Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea are the co-founders of Blockstack, a project to rebuild the internet using blockchain technology so that individuals can reclaim direct control over their own identities, contacts, and data. The goal is to bring the property rights we enjoy in the physical world to cyberspace.
These two Princeton-trained computer scientists—Ali completed his Ph.D. last month with a speciality in distributed systems—believe that today’s internet is fundamentally broken. Users are forced to trust companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook to maintain our online identities and personal information. They store our files in giant data centers that are increasingly vulnerable to hackers. And the Snowden leaks revealed that the National Security Agency has strong armed these tech giants into handing over users’ personal data without bothering to obtain court-issued warrants.
“Google has this saying, ‘don’t be evil,'” says Ali. “Maybe a company shouldn’t be powerful enough that they’re sitting there thinking, ‘should I be evil or not?'”
So how does Blockstack propose to alter cloud computing, which has bought enormous efficiencies to the tech sector? Ali and Shea say they’ve worked out a way to break up internet data centers into virtual storage lockers that are fully encrypted, so individual users are the only ones who hold the keys to their own data.
“If you’re a Dropbox engineer, you can go through my files today,” says Ali. “But if I use Dropbox through Blockstack, they have no visibility into the data at all.”
This new decentralized architecture is possible thanks to the invention of a new type of distributed database called a “blockchain,” which was introduced to the world in 2008 as a component of the peer-to-peer digital currency bitcoin. The blockchain was designed as a decentralized system for keeping track of who owns what bitcoin, but in the last nine years an entire industry has emerged that all about integrating the blockchain into everything from real estate markets to driverless car technology.
Shea describes the blockchain as a virtual “whitepages the community maintains together,” which “anyone can add to” but “nobody controls”—a record that doesn’t require a central entity to guarantee its veracity. This shared white pages lists the location of each users’ encrypted data lockers.
Essential online functions that can be moved to the blockchain include registering unique identities and keeping track of each users’ personal contacts. On this new internet, applications like Facebook and Twitter will still exist, but they’ll have far less power and responsibility.
“At Blockstack, we’re enabling small, open-source groups to grow and compete with the large players,” says Shea.
What will the Blockstack internet mean for Silicon Valley? Shea predicts a new wave of tech firms will emerge. “I believe this will create a much larger economy and a lot more prosperity for everyone.”
Written, shot, produced, and edited by Jim Epstein. Hosted by Nick Gillespie. Additional camera by Kevin Alexander.
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Jim Epstein is a writer and producer at Reason.
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Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason TV and the co-author, with Matt Welch, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America (2011/2012). He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast.
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