Among other non-financial uses for blockchain technology, it has been proposed as a method by which the internet can run on a fully peer-to-peer (P2P) basis. The design of the original blockchain protocol enabled users to send Bitcoin to one another directly, i.e., without going through banks or other third-party intermediaries. In the last few years, disintermediation has distinguished itself as one of blockchain’s most prized capabilities. The technical freedom to exchange value directly is helpful not only for individuals, but can also be harnessed by traditional financial institutions to make their internal processes and client services more robust.
As it turns out, what can be done for currency can also be done to the structural foundations of the web. At least, this is the idea behind applications like IPFS, or the Inter-Planetary File System. IPFS aims to fully decentralize the internet by offering an Ethereum-based alternative to hypertext transmission protocol, or HTTP. HTTP is the application layer over which data is shared on the world wide web, and it’s been in place since the 1970s. Being so fundamental to modern global communications, if even a fraction of websites and applications used IPFS, it would be a considerable shift.
IPFS is one of a handful of tools that imagines blockchain-based P2P applications as the future of the web. There are several reasons why P2P is seen by many as a preferable alternative to our current model, which relies on centralized intermediaries. Some frame this in ethical and idealistic terms. Centralized servers and platforms give tech firms and governments control over user data. The degree to which this control is wielded varies widely across countries and companies, but it can lead to a number of situations regarding censorship, surveillance, and more broadly-construed user freedom issues. It can also help fight online crime, such as security breaches and the sharing of unethical content — so centralization is certainly not a clear-cut moral issue. For many, however, web decentralization is seen as a democratic principle of data management.
On a practical note, many programmers note that P2P processes are more efficient in terms of time and money. This is because of the digital “seeding” facilitated by P2P, where a file is drawn from multiple sources as opposed to just one, which is the way file transmission works over HTTP.
IPFS highlights efficiency as a benefit of their software, but this well predates any blockchain app. For example, digital seeding is how the music sharing software Napster worked when it was released in 1999. Napster’s subsequent shut-down was the result of intervention on behalf of those who suffered from piracy, but blockchain’s P2P protocol can be constructed so that content cannot be accessed without owner consent.
Will a P2P web based on blockchain protocols usher in “Web 3.0?” Only the future will tell, but a number of believers are busy working to make this feel more real every day.