The Decentralized Web Is Coming

Google handles 88 percent of search traffic in the United States. Facebook has more than 2.4 billion active monthly users worldwide. Half of all U.S. online retail is projected to go through Amazon by 2021.

Both Democrats and Republicans have called for breaking up the tech giants, holding them legally liable for what others say on their platforms, and imposing new regulations that would stop them from misusing their customers’ personal information. But there’s also a growing movement, which includes some of the web’s early pioneers, to come up with technological ways to counter Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google.

The goal is to build a better, more decentralized web. “There are so many different possible ways of decentralizing the internet, and what’s lacking is the legal right to interoperate and the legal support to stop dirty tricks from preventing you from exercising that legal right,” says Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and tech journalist who’s been thinking and writing about the web since Tim Berners-Lee introduced it to the public in the early 1990s. Berners-Lee and other web pioneers intended for their creation to be decentralized and open-source. “The cyber-utopian view was not merely that seizing the means of information would make you free, but that failing to do so would put you in perpetual chains,” says Doctorow.

There are many theories about why the web became centralized. Doctorow largely blames the abuse of intellectual property law to defeat the decentralized “free software” movement championed by the programmer and activist Richard Stallman. Stallman helped create the popular open-source operating system Linux after freely modifying Unix, Bell Labs’ proprietary system. But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, became an impediment to the open and permissionless approach to software development. The law was intended to prevent duplication of copryrighted works and was eventually applied to all software. Breaking “digital locks” to learn from, interact with, and improve upon the code of dominant web platforms became a federal crime. It’s standard practice for today’s tech companies to shield their proprietary code from would-be competitors by wielding the power of an increasingly expansive intellectual property regime. “And so this thicket of exclusive rights around products that can be invoked to prevent new entrants for making add-ons, compatible products, or even competing products is a really important change in the landscape,” says Doctorow. “One that has made it very hard for new entrants to emerge and I think is in large part responsible for the concentration in the industry.” Despite these legal and political challenges, innovators are attempting to create new decentralized ecosystems of web services.