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There has never been a greater tool for communication and the spread of knowledge than the internet, and one of the great strengths of the platform is how decentralized it is. Anyone can upload content and share across the globe, resulting in the compilation of million and millions of unique and creative ideas that would never have been possible under a system of centralized control. 

This week, a group of tech entrepreneurs, including Tim Berners-Lee who created the World Wide Web in 1989, are meeting in San Francisco for the Decentralized Web Summit. The goal is to come up with ways to make the internet more decentralized, to better preserve privacy, to better preserve history and to limit the ability of governments to block content or control web traffic.

The Summit’s website contains the following call to action:

The current Web is not private or censorship-free. It lacks a memory, a way to preserve our culture’s digital record through time. The Decentralized Web aims to make the Web open, secure and free of censorship by distributing data, processing, and hosting across millions of computers around the world, with no centralized control.

If you thought that the internet already remains a wild west here anything goes, you’d be mistaken., particularly from a global perspective. Governments like that of China and of Islamic theocracies block huge amounts of content from their citizens’ view. In North Korea, the government maintains strict control of all internet content, in Iran, bloggers must register with the government, and in Turkmenistan, all email accounts are strictly monitored by the state.

The proposed decentralization of the internet would rob these governments of the ability to control what their people see or say online, which could have huge benefits for oppressed peoples trying to get their message out to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, here in America, the internet has remained largely free from government meddling, though it has not been for lack of trying. Congress has repeatedly proposed legislation that would create an internet “kill switch” to be used in times of emergency. While such bills have thankfully not yet succeeded, internet freedom remains under constant threat. Thus far it has only been the vigilance of the online community that has succeeded in blocking this kind of legislation, most notably the internet blackout that occurred as a response to proposed anti-piracy bills that would have given the president the power to shut down portions of the internet.

... ever since the creation of the internet, government has been looking for a way to get its hooks into it.

Concerns over terrorism are leading many to call for the weakening of strong encryption standards that make online privacy and e-commerce possible, and the latest controversy is the debate on whether the US should release control of how domain names are generated to other countries, a proposal that has the potential to bring China-style censorship back home to the States.

In fact, ever since the creation of the internet, government has been looking for a way to get its hooks into it. With this year’s passage of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act, which prohibits taxation of internet access, advocates for online freedom won a victory, but the battle is ongoing, and always an uphill one. A more decentralized web could only help to prevent a single government from destroying or restricting parts of cyberspace for its own ends.

It’s unclear how the decentralized web relates to the Net Neutrality debate, which proponents describe as an “open” internet, but which actually places government restrictions on private service providers and how they interact with their customers. When the FCC decided to regulate the internet under the Telecommunications Act, it gave government broad new powers to dictate the terms of service, and even opened the door to potential censorship of content deemed obscene. While it’s true that we don’t currently see online censorship in America, we need to be aware that the power to censor does exist if the government ever chooses to use it. Presumably the type of decentralized net the Summit deals with would make the Net Neutrality question moot, by stripping governments of their control of how we access online content, but what the actual proposal likes like remains to be seen.

The decentralized internet would therefore open up brand new opportunities to parts of the world where censorship still reigns supreme, and would prevent the US from sliding down the slippery slope of internet regulation. This last is especially important given that both major party presidential nominees have expressed the desire to shut down parts of the internet.

It’s exciting to know that so many smart and motivated people are tackling the problem of internet censorship, free speech online, security, encryption and all the great things about the internet that government just doesn’t understand. One of the most hopeful signs for freedom in the future is the fact that technology always seems to keep a couple of steps ahead of would-be regulators, who struggle to keep up with emerging models. We’ll check back on the progress of the decentralized web, but for now the idea of an internet that is “locked open” seems like a pretty good one.



Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and Director of Research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.
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