These technologists think the internet is broken. So they're building another one.

Mark Nadal is one of a growing number of technologists trying to right what they see as the wrongs of the internet by building a new one around decentralization.
Image: New Internet
Technologists are working to build decentralized, distributed systems to power internet services, sidestepping tech titans.Adrian Lam / NBC News

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By Noah Smith

Unlike other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, Mark Nadal is not building an app or a service or a sophisticated piece of software that might someday be acquired by his outsize neighbors, like Google, Facebook or Apple. Instead, he’s building something he hopes can render them obsolete.

Nadal is one of a growing number of technologists trying to right what they see as the wrongs of the internet by building a new one. This web, unlike the current one, will be decentralized, using the connected devices that now permeate modern life to create a new digital ecosystem.

The dWeb, as the concept for the decentralized web has come to be known, is meant to take back power from powerful internet giants like Google and Facebook while also creating a more secure and private system.

“This isn’t about technology individually,” Nadal said of his project. “It’s about creating an environment of opportunity that benefits everyone.”

The internet’s data is currently managed largely on centralized, private servers owned by various large companies, now often called the “cloud.” Google, Amazon, Microsoft and a handful of other companies operate these systems, providing the backbone both for their own services and for those of others.

In practice, the dWeb is an alternative framework for the internet that sidesteps major tech companies by using the computing resources now found in everyday life — such as the smartphones and laptops now used by millions of people — to provide the foundation for a new generation of companies and services. Success for some dWeb startups,especially those that deal in financial tech and cryptocurrencies, would likely require companies to choose to build on decentralized systems. But for others, such as Nadal’s, success rests on developers and users gravitating toward the services built on those systems. The dWeb is based on peer-to-peer data sharing and communications between users — without companies such as Facebook, Google, Uber or AirBnB providing a platform or mediating the connections.

Nadal and the larger decentralization movement faces a serious challenge in convincing consumers and developers to change their habits and practices. While early internet trailblazers had the benefit of building something from the ground up, dWeb proponents have to counter companies that have achieved global scale and constantly optimize for user convenience. Many users are now in the habit of ordering easily from Amazon, for example, and may not appreciate any impediments to their relationship with that company or others.

But with growing skepticism of how tech giants treat their users, Nadal sees an opportunity to convert people to his cause.

“People should care,” he said. “We don’t let people read our diary, but we let them read our digital data.”

Others argue that the centralization of the web has slowed innovation and limited the scope of innovation, leaving room for a new revolution that will offer products far superior to any major tech company.

A tangled web

The decentralized internet movement traces its roots to some of the earliest days of the consumer web and has even peeked into popular culture, thanks to HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” in which a team of programmers tries to build a new, decentralized internet. File sharing offered a first look at decentralization with Napster and later BitTorrent. More recently, distributed blockchain-powered systems — systems that run on many computers and contribute to a shared database that no single entity controls — such as bitcoin and Ethereum have gained widespread attention as ways to securely transfer the equivalent of digital money through distributed computing systems.

In some ways, Nadal is a throwback to the concept’s early tech days. With long blond hair and a penchant for neon clothing and sandals, he speaks animatedly about technology in the same kind of high-minded platitudes that have given way in recent years to broader skepticism about the impact of technology in society.

Mark Nadal shows a dashboard for his distributed internet startup. NBC News

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The dWeb, he said, can counter the power of the tech giants, help allay privacy concerns, and alleviate broader issues of government censorship that have darkened the once-blue skies of the internet and changed Silicon Valley from a community of techno-futurists into a center of corporate power.

“When we can rise up and all be as powerful to speak out, whether we agree with each other or not, that is what decentralization is all about,” Nadal said. “It gives us a collective voice.”

In recent years, a variety of dWeb concepts have sprung up around the world, some with the backing of influential technologists including Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the World Wide Web.

And with increasing political pressure focused on the outsize power of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, dWeb proponents see an opportunity to present an alternative to the concentrations of power and personal data-based businesses that have emerged on the internet.

“The web architecture has centralization built into it in really painful ways,” said Brewster Kahle, an Internet Hall of Fame member who founded the Internet Archive, Alexa Internet, and a forerunner to the World Wide Web. “And it’s really showing up in the problems of Facebook and Twitter, that those companies control way too much of what it is you see, and they’re not well suited for it.”

The dWeb also harkens back to the internet’s early days, when techno-visionaries saw the opportunity for a future that cut out middlemen and leveled the playing fields of information and business.

“The decentralized ethos is a bit of a rebel cry,” Kahle said.

Decentral perk

At a Santa Monica café, Nadal offers a vision of a disconcerting future, a kind of corporate version of George Orwell’s “1984” in which a few large companies exert near-total control over people’s daily lives.

“I’m trying to stop that dystopian future from happening,” Nadal said. “And in that process, it also means I have to give up a lot of my own control. I won’t get access to people’s data, but I know it’s the right thing to do.”

In the current iteration of the internet, the central role that major tech companies play gives them access to a deep well of user data. A decentralized web is meant to take the idea of the cloud beyond servers and into the laptops, phones and even smart appliances around the world, creating a peer-to-peer framework in which the information is distributed and stored primarily across billions of devices.

In HBO's "Silicon Valley," a group of programmers attempt to create a distributed web company.Ali Paige Goldstein / HBO

Nadal’s version of this idea is called GUN, which stands for graph universe node. It’s a decentralized database that facilitates the creation of dWeb sites and apps. The network runs on just about any device that has a processor and access to the internet.

Started in 2014, GUN has received more than $2 million in venture funding and is already in use, including by The Internet Archive. It has also been used by indepedent developers to set up dWeb imitations of Reddit and YouTube. The network serves about 3 million visitors every month. On these new sites, users cannot be banned and the sites cannot be shut down by traditional means, since there is no central server or company hosting it.

Homeschooled and a self-taught coder, Nadal founded his first company in 2010 at the age of 18 by building a way to help people make personal websites. The experience also triggered a distrust of centralization. Nadal said major email providers blocked an email server he created at a pivotal moment in his first startup’s history, leading to irreparable damage to the business.

Mark Nadal unpacks a handful of Rasberry Pi computers, which help power his distributed computing system.NBC News

Eventually putting the email episode behind him, Nadal began investigating ways to improve the ability of websites to handle surges in traffic. But he quickly found that the same companies that stymied his email had also developed a broader solution. As they grew, Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies had been pioneering distributed systems that were able to effectively handle requests from around the world by storing parts of data in different places instead of in one location, thus pioneering advanced cloud computing.

While those systems had helped the major tech companies cement their roles in the internet ecosystem, Nadal also saw the seeds of a way to bypass them entirely while retaining the advantages of cloud computing.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Get the net

Nadal spent two years developing his distributed software in secret, but received a surprise when a competitor got to market about a month before him.

Though still perceived by many to be the Wild West of the internet, decentralized networks have become a growing focus of entrepreneurs and investors, while also gaining some support from larger institutions such as banks and consulting firms. The Ethereum Enterprise Alliance has more than 250 companies, including J.P. Morgan, Accenture, and BNY Mellon actively developing specifications that would allow for companies to do business through Ethereum’s blockchain-based platform.

More recently, Facebook’s announcement of the Libra cryptocurrency offered a future that some critics worried could use decentralized technology to further entrench some of tech’s biggest players.

Like many in his ideological community, Nadal has been spurred to think in such bold terms partially because of what he believes could happen if current tech developments continue unabated, including Facebook’s new cryptocurrency.

Nadal is also not the only person hoping to use decentralized computing in an effort to create systemic change. In 2018, Berners-Lee announced Solid, a decentralized platform that is meant to give users more power over how their data is collected and used.

British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee speaks at the World Web Forum in Zurich on Jan. 24, 2017.Walter Bieri / Keystone via AP file

“Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value,” Berners-Lee wrote in a Medium post last year. “As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests.”

And while Berners-Lee shared in the broader concern about the power of the tech giants, he and others, such as Voto, have illustrated a future where the dWeb isn’t just an ideological movement — it’s a user’s preference.

“People want apps that help them do what they want and need to do — without spying on them,” he wrote. “Apps that don’t have an ulterior motive of distracting them with propositions to buy this or that. People will pay for this kind of quality and assurance.”