In the midst of the Cold War, a team of academic and government researchers began looking into ways to improve communication between individuals, nations and organizations.
Their final output, a computer network known as ARPANET, was used by the Pentagon to send messages securely. The information was broken down and transmitted across the network in small clusters called “packets,” which traveled out of sequence, across a random assortment of telephone lines, to ensure the security of the larger message in transit. And, thanks to its decentralized structure, ARPANET could remain online even if one part of the network was attacked.
ARPANET was also used by academics and researchers as a way to efficiently and securely transfer information. But over the last few decades, the dispersed network of ARPANET became concentrated in the hands of a few ISPs and tech giants—the internet as we know it today.
The move to centralization had Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea longing for the early days, when users had more ownership over their data. So, in 2013, the duo founded Blockstack, a public benefit corporation working to build a new, truly decentralized internet. And while Blockstack is working to return to a past ideal, it’s using a promising new technology to do so: blockchain.
As an alternative to the centralized domain name system (DNS), the Blockstack browser is built on the Blockchain Name System (BNS), where web addresses and user IDs are maintained in the blockchain. With the browser, users can access decentralized alternatives to social media sites, productivity and sharing tools, and other apps they frequent. And because users hold their encryption key on their own computer, they have complete ownership of their data, meaning the decentralized apps they use can’t sell it to advertisers.
We caught up with co-founder Ali over email to discuss the role decentralized apps (or dapps) play in this new digital landscape and his vision for a decentralized internet.
Decentralizing the Internet: Q&A with Muneeb Ali of Blockstack
(Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)
Tell us about the Blockstack browser. Who can use it and how does it differ from popular browsers?
People use applications on Blockstack just like they would with today’s internet. But instead of signing up for each app one-by-one with an email address and password—or their social media login credentials—users have an identity that is registered in the blockchain and a public key that allows applications (or other users) to access pieces of their user data (but only with the user’s permission).
“Data is not siloed in the servers of centralized platforms, but owned and stored in a storage hub powered by Blockstack and available to all users. The user can bring their data from app to app, and all interactions are encrypted end-to-end.”
How do decentralized apps benefit users? Who will use them over centralized alternatives?
Many of Blockstack’s users were early adopters of cryptocurrency and appreciate the ability to seamlessly move around the internet without a centralizing force controlling their identities, money or social graphs.
Others are concerned about privacy and data security. A large subset are frustrated with the current paradigm of free services for ad-saturated platforms and would rather have an uncensored version of an application they use today.
How does Blockstack support developers?
App developers are able to build decentralized applications on top of the Blockstack foundation, which includes identity, storage and a soon-to-be-launched token infrastructure. Since Blockstack provides the foundation of identity management and storage, developers can build without having to store user data or passwords.
“Down the line, developers who build popular decentralized apps will be rewarded with Stacks tokens, which are native to the forthcoming Blockstack blockchain, called Stacks. These tokens will be used as a currency exclusively within the Blockstack ecosystem.”
How does Blockstack address issues common to the blockchain, like speed, scalability and user experience?
The blockchain is the foundation of the Blockstack technology, but most of the interactions happen at the application layer, on top of the blockchain. This is different from the majority of other decentralized projects, where each interaction happens within the blockchain and has led to scalability issues.
For example, if two users are messaging each other on one of our encrypted chat apps, those messages would only touch the application layer, not the blockchain.
Blockstack recently released the “Dapp Store,” an app store for its decentralized Internet. As creator of the Blockstack platform, and manager of the Dapp Store, Blockstack acts as a central authority. Do you plan to step away? What will happen when you do?
Blockstack Public Benefit Corporation is curating and maintaining this Dapp Store initially. That includes approving dapps that come in like the online voting system Democracy Earth and the dating app Hicky. Eventually we plan to include user ratings to rank dapps across the ecosystem, which would allow the Dapp Store to become a separate entity. We want to democratize dapp development, and reward developers for great user experiences.
To learn more about how blockchain will power the data marketplace, download our report created in partnership with Accenture.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.