By Kristin Smith
November 3, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Last month, more than 3.5 billion people lost access to one of the world’s most powerful and ubiquitous data storage, communication, and information sharing platforms — all because a single server system at Facebook went dark. While this was just a temporary inconvenience, the debacle highlights the dangers in trusting large, centralized entities to house our online data and digital lives. Instead of relying on such centralized depositories, we should embrace the democratizing power of decentralized computing and put power back in the hands of individual citizens.
The main and most important difference between traditional, centralized tech platforms and newer, more nimble decentralized networks lies in the locus of control. At Facebook, for instance, all of the data uploaded and transferred on the platform must pass through one of the company’s data centers, a single source of potential failure when something goes wrong or a hacker enters the system. For a decentralized network, such as the global storage network Filecoin, control is spread across a network of hundreds or thousands of participants, each of whom contributes storage capacity to the system. Many users, many points of access — and less danger of a single point of catastrophic failure. If one of those participants is compromised, other participants can react to fill in the gaps left by the compromised node.
These networks also bolster our digital security. Recent breaches of large, centralized entities like Equifax or Marriott’s guest database highlight the growing scale and sophistication of cyberattacks in our increasingly interconnected world, exposing the private information of millions of people. With decentralized protocols, hackers would have to find and breach an entire network of secure servers — a prohibitively complex task.
But decentralized networks are about more than keeping your data safe. They’re also about keeping your data where it belongs: in your own hands.
According to a recent Associated Press poll, 9 out of 10 Americans are concerned about their digital privacy — a startling but not surprising percentage. These days, practically everything about our lives is stored or tracked online. This includes important information like health records, Social Security information and vital financial records. Or it could be seemingly trivial information like the movies we watch and the music we listen to. As the line between the “real” and digital worlds continues to blur, truly secure networks should be the basic standard we should demand. Not only should users expect pristine secure networks, but they should also be given options that do not feed the monopolistic practices of the world’s biggest tech firms.
More than 4.8 billion people worldwide — nearly two-thirds of the global population — use the internet, but only a handful of companies store all the world’s data. The vast majority of data that populates the websites we use every day is stored by just four companies: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Facebook (now known as Meta) and Google Cloud. It is estimated that these four companies combined hold at least 1,200 petabytes of data, a staggering amount that would dazzle the mind of an individual user when you consider that one petabyte is equal to 1 million gigabytes.
The overwhelming magnitude of these companies’ influence poses serious privacy, security and accountability concerns. But consumers who want to use the internet haven’t had much choice but to go along with these globe-straddling giants.
With decentralization, that’s changing. With a user-based, peer-to-peer network, people can opt out of storing their information in big tech data farms. In this burgeoning ecosystem, users can possess full knowledge and control of where their data is and how it’s being used. And because it’s open source, a decentralized internet would enable users to report problems, make fixes and create new tools that make the internet better for everyone.
There are two visions of the future of our online lives: rely increasingly on the power of a handful of over-powerful, centralized companies or begin to set the rules of our digital selves by embracing the promise of decentralized networks. It’s a choice we haven’t had before, and one that more and more internet denizens are choosing for themselves.
Kristin Smith is the executive director of the Blockchain Association, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the most prominent and reputable organizations in the crypto industry.
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