The Decentralized Internet of HBO's "Silicon Valley"? Real-World Teams Say They've Already Invented It

The Pied Piper of the TV show's fictional quest to reinvent the Internet trails the progress of MaidSafe and the University of Michigan

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A field of open laptop computers represents the decentralized Internet
Illustration: Doug Armand/Getty Images

This season, on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” fictional character Richard Hendricks set off on a new venture—reinventing the Internet into a decentralized network. The vision, to create a peer-to-peer Internet that is free from firewalls, government regulation, and spying, is one shared by the Decentralized Web movement. It isn’t exactly a new idea. In the real world, the Decentralized Web movement has been working for a couple of years to link people interested in advancing the effort, and pieces of the technology are being developed in various corporate and university labs. Making a true decentralized Web—or decentralized Internet (the two are a little different)—isn’t going to be fast or easy, Decentralized Web evangelist and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle told me last month, because, although it is a good idea, it is hard to execute.

Or maybe it is coming sooner than we think. After I wrote about HBO’s “Silicon Valley” joining the Decentralized Web movement, I heard from two teams who say they are close to rolling out a version of the technology very similar to that described on the show. However, their interpretation of what’s described on the show is somewhat different.

At the University of Michigan, Robert Dick, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and a team of two doctoral students and more than a dozen undergraduate volunteers have been focused for seven years on designing and implementing a decentralized network. If the Internet is shut down or blocked in some way, it maintains connections by sending data hopping from phone to phone. The team will this year roll out an app called Anonymouse that allows anonymous microblogs, including images and text, to be sent around its network by phone hopping. There’s no ability to serve Web pages just yet, although that feature is on the road map. Dick says he’s aware of—and may end up teaming with—other organizations working on similar technology.

A screen shot of the Anonymouse appThe Anonymouse app in use.Image: Anonymouse

“We deployed a research prototype with 100 people using it at the University of Michigan,” Dick said. “Messages typically reached 80 percent of the participants in a day. That surprised us; we didn’t think it would work until we reached about 5 percent of the university population—over 2,000 people. We were also surprised by how quickly messages were ferried between campuses, as a user passed another and then got on a bus, for example.”

The challenge, Dick indicated, is getting enough people to use it so it works efficiently. That’s the challenge the fictional Hendricks is wrestling with as well. Hendricks said in a recent episode, “People won’t want to participate until the quality is high, and the quality won’t be high until we got a lot of people.” Hendricks proposes offering users free data compression to encourage them to run the app; Dick intends to target markets where fear of censorship is a very big deal, so the app will be its own reason for existence. For now, the group is taking sign-ups for a public beta to start in the third quarter of this year.

“I can’t get people in the U.S. to understand just how awful it can be when a few people control what everybody else can say,” Dick told me. “However, I can try to make sure that, if and when they understand, the technology to help them will be available.”

Taking a different approach to reinventing the Internet is MaidSafe, a company based in Troon, Scotland, that has been working since 2006 to create a “massive array of interconnected discs secure access for everyone.”

MaidSafe chief operating officer Nick Lambert says that the company’s goal is to decentralize all Web services, with users offering up bandwidth and storage space in exchange for a cryptographic token the company calls SafeCoin that users can then use to pay for network services or convert into cash. The data travels across the existing Internet, but it is more secure because it is broken into chunks and encrypted. One password is required to store and retrieve data, plus another one to encrypt and decrypt it, because the data is distributed and because the network, although it travels across the same wires as the Internet, doesn’t use the same addressing system. The only way to prevent access to the data would be by shutting down the Internet, Lambert says.

The company recently tested the system on a 100-node network running inside a data center, then rolled it out to several hundred alpha users using laptop and desktop computers. These users were given demo apps to run that allow them to create websites and send email; eventually, the company hopes a developer community focused on building out more sophisticated apps will emerge. Lambert says the company is currently developing better support for mobile devices for its next alpha test, and then it will move on to testing network recovery from massive power outages in alpha 3. Lambert says a more extensive beta test is on the horizon for the near future.

Did either of these efforts inspire HBO’s “Silicon Valley”? A MaidSafe employee says Hendricks’s pitch seems eerily similar to a 2008 video of company founder David Irvine. Anonymouse’s Dick, binge-watching the series for the first time this month, says he was a little freaked out that the two major themes—data compression and then a pivot to the decentralized Internet—tracked his career progression so precisely. Certainly, the show is proving to be a mirror that is reflecting many in tech today.

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