Emergent Tech

People like convenience more than privacy – so no, blockchain will not 'decentralise the web'

It's our fault the Facebooks and Googles run everything

By Matt Asay

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Comment In the same way it has become de rigueur to slag off Facebook for its many privacy sins while billions still dump their data into the service, it's also pretty trendy to pretend that blockchain, a digital ledger that records transactions publicly and permanently, offers answers to a new and improved decentralised web that leaves individuals, not Facebook, in charge of their data.

It is complete and utter rubbish.

It's not that a blockchain-based web isn't possible. After all, the original web was decentralised, too, and came with the privacy guarantees that blockchain-based options today purport to deliver. No, the problem is people.

As user interface designer Brennan Novak details, though the blockchain may solve the crypto crowd's privacy goals, it fails to offer something as secure and easy as a (yes) Facebook or Google login: "The problem exists somewhere between the barrier to entry (user-interface design, technical difficulty to set up, and overall user experience) versus the perceived value of the tool, as seen by Joe Public and Joe Amateur Techie."

Save us from ourselves, God Blockchain!

The early web was chaotic. Decentralised, yes, but chaotic. Finding one's way to new services was virtually impossible, leading to directory services (I distinctly remember buying a "yellow pages" index of all the known sites from a bookstore) and, eventually, to Google indexing the web for us so that we could use search to navigate around.

At the same time, services like Compuserve arose to give average humans a way to use the web, and services thereon. Compuserve eventually gave way to Facebook, Twitter, and (again) Google – a small corpus of companies that control much of what we see and do on the internet and make it straightforward for governments to keep a tight leash on what we do online, as Edward Snowden laid bare.

In the wake of this shockingly centralisation that now plagues our privacy and constrains choice, web revolutionaries like Tim Berners-Lee are conspiring to decentralise the web. Again.

Blockchain, in particular, has been put forward as the future of everything, from farmers selling eggs to publishers selling news. Instead of relying on servers, centrally managed blockchain depends upon "a peer-to-peer network built on a community of users", Adam Rowe writes. In this world, the "internet-connected devices would host the internet, not a group of more high-powered servers". This architecture theoretically makes the internet harder to hack or control since a website or one's data is strewn across a number of different devices.

It also shifts responsibility for the system to those individual nodes. To us, as it were. And that's where the problems start.

Technology hurdles to overcome

As much as blockchain advocates want us to believe it's our decentralised saviour, there are serious technical impediments. As Bluzelle Networks CEO Pavel Bains styles it: "The immutability of the data on the blockchain is one of the key dynamics at play here. While never removing or changing data has many positive aspects to it, it also poses a serious issue when you consider how it works within important regulatory frameworks."

That's the point! I hear you scream, but there is the world we live in, and the world blockchain revolutionaries want. I'm not sure the latter is demonstrably better.

Take GDPR, for example, the European Union's new rule on data protection. Under GDPR, an individual can ask that you remove their data from your systems. There's been much discussion, however, about how that would be impossible in blockchain. According to the theory, you cannot remove data – at least not easily – because the nature of the beast is such that follow-on transactions might rely on it. Remove the data and you create a blockchain-defeating fork.

A potential problem here comes in the way the blockchain stores data, which is seen as a virtue by privacy advocates, but that not only puts a crimp on corporate responsibility but could also introduce all sorts of inefficiencies. As Bains goes on: "In new decentralized file storage services [files are often]... broken up into chunks with the divisions made at arbitrary locations, demonstrating little regard for the data in the file.

"Trying to access data when the underlying storage mechanism does not understand the nature of it is inefficient and likely to be error prone. The reality is that, to read a simple mailing address from a relatively modest 10GB file on a storage service like IPFS would require the entire file to be downloaded and then searched for the relevant information. Even at download speeds of 1GB per second, it would take 80 seconds every time the file is accessed."

Safe? Probably. Annoying? Absolutely.

In a paper (PDF) written primarily by Stanford researchers, other, related issues are held out:

An architecture without a single point of data aggregation, management and control has several technical disadvantages. First is functionality: there are several types of computations that are hard or impossible without a unified view of the data. Detection of fraud and spam, search, collaborative filtering, identification of trending topics and other types of analytics are all examples.

Decentralized systems also suffer from inherently higher network unreliability, resulting in a tradeoff between consistency and availability (formalized as the CAP theorem); they may also be slower from the user’s point of view. The need for synchronized clocks and minimizing data duplication are other challenges.

And then there is the problem that a decentralised blockchain may not only be "crappy technology", as Kai Stinchcombe opines, but also "a bad vision for the future". As he notes: "It's true that tampering with data stored on a blockchain is hard, but it's false that blockchain is a good way to create data that has integrity." Indeed, the problem is that so-called trustless systems like the blockchain don't remove the need to check transactions; rather, they transfer that burden to the people least able to do so: us.

For example, in that blockchain peer-to-peer utopia of people selling things to each other without intermediaries, who's to say that the person or company on the other end of the transaction hasn't "hidden a recursion bug in their version to drain your Ethereum wallet of all your life savings", as Stinchcombe describes. In such a world, "it's not trustless," he continues, as "you're trusting in the software (and your ability to defend yourself in a software-driven world), instead of trusting other people."

This sounds nice for developers (maybe). It sounds terrible for everyone else.

And even for developers, it's not that brilliant. Why? Because no matter how good you are with code, someone else is better, and far less honest. Remember the Decentralized Autonomous Organization and its raising of $150m in cryptocurrency? As Stinchcombe points out: "The most heavily scrutinized smart contract in history had a small bug that nobody noticed – that is, until someone did notice it, and used it to steal $50m dollars. If cryptocurrency enthusiasts putting together a $150m investment fund can't properly audit the software, how confident are you" in your own ability to defend yourself in a decentralised world of software might making right?

The enemy is us

Of course, the primary problems with decentralisation aren't technical, just as the primary solutions to our privacy and security issues aren't technical, either.

The major problem with all this blockchain hype is that it completely mistakes the problem. In a summary of the Decentralized Web Conference, for example, it was reasoned that: "If people adapted the so-called ledger system by which digital currencies are used, a musician might potentially be able to sell records without intermediaries like Apple's iTunes.

"News sites might be able to have a system of micropayments for reading a single article, instead of counting on web ads for money. Such transactions might be more secure and more private with the blockchain, but that doesn't mean they'd be easier. iTunes, for example, makes discovery of music easier. Centralisation is a feature in this case, not a bug."

Therein lies the problem: people.

Web daddy Tim Berners-Lee pegs this perfectly: "The web is already decentralized. The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don't have a technology problem, we have a social problem."

Put less politely nearly a decade ago, Larry Dignan said: "We're all Google-tethered zombies who go about life without a hoot for privacy."

In other words, we value convenience (and, yes, centralisation) over privacy and security. We may say we don't, but our actions belie our statements.

And as The Reg's Andrew Orlowski has pointed out: Google has "the power to identify the location of almost every individual instantly ... the power totalitarians dream about. The pertinent question is whether anyone should have so much power."

Are we doomed to live out our lives as Facebook's digital sheep, mindlessly dumping personal data into its highly centralised treasure trove? Definitely maybe.

Until we care enough about our privacy to unplug from centralised services that misuse it, no amount of technological engineering will change our fate. Ultimately, we need more social engineering, not infrastructure engineering. The problem isn't Facebook. The problem is us. ®

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