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The Internet is Now So Centralized That One Company Can Break It

We are now at a point where the Internet has become so centralized that a single company can bring it to its knees. What began as a military communication system 53 years ago and evolved into a fundamental human right is now so connected to everything that any fallibility could wreak havoc and affect millions of people.

The now-ubiquitous Internet began life as a truly decentralized system of communication. Starting with ARPANET, and progressing to the launch of the World Wide Web, the decentralized nature of the Internet remained so until the Web grew increasingly significant and vital. Afterward, centralized services and providers emerged, and while they improved the user experience at the time, they also made it fragile.

Gone are the days of downloading software to install on a computer or server for yourself or your employees. Now, we can open a browser and do almost everything without installing an app.

It all just sits on the cloud.

As with all marketplaces, only a small number of organizations have emerged as global cloud service provider leaders. While simplifying the whole picture, given the prominence of cloud-based solutions, you could argue that the modern-day Internet is run by Facebook, Google, Apple, Tencent, Alibaba, and Amazon.

Even if you look beyond cloud providers, the Internet’s continued centralization story is similar.

Through acquisition following its own Messenger app, Meta owns almost all instant messaging communication in non-Chinese regions. By owning Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, Meta dominates the delivery of our conversations with each other. In China, the two most popular messaging apps, WeChat and QQ, are owned by Tencent and responsible for almost every communication and transaction within the country.

We could go on. Almost all data transported worldwide go through the top 25 telecom companies, and nearly all smartphones are run on a choice of two operating systems. On virtually any measure, the Internet’s intended decentralized design is under threat, and with centralization comes higher risk.

On June 21, 2022, Cloudflare – a content delivery network and distributed denial of service (DDoS) mitigation company – suffered an outage that affected traffic in 19 data centers. These 19 locations handle a significant proportion of the world’s traffic. An error in their messaging to the Internet routing protocol led to a failure that broke some of the most well-known and essential websites and services, including Discord, Shopify, and Peloton.

The issues were problematic for Cloudflare’s DNS lookup service users but were far-reaching for every internet user. Some estimates suggest that this failure affected 90% of the Internet, and it is not a “Black Swan” moment – there have been hundreds of outages since the start of 2022.

Blockchain and Web3 solutions are not immune to failures in current internet technologies either. Since most Web3 projects are hosted on cloud services such as AWS, this outage shut down many supposedly decentralized Web3 apps and services.

The question we have to ask ourselves is how we let this originally decentralized Internet become so centralized that a failure of a single provider can destroy it.

Centralization is the product of those that took the opportunity to scale ahead of the rest. There’s nothing nefarious about Cloudflare – it provides an excellent and much-needed service to millions. By delivering the perceived best service and value, customers gravitated towards it. But as a result, everything from your blog to giant corporations depends on its service.

So while the protocols that allow the Internet to exist and perform are decentralized, certain services have almost monopolistic control because they were the best options available in the beginning to help scale and protect it.

And now, the infrastructure is monopolized; when it fails, the entire Internet fails.

The scale of this problem is almost too large to imagine, and it will get worse. The Internet is going to grow 30 times in the next eight years.

Before we look at what can be done, we need to understand why the current Internet isn’t fit for the future.

The Internet runs on a routing protocol called BGP (The Border Gateway Protocol), sketched out in 1989 by engineers on the back of “three ketchup-stained napkins.”

It served us well for quite some time, and we built a lot of upgrades on top of it to mitigate its issues, but ultimately these are band-aids and not the long-term surgery needed.

The problem with the modern Internet is that it is essentially a set of private networks run by individual internet service providers. Each has a network, and most connections occur between these networks. Even if you’re chatting with your colleague on Zoom and you live in one city (or are in the same apartment), that signal will likely travel much farther.

Your physical atoms might be five meters apart, but the pixels that display your two-dimensional form to each other may have been on a transatlantic journey.

Networks are only managed locally. Routing decisions are made locally by the providers via the BGP protocol. There’s no shared knowledge, and nobody controls the entire route of the connection.

Using these public ISPs is like using public transport. You have no control over where it goes. Providers own the cables and everything else. In this system, there are no incentives for ISPs to provide a good service.

And we’re not talking about the speed of your home Internet. We’re talking about the ISP’s connection to services like Netflix.

That was the origin of the net neutrality battle in the US. Netflix was sending too much data (about 1GB of data per hour for streaming a TV show or movie in standard definition and up to 3GB of data per hour when streaming HD video), and ISPs in the US threatened to cap it unless Netflix paid up.

And that’s how it goes. The only way to get a more reliable service is to pay ISPs a lot for high-speed private connections. That’s the only way big tech companies like Amazonrun their data centers. But the biggest irony is that there is enough infrastructure to handle much more growth.

70% of Internet infrastructure isn’t utilized because nobody knows about these routes, and ISPs don’t have an excellent solution to monetize them on demand. They prefer to work based on fixed, predetermined contracts, which take a lot of time to negotiate and sign.

There are other issues. For instance, the Cloudflare outage has happened because the Internet is trust-based. The network expects everyone to be a good actor, and if someone, maliciously or not, sends wrong information, it can easily break.

We trust these actors. We trust these centralized providers. We even trust organizations to keep our sensitive information and the Internet, as a whole, private.

The HTTPS protocol ensures that the data we send, whether a personal photo or a credit card number, is encrypted. But this encryption is based on a certificate provided by a specific organization, like LetsEncrypt. If someone tampers with it or a government orders everyone to install their certificate, all your data will be available to them.

That’s why trustless systems are essential. It’s not just a marketing term created by the preachers of Web3. The system isn’t susceptible to multiple attack vectors and can exist even in a hostile environment.

Blockchain provides a natural solution to this problem. At a fundamental level, this technology allows us to create decentralized systems that are secure by design and governable without a single central entity.

It also can be private by design because of the public key encryption. Public-key cryptography is a cryptographic system that uses pairs of private and public keys. Anyone can encrypt a message in the system using the intended receiver’s public key, but that encrypted message can only be decrypted with the receiver’s private key.

Imagine a system where participants such as content companies like Netflix and ISPs can buy and sell bandwidth dynamically, transfer their data via the best possible route and avoid being locked in behind a centralized provider, formerly the only way to achieve scale. Users, in turn, will get a more reliable connection with a lower latency, which isn’t that important for web browsing but highly critical for online gaming and future Metarverse applications.

Bloomberg estimates that the metaverse industry will be worth $800 billion by 2024, based on its analysis and data from Newzoo, IDC, PWC, Statista, and Two Circles. That is going to require significant additional investment in internet infrastructure. The software we use to run it must be able to support the growth we envision and is in line with the decentralized principles that are one of the cornerstones of the metaverse and Web3.

The demands of the future media channels and technologies, such as AR glasses or any version of the metaverse, will outpace anything the current version of the Internet can provide us with right now. And the more significant the role it plays in our lives, the more prominent the consequences of any outage will be. The time to solve this is right before we lose access to this fundamental human right for so long that it causes significant economic, infrastructure, and personal losses which affect our well-being.

Domas Povilauskas, a co-founder & CEO at Syntropy.

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