If someone were to look up the definition of Ethereum, they would be confronted with a description of its blockchain-based distributed computing platform.
Yet, what they don’t know is its very real implications of completely revolutionizing our internet. Ethereum presents us with the opportunity to create an even richer online hub of information and an even more intelligent internet than we originally could have imagined. Although Ethereum is just a piece of that puzzle.
We’re an Information Society
As our ancestors before us have shown, humans are a collective group of individuals sharing information. From cave drawings to books, to the internet, our society has built different institutions dedicated to the compiling, sharing, and learning of information. Moving from the traditional brick and mortar foundations to funneling all the world’s wisdom through the web and onto our computers and handheld devices; if we look at the internet and what it is today, we can deem it as the source and sharing of information. This process is currently made possible through the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).
Our Current Internet… and Why It’s Broken
HTTP is a standardized protocol that unifies us to the distribution and presentation of all the world’s information. It’s an application for distributed, collaborative, hypermedia information systems that connect us to the web with structured text that uses hyperlinks between nodes. More simply put: Code that connects us to sources on the web.
HTTP is what internet users traditionally use today, and what they find in the address bar of their browser. While HTTP is ubiquitous, most users don’t really pay attention to its existence. They do, however, rely on that HTTP address to get them to where they want to go, and HTTP relies on web servers in order to make that possible. It's worth noting that HTTP only defines what the browser and web server say to each other, not how they communicate, which limits its usability. If a website or server the HTTP is pointing the user to is powered down, stops working, or is no longer accessible, the link stops working and a user may end up with a 404 Error page… and that’s only if they’re lucky. If a site is too old, there may not even be a server at that location to indicate the content the user is looking for is gone. So, why do we care if information dies? Going back to our roots, we’re a society of conglomerated information. When the relics of our past die and become irretrievable, we lose that wisdom- even if it’s just a Geocities personal page created by a teenage version of a now top CEO of a multi-million dollar company. And that’s just an example of trivial wisdom lost.
Case in point: Centrally managed web servers inevitably shut down. Domains change ownership, companies go out of business, or their computer servers crash without having a backup to restore that content. Aside from central servers crashing, governments exploit the flaws of HTTP to slip through the cracks and keep tabs on its users, block access to certain information, and third-parties use it to monetize our information.
How the Internet Was Supposed to Be
The web was originally envisioned as a decentralized environment, free from the constraints of government control. Twenty years ago, the internet was seen as this digital dystopian world that would transform into a space where people could venture out like pioneers and pirates to completely transform our lives and promote digital freedom. At that time in 1996, John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a manifesto that permeated into the very ideals of computer users called, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” This declaration stated what the internet was supposed to be: Decentralized.
HTTP is the opposite of decentralization- users may feel disconnected from centralized control when they’re using it to connect to the web, but truly, all their information is filtered through a small handful of services. Many different platforms ask to log in through a Facebook or Google account. While this process may seem more streamlined for the user, it’s putting more control into someone else’s hands. Most users may not care about freely giving all of their information to the giant, but when their information is interrupted by hacks, and their sensitive info is exploited, their indifference escalates to panic. Central servers are not impervious. They crash, they die, they become obsolete over time, and they are more easily attacked and exploited. If a bear knew that all the honey in the world was stashed in one pot, that bear would attack it.
Distribution and decentralization of the web spreads all the honey of the world into different locations throughout the globe, making it a less malleable. It improves the freedom of the user and secures their information. No government or rising digital giant can come in to “shut it down” or simply take it over.
This is not to say that HTTP is completely without its plus-sides. Once introduced into our internet ecosystem, HTTP lowered the price of publishing content, however, those costs still add up. For digital giants such as Google, those costs aren’t a problem. But for smaller sites, the cost of serving all the data (especially if it becomes popular) start to climb through the roof. Bandwidth costs money.
Enter IPFS: The New Internet
IPFS, which stands for Interplanetary File System, is considered the distributed web, a peer-to-peer hyper media protocol to make the web faster, safer, and more open. Initially designed by Juan Benet, a Stanford computer science graduate who later formed Protocol Labs, IPFS is a system to facilitate a permanent and decentralized method of storing and sharing files. Its name is derived from J.C.R. Licklider, a computer scientist who originally envisioned an “intergalactic” internet and prophesized its worldwide computer network long before it was built with “modern-style interactive computing abilities and applications.”
While the HTTP protocol connects us to locations, IPFS aims to connect us to content. This peer-to-peer file system seeks to connect us to all computing devices with the same system of files. A browser currently first finds the location (IP address) of the server, then asks the server for the file using a path name. Only the owner of the server can determine that this file is what the user is looking for, and the user must trust that information to be accurate and the owner hasn’t changed the information or shut it down. But with IPFS, instead of looking for a centrally-controlled location, users ask a distributed network of millions of computers not for the name or location of the file, but for the content that’s in that file. IPFS also has little in the way of storage limitations. It can serve files that are large or small and it automatically breaks up larger files into smaller chunks, allowing IPFS nodes to download or stream files from not just one server like with HTTP, but hundreds of them simultaneously. It’s a fine-tuned, trustless, distributed Content Delivery Network (CDN). In turn, IPFS is a CDN system of distributed servers that deliver web pages and other content to a user based on their geographic location of the user, the origin of the web page, and the content delivery server. A CDN is useful for everything that involves data: from images to video streaming, databases, entire operating systems, blockchains, backup discs, and static websites.
How Does It Work?
By creating a single command to add a website to an IPFS node, a user can choose what data they want to persist by adding that code. IPFS doesn’t require every node to store all of the content that has ever been published. Think of IPFS like bookmarking, but instead of bookmarking a link to a site, the user backs up the entire site and volunteers to serve the content to others that want to look at it. If more nodes host even just a little bit of information, it begins to add up quickly, providing more space, bandwidth (which reduces cost), and availability. This moves away from the central HTTP service and into a distributed web that’s faster, more reliable, and more accessible despite shoddy internet service. IPFS has no central point of failure, and nodes do not need to trust each other. It addresses security issues of HTTP and makes attacks rather impossible.
Why Should Users Care?
With the ascension of smartphone use and the abundance of low-cost internet accessible devices, anyone can access online content. The cost and demand of content will escalate into a perpetual battle with the giants of Amazon, Google, etc., constantly upping their arsenal of engineers. In the coming years, society’s incessant need for content and information at their beck and call will progress exponentially. With a higher demand than output, it’s possible that this entire online HTTP ecosystem will implode, choke, or shut down. But if users move from the HTTP format over to IPFS, this reduces cost and frees up functionality time, and the possibility of an implosion becomes less likely.
Aside from the centralized internet and its possible implosion, IPFS solves the issue of content censorship. HTTP unintentionally grants governments and other third-parties access to content manipulation or censorship. Websites and content that question the status quo with any “opposing views or validating facts” often have very short shelf-lives and the information once contained on those web pages are “suddenly” eradicated from the internet forever. IPFS disallows censorship of this form and is a proponent of information sharing. While this is good news in a world that values freedom of speech, malicious users may see this as a gateway for sharing harmful and erroneous content. The IPFS team has stated that they are working on “developing ‘denylists’ explicitly for this purpose. IPFS networks can maintain lists of ‘bad bits/illegal numbers’ that they will not download/serve/etc. These lists can be maintained per jurisdiction.” However, these “denylists” will only be created and maintained with the utmost deliberation and scrutiny as censorship within a decentralized system is abhorrent to the IPFS team and the idea of decentralization as a whole. On top of creating an internet that’s free from censorship and website control, the giants can’t come in and “shut the internet down.” That “Independent Cyberspace” John Perry Barlow had foreseen would exist.
IPFS Chooses Ethereum
While the promise that IPFS provides is one that shows great potential, it’s still in its infancy and is only a piece of that decentralized-internet-puzzle.
This is where Filecoin steps in. “Filecoin is a distributed electronic currency similar to Bitcoin. Unlike Bitcoin’s computation-only proof-of-work, Filecoin’s proof-of-work function includes a proof-of-retrievability component, which requires nodes to prove they store a particular file.”
Developers recognize that people aren’t completely willing to give out disk space for free. Filecoin is a concept that was created to incentivize node hosting. Similar to how a user pays Dropbox or AWS to host files, users will have Filecoin. “Filecoin enables outsourcing of data storage to a fluid distributed network of service providers. Individual providers are incentivized to allocate their storage resources to cover all requested data pieces, since any such piece may be the subject of a profitable future block-mining challenge. Parties may opt to join or leave the network at will, without compromising the robustness of the system.”
Originally, Protocol Labs was looking to the Bitcoin blockchain to lead the emergence of the Filecoin technology. But the IPFS team decided to switch to the Ethereum network after noticing the development within the Ethereum community and its network as a whole. They noted that a unified and highly functioning development community is one of the technology’s greatest assets.
Ethereum and IPFS are working together to create a better internet that’s free from the flaws of our current online ecosystem. By addressing censorship, cost, and exploitation, these puzzle pieces combine to create a union that will revolutionize our information-based society and take us into the new internet space of Web 3.0.