The Centralized Internet Is a Bad Thing, Experts Say

Twitter founder ignites debate over internet freedom

  • Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said recently that "centralizing discovery and identity into corporations" has damaged the internet. 
  • Experts say that a decentralized internet, a concept that proposes the reorganization of the internet to remove centralized data hosting services, isn't yet a reality. 
  • Making a fully decentralized internet will require overcoming hurdles involving speed and cost. 
Metaverse concept overlaying a real city.

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A debate is raging over whether the internet is increasingly centralized in a move that leaves users with less control over their sources of information and online communities. 

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said recently that "centralizing discovery and identity into corporations" has "really damaged the internet," adding that he is "partially to blame" for the shift. But some experts say that a decentralized internet, a concept that proposes the reorganization of the internet to remove centralized data hosting services, isn't yet a reality. 

"Do you want access to the local bakery?" Anne L. Washington, an assistant professor of data policy at the NYU Steinhardt School, said in an email interview. "Sign in through Facebook. Small vendors rely on the security protocols of a few big players." 

Decentralizing or Polarizing? 

Dorsey has reportedly supported open and decentralized social media standards in the past. He has mocked Web3, a term for a decentralized version of the internet-based blockchain, a digital public ledger recording cryptocurrency transactions. 

In his latest tweet, Dorsey said the "days of Usenet, IRC, the web... even email (w PGP)... were amazing. Centralizing discovery and identity into corporations really damaged the internet." 

Washington said one problem with a centralized internet is that the big gatekeepers are under no ethical, legal, or moral obligation to serve everyone. "In fact, their corporate reputation may depend on who they let in and who they keep out. Equal access is antithetical to marketing decisions that tailor the brand to a specific clientele."

Web 1.0 was far more decentralized than Web 2.0 is today, Dawn Newton, the co-founder of Netki, which provides digital identity verification technology, said in an email interview. 

"The global community ran, moderated, and maintained massive communication platforms like Usenet and IRC, where in-depth topics could be discussed and anyone around the world could participate," Newton said. "It was ad-free, the content was not owned or overseen by any corporation, and it was democratic in nature."

While intentions were initially good, the underlying focus of Web 2.0 became a marketing and money-making machine, Newton said. Google is a search engine, and Meta and Twitter are social media platforms, but at their core, they are all marketing companies, she noted. 

"They were showing ads and selling user data to make money, and they stated in their terms that an individual no longer owned their own content, that content was the property of whichever corporation was used to post your thoughts," Newton added.

"The people on early decentralized systems already had technical expertise or were willing to learn it."

One problem with using a decentralized system in the early days of the internet was that it had a high bar for participation, Washington said. You had to have access to a computer on the internet, knowledge of command-line computer systems, and the ability to get a unique login name.  

"The people on early decentralized systems already had technical expertise or were willing to learn it," Washington said

Finding Communities

Despite its drawbacks, one of the benefits of the early internet was that it had a single authority, Washington said. Instead of logging onto Meta, you used chat programs like IRC.

"Finding like-minded people was more like foraging than selecting algorithmic communities on a platter," Washington added. "The alt.* newsgroups deeply embraced the lack of central authority, which is where the term alt-right came from. Early systems could not unilaterally shut down one voice. It would have been impossible to refuse service to an entire country domain."

Making a fully decentralized internet will require overcoming hurdles involving speed and cost, Newton said. In Web 1.0, global communication networks and the hardware and software needed to maintain them were run by universities. Later on, internet service providers shouldered the cost of maintaining the network, taking it on as a cost of doing business in order to serve their users.

A laptop screen showing a group of people having a web conference.

10'000 Hours / Getty Images

"Users today demand the best of the best when it comes to speed and network connectivity, but that comes at a price," Newton added. "The hardware and software needed to meet the demands of modern-day internet users can often be costly and not as easily accessible as the alternative. For Web3 to effectively succeed, the industry needs to come up with a system that ensures the speed and quality the masses want at a price that they can afford."

But the price of decentralizing the internet is worth the cost, Newton insisted.

"Decentralization equals democratic control," Newton said. "If you believe in people controlling their data and intellectual creation in accordance with their priorities, then you should believe in internet decentralization."

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