When it comes to freedom of information and expression, the Internet will take us to unprecedented heights. Or will it? With centralization and censorship on the rise, the dream of a free Web is arguably fading rapidly. At our latest FutureTalk in Portland, Oregon, Kyle Drake offered a possible antidote to a rigidly controlled online future. Introducing what he calls the Completely Distributed Web, Kyle gave the audience a glimpse of a potentially game-changing new version of the Internet—one permanently resistant to centralized control.
Kyle is the founder of NeoCities, a project intended to restore the lost individual creativity of the Web by enabling community-powered websites that have no central point of failure. “Everyone thought it was an anachronistic joke at first,” he said. But with more than 70,000 sites already up and running, NeoCities has proven to be no joke. Neither is Kyle’s vision of a distributed Web: “It’s not just a theory,” he said. “It’s already here.”
Distributed and indestructible
Before delving into the core technologies underpinning the distributed Web, Kyle made the case for its importance. “I strongly believe the Web we have right now is eroding,” he said. With content vanishing all the time as pages and sites expire, we’re also in danger of creating a new dark age—that is, one marred by cultural and intellectual impermanence. A distributed Web, Kyle explained, is a Library of Alexandria that can’t be burned down.
Just as concerning is the steady shift towards centralization and political intervention. What use is a Facebook revolution, Kyle asked, if Facebook can be blocked by the government? And when it comes to the NSA, “paranoia is crossing into reality.” To Kyle, the Internet right now looks a bit like Hong Kong: once confidently free and open, now at risk of losing its civil and economic liberty.
A distributed Web changes the power dynamics, Kyle said. With servers and clients working together as cooperative nodes, there would be no more need for massive, vulnerable central data centers. Though laptops and home computers may seem small in isolation, their combined processing and storage capacities are huge. The key is to enable that cooperation.
Crucial to that cooperation is strong cryptography, a topical subject given such recent high-profile stories as the FBI’s asking Apple to hack into an iPhone. Modern encryption—based on private keys of 128 bits or more—is so strong that third parties (including governments) can’t easily access private data without first acquiring the user’s password. But how does it actually work? And how does it facilitate a distributed Web? Kyle offered the audience a crash course.
Through cryptographic hashing, a private key generated using a computer’s entropy pool can be used to make a public key. That public key can in turn be used to encrypt and share a message with someone who can then decrypt it using the corresponding private key.
Public key cryptography is extremely secure, Kyle said, because breaking it requires “crazy math.” Essential to its success are Distributed Hash Tables (DHTs) that let a user retrieve the information used to generate a given hash, and to verify the data or content received. In other words, DHTs enable an encrypted network with no central coordination and millions of potential nodes, all reachable in a few short hops.
Change is coming
According to Kyle, a distributed Web “could change the paradigm of the Web as we know it in really fundamental and complicated ways.” To learn how, be sure to watch Kyle’s full FutureTalk presentation in the video below:
Don’t miss our next FutureTalk
Join us in Portland on April 11, 2016, for a presentation by Hideshi Hamaguchi, executive fellow at Ziba Design and CEO at Monogoto. For more information about our FutureTalks series, make sure to join our Meetup group, New Relic FutureTalks PDX, and follow us on Twitter @newrelic for the latest developments and updates on upcoming events.
Note: Event dates, participants, and topics are subject to change without notice.