While Washington looks to combat online monopolies, some innovators are developing new internet platforms to prevent monopolies from forming in the future
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said, in a speech last week at Georgetown University, that his social media megacorp and its Big Tech peers “have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands.”
That sounds comforting and egalitarian, but a lot of people worry these days that they’ve actually centralized power—around themselves. This has become ever more obvious since Russian agents used Facebook in an attempt to manipulate the U.S. public in the 2016 election. It’s clearer every time somebody searches or posts about dogs, only to find their feeds inundated with dog food ads.
Capitalizing on the oceans of data produced by the web has turned Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google into empires, but it hasn’t made the internet a more open place, said Christian Fuchs, a media professor at the University of Westminster in London. “The internet is a corporate monopoly today,” he said, “and monopolies are always a danger to democracy.”
While lawmakers try to combat the concerns by talking about antitrust and regulation, a cottage industry of true decentralizers is emerging in the computer space. They want to recapture the original promise of the web, to create a platform where information isn’t siloed by private companies or monitored by police states.
It’s a stiff challenge. The apps and websites that run on top of the internet—Facebook’s, Amazon’s, etc.—are managed from centrally controlled servers. To run efficiently, those programs and servers capture and manage all of the data that is created. When you write something on Facebook you are writing from your device, but the data is captured on Facebook’s servers.
To be clear, no website or company controls the internet. And people using the internet spread their personal information across strings of different sites and servers. But still, the key for most web companies is controlling as much data as possible.
“The key is centralization of information,” said David Chaum, a computer scientist who built the first working digital currency in the 1990s and today is building a new internet platform called Elixxir. “You don’t have to control things to exert power in the information space. Just knowing a lot about everybody lets you manipulate the whole situation.”
Platforms like Elixxir are using the somewhat heady idea of linking everyone’s computers together to share data and, in some cases, even processing power. Websites and apps might look the same—and still be connected to the internet that we know—but companies wouldn’t be able to amass data, and they might not even need to build massive cloud-server centers just to run their sites.