Friday , September 21 2018
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The web is dying, but mesh networks will save it

My previous article, The web began dying in 2014, here’s how, raised much more awareness than I thought it would. Many people found it to be an insightful analysis of the web under the control of tech giants, but the article ended without providing anything positive to hold on to.

I actually have hope for the web. There are legitimately viable ways of preserving freedom on the web while taking the platform forward and keeping it competitive against proprietary alternatives from tech giants. But it can only happen if the web takes a courageous step towards its next level. If it stays in its current form, the web has little chance of being relevant while America’s FCC kills Net Neutrality rules, the W3C favors DRM, and tech giants build their web-less vision of the future.

The community of peer-to-peer technologists has brought to the world several revolutionary technologies: USENET, Napster, BitTorrent, Kazaa, Skype, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and actually even the web itself. Once again, we can turn to this community to seek digital solutions that defend freedom. Many months ago I quit my job in order to join a group of peer-to-peer programmers and help build technology that can rescue our digital freedoms. I want to share with you our plan, which in short is:

Build the mobile mesh web that works with or without internet access, to reach four billion people currently offline.

To explain this plan, we need to realize that the web can be independent from the internet. The core weaknesses of the internet have to be recognized, and how exactly they were exploited by middlemen businesses. The problem we are solving is both social and technical, so the solution must be a harmony of these two. Finally, all the tools and opportunities we need to supersede them are already in our hands: smartphones, peer-to-peer protocols, and mesh networks.

The rise of closed cyberspaces

The web is an open cyberspace, a digital context where society can happen, where no single organization, company, or government has the final word on what is allowed or forbidden. It is also an access point to other cyberspaces. Every time you “sign in” with an account on a website, you are entering a closed cyberspace. These cyberspaces are hosted by servers owned by the company or organization behind that website.

Most closed cyberspaces don’t threaten the web’s role as a public space. A school’s intranet is a closed cyberspace, and so is a private discussion forum or a company’s internal discussion platform. Most people will understand how it is necessary for those cyberspaces to be closed and controlled.

The real threat comes with giant closed cyberspaces that disguise themselves as public spaces. Facebook, for instance. Many of its users think of it as a neutral public space where society comes together, and in fact Facebook often efficiently carries out that role. It is, nevertheless, closed and controlled. It started as one of those justifiably closed cyberspaces: it was a private community of Harvard students. With its explosive growth, though, it had to quickly evolve to encompass all types of social structures.

While Facebook was growing on the web, Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, and the world was revolutionized by smartphones after that. Zuckerberg saw the mobile megatrend before many others did, and as early as 2009 there was a Facebook mobile app with explosive growth. Facebook began re-imagining itself as a platform independent from the web.

Fast forward to December 2016, and 94% of all Facebook monthly active users access the blue closed cyberspace routinely through mobile apps (divide mobile MAU by MAU), while 62% access it only from mobile (divide mobile-only MAU by MAU). As a result, 84% of FB’s revenue comes from mobile advertising. As an extrapolation of this data, their mobile-only users likely comprise today (December 2017) between 70% – 79% of all their users.

Facebook mobile stats