On paper, the Internet doesn’t have a problem with centralization. There’s no single entity that controls it. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to use it. It’s even hosted on a variety of servers. The Internet looks like an atomized place where various types of actors, you included, can come together and do whatever their skills, and the legal framework, allow them to do.
In reality, however, the Internet is something very different. Let’s do a quick thought experiment to illustrate it. Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and Google, and all its services and products, are completely gone. For some people, it would barely scathe them. For the majority, however, it would be a disaster. Take out Apple, Amazon, and Facebook together with Google, and the day would officially be designated the day the Internet died.
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Movements Towards the Big Shift
Even though the technical side of the Internet is not centralized, the way companies have grown, and people have started to use the Internet, has led to a degree of centralization. There is a handful of companies that are so big that using the Internet without them would seem difficult to the point of being impossible. And people are starting to notice.
With the rise of the blockchain, a distributed ledger technology you are familiar with from countless articles about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the part of the tech world that’s looking for an alternative approach to the thing we call the Internet is starting to see some wind in their sails. While there’s still no consensus about how the decentralized Internet is going to look and how exactly to use blockchain to get it there, the activity around decentralized products and services has been picking up speed. And it’s not just the Silicon Valley and its clones in the U.S. where everything is happening.
Europe vs. the Centralized Internet
2018 is a year that will be remembered in the tech circles as the year when a part of the world started taking data security very seriously. The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, is the most comprehensive set of legislation of online data usage the world has seen so far. It’s going into force in May 2018, and it will affect most tech companies that do business in Europe.
The GDPR is neither a direct nor a covert attack on the giants that are centralizing the Internet. But it does involve data, and that’s a big deal for big tech companies. Google, for example, gets 86% of its revenue from advertising. For Facebook, advertising is also the major source of income. But the thing that makes these giants’ advertising schemes so profitable is the fact that they have access to an incredible amount of data about their users.
The more of their services the users adopt, the more data the giants get. With more data, they can offer even better advertising products, earn more money, and grow to take up even more space in users’ online habits. The GDPR will not deliver the killing blow that will stifle the growth of tech giants, but it will hit them where it hurts. On the legislative level, you can easily say that the EU is acting as kind of an ally in the fight against an overly centralized Internet.
Decentralized Internet and European Entrepreneurship
The real change, however, cannot come from the governmental offices. If you want to see a decentralized Internet win over its centralized variant, you have to figure out a way to get users to sign up for decentralized services, and eventually decentralized networks. Explaining to people that a decentralized Internet allows them to better control their privacy, security, and data is a part. But you also have to make it convenient, which is something entrepreneurs should be concerned with.
But European entrepreneurs who work in tech have plenty of reasons why they might be behind the U.S. and Asia, and the U.S. especially when talking about decentralized Internet startups. For one, they still depend to a significant degree on financial backing that’s coming from the U.S., and Asian financiers are not too far behind. Add to that the fact that Europe is still a continent that’s divided on cultural, linguistic, and national lines, and you’d get to the conclusion that Europe can’t be ahead in any way when it comes to tech entrepreneurship, decentralized Internet included. But you might be wrong.
Where the European Scene Shines
The one takeaway you should take from the implementation of GDPR is that the European legislators are much quicker than their U.S. or Asian colleagues when it comes to acknowledging the state of the current tech landscape. GDPR is not everything the EU is doing to improve their understanding of current technologies.
Last year, the European Commission announced that it will finance a pilot project that will allow it to study the blockchain. The launch happened earlier this year and was performed in partnership with an American company, ConsenSys.
There’s also the fact that Northern European countries rank well above the U.S. when it comes to IT infrastructure and engagement of the public and the private sectors in online activities.
And European entrepreneurs are certainly doing some interesting things for the decentralization movement. Jolocom is a data sovereignty startup whose goal is to give you complete control of your digital identity, and it’s built on decentralized tech. uPort is doing a similar thing through a system of protocols and credentials. ProtonMail is positioning itself as the more safe, secure, and private alternative to Gmail. Cozy offers a free personal storage service set in a decentralized cloud. And that’s just scratching the surface.
So is Europe ahead when it comes to the development of services and products for a decentralized Internet? It might be hard to say. What is obvious, however, is that the European entrepreneurs and legislators are well aware of the dangers that come with an Internet that is too centralized. And both seem to be doing something about it, albeit on different levels. And that just might be enough to put Europe ahead in the race for a decentralized Internet.