We live in an Internet-centric world. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants are fundamental, inescapable parts of both our online and offline lives. Despite their ubiquity, a growing segment of the internet-using populace believes these companies have user data locked-up in platforms that are only designed to make their stockholders money, that destroy any notions of privacy, and that kills competition.
Some believe the path to regaining control of personal data, leveling the playing field, and creating a more benevolent internet begins with the privacy-focused, a socially conscious world of decentralized apps, or dapps (pronounced ‘dee-apps’).
Google and Facebook generate most of their revenue through ads. They can target individual users with ads by analyzing data collected through the use of their services. Engaging with a traditional cloud-based app like Google Docs means giving Google access to every word you type – and trusting that they will keep it safe and not use it improperly. Google has a sterling reputation for data security, but Facebook’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has raised important questions. Is data truly private? How can users keep their data safe?
Dapps function similarly to the centralized counterparts, but with heightened security measures. Most encrypt and store data on computer networks that are unable to read that data – the decryption keys are stored on personal devices, not with the service, allowing users greater control of their information. A platform like Graphite Docs works as a decentralized counterpart of Google Docs, offering the same cloud-based access, collaboration capabilities, and real-time online backup, all with increased protection. The app is built on Blockstack, a platform developed by the eponymous company that is accessible through a browser. The app does not run through a browser, instead running directly on a user’s computer via Blockstack’s software. Users have a choice to store data on their own server or on the Blockstack-driven Gaia storage network. Data is accessible anywhere with a 12-word encryption key-phrase.
Dapps offer considerable promise but are still a nascent technology. Early apps tend to be glitchy or slow. Developers are working to create dapp alternatives to existing products – there is service called OpenBazaar, which works like a decentralized eBay, a photo storage site called Storj, and Blockstack is offering $50,000 to developers to build decentralized messaging apps to compete with iMessage, Slack, WhatsApp, and other popular choices – but functionality and consistency remain works-in-progress.
Despite the inherent clunkiness of the decentralized internet, investors who helped finance the centralized internet’s giants are convinced dapps hold the key to creating competition for those companies. VC heavyweights Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz are backers of Filecoin, a decentralized competitor to centralized cloud storage services. "We’re working to build a new internet, and the end goal is everyone you know is on it every single day," says Blockstack cofounder Ryan Shea. With increasing time, money, and manpower being invested in its growth, that new internet is on its way. The future may not arrive tomorrow, but it is certainly in the process of being built.
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