With a new protocol and new apps, Dfinity is leading the charge in the search for a new internet
The new internet model that the Zurich-based non-profit organisation, Dfinity Foundation, is working on primarily hinges around the idea of keeping the show running – but not through large-scale server farms, which is the prevalent commercial model. Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud are the current behemoths in the data-farming industry; and since their servers are used by the majority of consumers, they wield the power too. This flaring spiral of power and control, as discussed in our previous episode, is what Dfinity aims to reverse. In the online conference organised by Dfinity on June 30, while Founder Dominic Williams conjured up the vision of “… a free market where services could connect on equal terms…”, their engineering manager Stanley Jones precisely summed up the technological approach in a few words: “Conceptually, it’s kind of running everywhere”.
This implies a decentralised internet model that is not hosted on any one server – and, hence, not controlled by any one entity either. The traditional internet model that we have known so long, hosts all application data and the relevant software on dedicated computers. On the service provider’s end, this is stored on commercial servers – while at the end-consumers’ end these are stored on terminal devices that are being used to access the application: desktops, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, and the like. Every app or web-service that we use runs specific software on the server, sends data to our terminal devices, and also asks for data from the device we are using. A back-and-forth communication ensues – often visually represented by incoming and outgoing data connection arrows on our mobile devices – in which both the host server and the destination device have fixed addresses to facilitate communication.
Dfinity offers an alternative model for this communication. It follows distributed architecture in which data is spread over a network of independent data centres. They have named this technology simply “internet computer” supported by a new protocol called the Internet Computer Protocol or ICP. A protocol is generally defined as: “a standard set of rules that allow electronic devices to communicate with each other. These rules include what type of data may be transmitted, what commands are used to send and receive data, and how data transfers are confirmed” (www.techterms.com). The protocol so long used for traditional internet technology has been known as the internet protocol. More popular it its truncated form “IP” as in the IP address, it is an open standard that provides a unique address to every computer connected to the internet. This is the address which allows data to be transmitted over the vast network of worldwide web and locate the intended end-point device.
In contrast, the Internet Computer Protocol or “ICP” that Dfinity has developed allows movement of both the software and data over the internet. As a result, the software for an application or a web-service need not remain tied to any particular machine or dedicated server. Rather, it would keep moving between different servers owned by independent data centres anywhere the world – effectively liberating the application and its users from being a hostage to any big server company. No one could single handedly own or control such distributed applications or the user data in them. Of course, a commercial model is being framed to make this model viable. The independent data centres who hosts and run the software would be paid by developers. However, the data centres will have neither access to nor ownership over the data they host. In one single stroke, this model erases the tyranny of server farms and also cuts off the advertisers who track each online activity to push their profit motive. Thus, the new internet becomes free from control as well as unwanted data manipulation. Of course, advertisers are certain to innovate other intrusive methods in the changed scenario, but let’s cross that bridge when it comes.
Dfinity has just released the ICP software to third-party developers. Because the new computer would need the developers to write new applications that is compatible to the new protocol. A public release of the software is possible by the end-2020. A few apps to showcase the feasibility of the Internet Computer Protocol has already been created too. There is CanCan, which is a TikTok clone. And around the start of the year a LinkedIn substitute named LinkedUp was demonstrated by the organisation. Both are still works-in-progress and not ready for release. Yet, they prove that, with some effort, an alternative internet model may not be a utopia after all.
As it is, Dfinity is not alone in its quest for a new internet order, nor is it the first to have conceived the idea. Sporadic efforts have been on for quite some time now and even a few big names have joined the initiative. The most significant of them must be Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the original World Wide Web in the late 1980s. He is putting in his weight behind “Solid” – an organisation that is working on developing a network where users retain control over personal data; the apps would get only the data they need, and that too upon request. Yet other organizations experimenting on similar internet alternatives include InterPlanetary File System, Blockstack, and SAFE Network, to name just a few.
But creating a second internet is not a casual task, and hurdles are innumerable. Solid, even with the support of Tim Berners-Lee is still nowhere near perfecting its core technology even after five years of hard work. And the SAFE Network is on the anvil for 15 years now! And there is always the problem of people not wanting to change over from a known and widely prevalent system – despite everyone knowing the hazards and pitfalls. In any country, among any demographic profile, the average Facebook and Amazon user never gives paramount importance to data security, push advertisements or manipulated news. That urge is still not there.
There are drawbacks too in the new model. With no one having control, issues related to accountability might arise. And, while developers and users being the supreme governing authorities might sound ideal, this could end up with factionalism between diverse opposing forces.
However, one thing is sure – a new internet model will result in a spurt in tech innovations and novel ways of online commerce. Some serious investors are already banking on Dfinity to lead the charge in search for Internet 2.0.