their business models eventually.
While the maxim of ‘decentralization everything’ that is sometimes preached in cryptocurrency corners is often at odds with reality, decentralization can provide some exceptionally positive externalities when applied in the right context. For example, narrowing streams of information through a few platforms (i.e., YouTube, Google, and Netflix) limits creativity.
YouTube can, and has, censored content that is disagreeable with their advertisers, and Netflix curates all content that is presented to its audience. Even Google, once a leading proponent of an open Internet, is covertly working on a censored search engine for the Chinese government — codenamed Project Dragonfly.
Confining content in such ways may not seem highly impactful in the short-term, but in the long-run, it can stifle innovation and creativity. Take the example of the rise of independent film making. Even though major studio films like Avengers still dominate box office sales, independent films that come out of film festivals such as Sundance can become financial success stories, and are increasingly prevalent in Academy Awards.
That was previously not the case, where studio conglomerates owned the distributors and theatres and had the final say on what was produced and released — with minimal penetration by independent films. It took the U.S. government’s breakup of the Hollywood studio monopoly in the 1940s before independent films could experiment with new, and controversial, types of content that weren’t restricted to a code of moral rules set by the Hollywood monopoly.
Today, it is only natural that users will converge on major platforms for sharing social media, music, and video content, but decentralization matters once the ‘Master Switch’ reveals that it is a looming possibility for that type of information medium — once critical streams of information become concentrated in the hands of a few.
The primary advantages of BitTorrent were that it was censorship-resistant, the precise type of goal that Bitcoin achieves with value. When it comes to content today, the various forms of content (i.e., news, search, videos, etc.) are limited to a group of major providers, and they are becoming more prone to censorship than before. More profoundly, they often share similar ideologies, those that are predisposed towards increasingly closed systems.
Where the cost of the model that BitTorrent disrupted was clear (i.e., paying for file sharing), the price for content distribution today is hidden in subtle privacy intrusions and a growing proclivity for censorship. Compound that with the repeal of net neutrality and it is clear that the Internet is trending away from its original open vision towards a more closed system.
It only seems fitting that the desire for more decentralized content distribution will gather steam in the coming years following the increasing sentiment towards privacy and more unrestricted creativity.
Platforms and Initiatives Innovating at The Edge
Many products of innovation are discovered by accident, so the resulting distribution of content dispersion on the Internet will likely be a confluence of developments. However, some early signs are indicative of a shaping environment for more decentralized content distribution.
For example, IPFS is still a young project aimed at replacing HTTP of the web but offers a much more censorship-resistant medium for content creation and storage. The protocol decouples content from origin servers, making the content more resilient to access, widely available, and much cheaper to disseminate.
Read: What is IPFS?
Directly citing the limitations of the Internet’s centralization, IPFS details:
“The Internet has been one of the great equalizers in human history and a real accelerator of innovation. But the increasing consolidation of control is a threat to that. IPFS remains true to the original vision of the open and flat web, but delivers the technology which makes that vision a reality.”
IPFS can distribute web pages and web apps akin to how Bitcoin’s nodes are decentralized, making content more resistant to censorship via offline access and removing central points of failure.
Similarly, projects like ENS Domains, Ethereum-based domain names, can provide much-needed protection against web censorship for polarizing web pages and content on the Internet. Since the domains are controlled directly by users in a crypto wallet, they are not in the hands of major domain registrars like GoDaddy who is an intermediary party subject to outside influence — whether that be government, organizational, or public media mob interference.
Distributed content distribution is also congruent with cryptocurrencies, which can complement such systems with paywalls outside the influence of monetary censorship — even enabling new content monetization models, such as with micropayments.
All you need to view the potential for improved monetization initiatives is the desire of highly polarizing (and successful) individuals to seek it out. For example, PewDiePie recently switched over his live streaming from YouTube to blockchain-based content platform DLive. Citing better support for creators concerning revenue share, PewDiePie’s switch mirrors sentiments by those content creators who are affected by censorship or may simply be attracted to P2P content platforms for better revenue.
Similarly, LBRY is an open-source and community-driven product focusing on censorship-resistance of content. Based on a flexible pay-per-stream model, LBRY is based on a blockchain and integrated with a native cryptocurrency payment mechanism where content creators receive revenue without intermediaries directly from viewers. They are not subject to arbitrary censorship stemming from advertiser partialities, a critical advantage over centralized content platforms like YouTube.
Eventually, monetization models based on micropayments may usurp the advertising model that has dominated over the last decade.
How the future distribution of content will play out is uncertain, but the history of information monopolies tells us that innovation in the fields of cryptography, blockchains, and new hypermedia protocols should provide the foundation for a new web infrastructure — one where content becomes reminiscent of BitTorrent and what Bitcoin is currently doing.
Major social media and content platforms still dominate today, but the Internet’s radical data-agnostic model may once again fuel a hotbed of decentralized competition deriving from the emerging preference for better digital privacy. All it takes is a spark of user apprehension on the current direction of the Internet coupled with the type of platforms that can help attract mainstream users.
Natural processes often trend towards decentralization, so perhaps the unique structure of the Internet’s core protocols will allow it to consistently evolve past the obstacles that have historically consigned different mediums of information to extended periods of centralization.