In the first episode of the new season (Season 4) of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” beleaguered entrepreneur Richard Hendricks, asked by eccentric venture capitalist Russ Hanneman, what, given unlimited time and resources, he would want to build.
“A new Internet,” says Hendricks.
“Why?” asks Hanneman.
Hendricks babbles about telescopes and the moon landing and calculators and the massive computing power in phones today, and says: “What if we used all those phones to build a massive network?... We use my compression algorithm to make everything small and efficient, to move things around…. If we could do it, we could build a completely decentralized version of our current Internet with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying. Information would be totally free in every sense of the word.”
Hel-lo! Decentralized Internet? That’s a concept I’ve heard bubbling around the tech world for a while now, but not so much in the consciousness of the general public. Is HBO’s “Silicon Valley” about to take the push for a Decentralized Web mainstream? And is what Hendricks talks about on the show really what the Decentralized Web is all about?
I contacted Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and the pioneer of the Decentralized Web movement: he first pitched the idea of a Decentralized Web in February 2015, initially describing it as “Locking the Web Open,” at the first meeting hosted by NetGain, a partnership of some of the largest U.S. foundations aimed at strengthening digital society. In August of that year he published a manifesto (he calls it a white paper) making a detailed case for the Decentralized Web, and in June 2016 he hosted a conference to bring key potential players together to move the project forward.
Brewster Kahle Photo: Joi Ito/Flickr
The Decentralized Web, he told me, “would be everywhere and nowhere. There would be no web servers, it would be a peer-to-peer backend, so if any piece of hardware went down, you wouldn’t lose websites. It would be more like the Internet itself is today—if a piece goes down, you can route around the problem. The current Web isn’t like that.
“Today, if you stand in front of a website, you can tell all the traffic going to it. We know that GCHQ, the NSA of the United Kingdom, recorded all the IP addresses going into WikiLeaks.”
This kind of thing, he says, “would be far more difficult in a decentralized world.”
Is that what the fictional Hendricks was talking about? Kahle, who watched the episode, says yes, mostly.
“He says one of the things it would get you is privacy, and it certainly would,” says Kahle. “He also mentioned that it would start to get around firewalls, like the great firewall of China. And it could do that; if someone behind the firewall had read a website, someone else could get it from them.”
Translating the “no tolls” part of Hendricks’ vision into the real world is a little tricky. If by “no tolls,” he was referencing the current debates over net neutrality, that is, whether Internet providers should be allowed to charge content providers for the use of fast lanes, the Decentralized Web would definitely blow those virtual tollbooths out of the road. If, instead, Kahle says, “no tolls” means no paywalls, not so much. Indeed, the vision of the Decentralized Web involves making it easier to pay for content in order to let readers support publishers, instead of just advertisers.
As for “no government regulation, no spying,” that concept, Kahle says, is in the original white paper. “I’m pretty proud of it, I keep a copy signed by me, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf on my bookshelf.”
Brewster Kahle’s personal copy of the first white paper describing the Decentralized Web, signed by Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf Image: Brewster Kahle
In that document, he points out that the current Web isn’t private. “People, corporations, countries can spy on what you are reading,” he wrote. “And they do.” In a Decentralized Web, however, he wrote “the bits will be distributed—across the net—so no one can track the readers of a site from a single point or connection.”
One possible difference between fiction and fact: Hendricks calls for a Decentralized Internet, while Kahle thinks it’s the Web that urgently needs decentralization; the Internet is already, to some extent, decentralized.
“The Web is mostly about content being made accessible, the Internet is mostly the plumbing layer,” he said. “If [Richard] is thinking about the Internet, I think he’s talking about a mesh network, with Internet traffic hopping from phone to phone, without hitting the backbone. And this kind of mesh networking is indeed starting to come about, with people using mesh networks in homes.”
Does any of this decentralization require a new, more powerful, compression algorithm, the kind developed by fictitious startup Pied Piper?
“Not really,” says Kahle, “that’s Richard’s own way in.”
On the TV show, venture capitalist Hanneman is sold by the idea of a new, decentralized Internet. “That,” he says, “I would fund.”
In the real world, says Kahle, a large number of people are working towards the Decentralized Web; the idea has traveled far beyond its origins. “I recently talked to a couple of engineers working for Mozilla, and brought up the idea of decentralizing the web. They said, ‘Oh, we have a group working on that, are you thinking about that as well?’”
It’s not moving as fast as he had originally hoped. The reason, he says, is that while the Decentralized Web is a good idea, it is hard to execute. “It is easier to do centralized technology.” But the effort continues.
And just maybe, getting talked about on a mainstream television show will help.
“It’s strange to have a show like ‘Silicon Valley’ shine a light on this work,” he says. “But it is good that it is happening, because of its enormous influence.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.