Internet: centralized vs decentralized

World Wide Web (the Web) as we know was introduced to public on 6 August 1991 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It was brand new approach to information sharing on already functioning inter-connected network which today we call the Internet. Unfortunately still, some people confuse these concepts and use them interchangeably. And yet NO. Internet is not Web and Web is not the Internet. Internet is a global computer network, and Web is an information system operating on it (which we could access using web browser).

Web server is the basic building block of Web and is used to serve files (aka server) to clients. Because of that, all our activity is very centralized and it’s no one’s fault. In the past, Internet wasn’t popular at all and only few people had the access and could use it. However businesses saw potential in it. They wanted to popularize it and use it to its advantage. Internet managed to evolve thanks to the Web and created there centralized platforms. As a result, today almost everyone could access it and able to use it without an effort.

Definition

First let’s clear something up, Internet is not centralized, neither decentralized (it’s just a huge network consisting a lot of devices). The way we use it determines if it’s one or another.

1) Per instance, let’s say one user is connected to a network, has an IP address assigned, and has an email server running. The second user can also be connected to the network, have an assigned IP address and also run his / her e-mail server. In this situation, both users can use the Internet in a decentralized way, send e-mails directly (to an IP address) and receive them (to an IP address).

2) On the other hand, users connected to the network can use services and other platforms for that purpose. For example, they can create accounts on an external mail server (such as Gmail) and communicate through it (centralization that I mentioned earlier). In this way, the platform mediates in all our activities (it becomes a place where we send / receive e-mails).

So if we do not use a private e-mail server (on own computer), we can certainly say that all our emails are stored on the mail server of the intermediary company along with the e-mails of other users. But e-mails are just the tip of the iceberg. Our data is in the same situation on numerous websites, social platforms or services where we have personal accounts and all this complicates things.

Centralized Internet Centralized platforms

Although, let’s start from the positive side. What are the advantages of centralized platforms?

Pros:
  1. Easy to monetize:
    Due to centralization, everything is easier from the financial side. You can create a subscription, charge for additional features, display advertisements, sell something or make money in some other way. It is possible if you have a good business plan.
  2. Easy to navigate:
    If we need to find a specific resource, then there won’t be a problem with it. Regardless of whether it is an e-mail address or a bank account, each has its own identifier (or address).
Cons:
  1. Third party dependence:
    Of course, certain things are done by intermediary platforms (e.g., such as managing and maintaining mail servers) for the convenience of users and can be seen as something positive. However, there is also the other side of this coin, which carries a lot of negative things. For example, our personal data stored by platforms may be used (e.g. to make money) or may be disclosed due to a security breach. Also, the platforms decide about the rules (so-called “Terms of Service”) and may refuse to provide the service.
  2. Security problems:
    As I have already mentioned, all data is stored in third party database and potentially can be disclosed.
  3. Load issues:
    One-point access can also be problematic (load balancing and new technologies can mitigate this).
Decentralized Internet Decentralized platforms
Pros:
  1. User-oriented:
    There is no need for the intermediary. We can run an e-mail server or in case of decentralized platforms, such as Mastodon, run an instance (server) that will be part of the instance network (receiving social network functionality without a parent company) and manage it.
  2. Distributed and more secure data:
    Which you’ll manage and be responsible for.
  3. No load issues:
    Due to the decentralized nature, such platforms rarely have load problems.
Cons:
  1. Not clear how to monetize:
    Mostly decentralized platforms are maintained by users (from their own pocket or from small donations). There is no sales team or head of business development.
  2. Navigation challenges:
    Every part of decentralized network is managed independently which can make it hard to navigate.
Conclusion

So how can we sum it up? We know that the Internet was shaped by centralized platforms. The idea of decentralization has been forgotten for a long time. Just recently we’ve looked at it with fresh eyes and realized of its advantages (perhaps due to privacy concerns or a lack of the alternatives). A good example of such decentralized platforms are Mastodon or Peertube. Let’s hope this is just the beginning.

Picture 1.  Computer technology | Photo Credit: Pixabay / Free-Photos

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Paul Cable
I am a software engineer, amateur astrophysicist and futurist. I like tech and science. My free time I spend taking photos and making videos.

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