Tamas Kocsis

Tamas Kocsis: The case for a decentralized internet

Who controls the internet? Increasingly, the answer is large corporations and governments -- a trend that's threatening digital privacy and access to information online, says web developer Tamas Kocsis. In this informative talk, Kocsis breaks down the different threats to internet freedom and shares his plan to build an alternative, decentralized network that returns power to everyday users.

Three years ago, I started building a decentralized web because I was worried about the future of our internet.

The current internet we are using is about gatekeepers. If you want to reach something on the web, then you need to go through multiple middlemen. First, a domain name server, then a server hosting company, which usually points you to a third party, to a web hosting service. And this happens every time you want to reach a website on the web.

But these gatekeepers are vulnerable to internet attacks

and also makes the censorship and the surveillance easier. And the situation is getting worse. Everything is moving to the cloud, where the data is hosted by giant corporations. This move creates much, much more powerful middlemen. Now, move to the cloud makes sense because this way it's easier and cheaper for the developers and the service operators. They don't have to worry about maintaining the physical servers. I can't blame them, but I found this trend to be very dangerous, because this way, these giant corporations have unlimited control over the hosting services.

And it's very easy to abuse this power. For example, last year, a CEO of a company that acts as a gatekeeper for nine million websites decided, after some public pressure, that one of the sites it manages, a far right page, should be blocked. He then sent an internal email to his coworkers. "This was an arbitrary decision. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet." Even he admits, "No one should have this power." As a response, one of the employees asked him, "Is this the day the Internet dies?"

I don't think we are actually killing the internet, but I do think that we are in the middle of a kind of irresponsible centralization process that makes our internet more fragile. The decentralized, people-to-people web solves this problem by removing the central points, the web-hosting services. It empowers the users to have host sites they want to preserve. On this network, the sites get downloaded directly from other visitors. This means, if you have a site with 100 visitors, then it's hosted [by] 100 computers around the world. Basically, this is a people-powered version of the internet. The security of the network is provided by public-key cryptography. This makes sure that no one can modify the sites but only the real owner. Think of it like instead of getting electricity from big power plants, you put solar panels on top of your house, and if your neighbor down the street needs some extra energy, then they can just download some from your house. So by using the decentralized web, we can help to keep content accessible for other visitors. And by that, it means that we can also fight against things that we feel are unjust, like censorship.

In China, the internet is tightly controlled. They can't criticize the government, organize a protest, and it's also forbidden to post a kind of emoticon to remember the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. With the decentralized web, it's not the government that decides what gets seen and what doesn't. It's the people, which makes the web more democratic. But at the same time, it's hard to use this network to do something that is clearly illegal everywhere in the world, as the users probably don't want to endanger themselves hosting these kinds of problematic content.

Another increasing threat to internet freedom is overregulation. I have the impression that our delegates who vote on the internet regulation laws are not fully aware of their decisions. For example, the European Parliament has a new law on the table, a new copyright protection law, that has a part called Article 13. If it passes, it would require every big website to implement a filter that automatically blocks content based on rules controlled by big corporations. The original idea is to protect copyrighted materials, but it would endanger many other things we do on the internet: blogging, criticizing, discussing, linking and sharing. Google and YouTube already have similar systems and they are receiving 100,000 takedown requests every hour. Of course, they can't process this amount of data by hand, so they are using machine learning to decide if it's really a copyright violation or not. But these filters do make mistakes. They're removing everything from documentation of human rights abuses, lectures about copyrights and search results that point to criticism of this new Article 13. Beside of that, they are also removing many other things.

And sometimes, these filters aren't just removing the specific content, but it could also lead to loss of your linked accounts: your email address, your documents, your photos, or your unfinished book, which happened with the writer Dennis Cooper.

It's not hard to see how a system like this could be abused by politicians and corporate competitors. This Article 13, the extension of these automated filters to the whole internet, got strong opposition from Wikipedia, Github, Mozilla, and many others, including the original founders of the internet and the World Wide Web, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee. But despite this strong opposition, on the last European Parliament vote, two thirds of the representatives supported this law. The final vote will be early 2019. The result is important, but whatever happens, I'm pretty sure it will be followed by many other similar proposals around the world.

These kinds of regulations would be very hard to enforce through a decentralized web, as there is no hosting companies. The websites are served by the visitors themselves.

I started to build this network three years ago. Since then, I've spent thousands, tens of thousands of hours on the development. Why? Why would anyone spend thousands of hours on something anyone can freely copy, rename, or even sell? Well, in my case, one of the reasons was to do something meaningful. During my daily regular job as a web developer, I didn't have the feeling that I'm working on something that had a chance to be a bigger than me. Simply, I just wanted to make my short presence in this world to be meaningful.

Last year, the Great Firewall of China started blocking this network I created. This move officially made me the enemy of the government-supported internet censorship. Since then, it's been really a game of cat and mouse. They make new rules in the firewall and I try to react to it as fast as I can so the users can keep hosting content and create websites that otherwise would be censored by the centralized Chinese internet.

My other motivation to create this network was worry. I fear that the future of our internet is out of our control. The increasing centralization and the proposed laws are threatening our freedom of speech and, by that, our democracy. So for me, building a decentralized web means creating a safe harbor, a space where the rules are not written by big corporations and political parties, but by the people.

Thank you.