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Centralization: The great, the terrbile, and the ugly

Centralization decentralized
Is the internet destroyed by or saved by centralization?

On the web, and especially in more privacy focused circles, there is a lot of talk of centralization, or the opposite. You get a lot of people arguing the internet is fundamentally broken by being centralized and therefore suggest alternatives like the InterPlantery FileSystem (IPFS). While this efforts are great and commendable, what exactly is centralization? And what does it mean in the context of the internet? Also, is it really that bad?

What even is centralization, anyway?

Centralization is, according to the dictionary:

noun

  1. The act or fact of centralizing; fact of being centralized
  2. The concentration of administrative power in a central government, authority, etc.

Chiefly Sociology.

  1. a process whereby social groups and institutions become increasingly dependent on a central group or institution.
  2. concentration of control or power in a few individuals.

How does it relate to the Web?

When we refer to it in terms of the internet, we mean everyone using massive services owned by a single party: eg using a lot of Google or Microsoft services. Services such as GMail, Outlook email, YouTube are often criticized by privacy advocates as too centralized.

Browser to almost any website for instance, and you’ll probably encounter everything includingGoogle Analytics, Google AdSense, YouTube embeds and more. All of these, of course, are services by Google.

Even if the site uses none of those, there’s a good chance their website is hosted on a server hosted on Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services (AWS), or Azure as those are the big players in the server hosting space. If AWS goes down, as demonstrated in the past, a third of the internet does too! That means it’s bad right?!?

Efforts to combat centralization of the web

As I already mentioned, there are some efforts to decentralize the web already in place, such as IPFS and others. In this space you’ll hear a lot of talk of peer to peer and blockchain.

Those two technologies are required to let other users of the decentralized web know that your service does indeed exist and verify the authenticity of said existence, because unlike the normal internet there usually is no central DNS or name lookup system. On the normal internet, you would buy a domain (eg, https://www.androidacy.com), point it at your server with your super awesome website and a few hours later, everyone could just type in your site URL and presto! be at your site.

That however hands resolving the name of the site down to your DNS provider (probably your ISP if you have not changed the default). And that’s centralization which we do not want here! So instead, my peer tells your peer that my service exists, and you pass that on to the next peer, and so forth.

At the end of the day, none of these services have gained much traction because they’re usually inconvenient and difficult to setup just right.

Is it good, bad, or terrible?

The answer: all of the above!

On the one hand, yes, if something goes down on Google, we’re all to some extent screwed. The morning of this blog post, in fact, Google had some issues. Everything from Nest smart devices, to YouTube, to Gmail stopped working entirely for a lot of people. That made a lot of people think, are we getting too dependent on big Google?

Another potential negative is all of your personal data you have shared on the internet is all in one place. Depending on your stance on privacy (see my stance here), this could be a severe party killer.

And then again, as you watch that cat video from YouTube on the news site you logged in with Google on and they’re supported by media.net ads, is centralization all bad? It is convenient, that’s for sure. Via centralization, experiences that were never possible before are possible in ways we never imagined.

One thing is for sure, there is no straight answer.

My take

Honestly, I do not think it is good nor bad. I do like not having to remember a crap ton of passwords instead I can sign in with Google. On the other hand, one party having control of such a large portion of the internet is I must confess worrying.

In the end, provided it’s properly regulated, I think centralization of the internet is a plus for everyone. It’s just up to our governments to ensure that the proper regulations are in place, and our job to make sure that the big tech giants are complying.


What’s your opinion? Let me know in the comments!

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