When you download a file or send a tweet, your information is stored in a mega data center owned by a company in the middle of nowhere. The countless racks of computers in these facilities contain millions of records, and with the flick of a switch, companies can censor or misuse the data.
But what if instead of handing it over to, say, Amazon or Google, your data is broken into pieces and scattered across the world so that no one but you and your key – not even the government – cannot access it?
Decentralized cloud storage
That’s the idea behind a radical new online framework for storing data called the Interplanetary File System, or IPFS. It went live a few months ago and Skiff, an online document editor, is one of the first platforms to take advantage of it.
Skiff looks and behaves like any other productivity service you might be familiar with, like Google Docs. You can create new documents, edit them with your colleagues, and generally use them as you would with any other documentation program. However, when you switch to its IPFS switch, it stores all those documents in a way that none of its peers can.
Unlike, say, Google, which would save your file to one of its storage facilities, Skiffs breaks it up into smaller chunks, encrypts them with your private key, and distributes them across a network of hosts. These hosts can be anywhere in the world and are not towering servers sitting in a freezing warehouse, but rather users like you and me with the bare necessities: a computer with enough storage space and an internet connection. .
So when Skiff wants to retrieve your documents, it doesn’t need to establish a connection to a server thousands of miles away – it might just be a few blocks away from you. The way Skiff locates your files is also what really sets IPFS apart from what we use today.
The URL is long overdue for an update
You see, the internet as we know it runs on physical addresses. To load an image, this web page or any other data, your device must know the coordinates of the server on which this data is stored. IPFS reverses this configuration. Instead of the location of the data, its addresses point directly to the content itself.
Each bit of IPFS data has a unique fingerprint. An application like Skiff takes this fingerprint and passes it to the IPFS network, which finds the shortest routes to all bits of data and sends them back. Not only is it much faster than traveling miles – often continents – to get your data, but it also saves tons of bandwidth and power. But there’s more to why IPFS came into the picture.
Building a Much More Resilient Internet
Because IPFS doesn’t centralize your information on servers owned by a handful of giants, it’s more resilient to widespread outages that are becoming more frequent, such as the Amazon disruption of a few months ago that destroys Slack and Epic Games for hours. Additionally, when you access IPFS data, it is cached indefinitely on your devices because you are also acting as the host. So even in the event of a network outage or sporadic bandwidth, you should theoretically be able to continue browsing the web as usual.
IPFS servers cannot suffer large scale data breaches either, as all bits of data broken down are individually encrypted and meaningless until they are pieced together with your key and cannot be intercepted on the way to a device.
“With IPFS, there is no single point of control and failure,” says Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, one of the first browsers to allow its users to access IPFS content directly. from the web address bar, “so it’s impossible to close it.”
Bringing the Internet back to its roots
IPFS has only been around for a few years, but it’s inspired by the same principles that spawned the Internet decades ago. At the time, the goal of the US Department of Defense was to build a decentralized system that could survive unforeseen events and allow peer-to-peer communication, much like how IPFS works. But when Big Tech took over, these principles were forgotten and the power of the web was ultimately concentrated in the hands of a few.
IPFS revives these fundamentals with better technology. It’s part of a larger push by Silicon Valley, dubbed the “Web3” era, to once again decentralize the web.
There have been a few decentralized successes, such as Napster and BitTorrent, since the early days of the web. Daniel Erik, who studies distributed systems at the Berlin Institute of Technology, believes that next-generation data networks such as IPFS “can build on their predecessors and take advantage of technological advances to address weaknesses.”
Erik’s research on platforms like IPFS revealed a wide range of benefits, but also a handful of challenges. More importantly, what will happen to your data if hosts opt out in the future?
Get Paid in Crypto for Data Hosting
Long-term data availability has always been a hurdle for peer-to-peer systems, and IPFS will be no different. But its creator, Protocol Labs, has a plan to keep people invested: cryptocurrency. The company intends to distribute its in-house cryptocurrency, Filecoin, to users who rent storage space, and the hope is that once IPFS adoption resumes, Filecoin’s value will increase and will be enough to attract the interest of the general public.
Importantly, however, Protocol Labs isn’t doing it for crypto gains. The main purpose behind IPFS is to protect the internet from aggressive and rampant online censorship. In recent years, governments around the world have increasingly resorted to web censorship to suppress dissent and crush uprisings. Since there is no central switch that anyone can turn on to boot any given content from the IPFS network, it is better equipped to resist censorship. In 2017, when Turkey banned Wikipedia, people were able to get it back by hosting it on IPFS, keeping it alive for the entire three years the crowdsourcing website officially remained banned in the country.
But what allows IPFS to resist moderation could also make it easier to conceal malicious actors. BitTorrent is notorious for allowing illegal file sharing through peer-to-peer networks, and experts fear that IPFS will end up being just a more advanced version of it.
“It’s a tough problem,” Erik told Digital Trends, but luckily, he adds, developers are already building countermeasures to track, report, and protect copyrighted data on IPFS. , which would prevent this network from turning into a kind of dark underbelly of the Internet. what happened to BitTorrent.
By the people for the people
However, IPFS and Web3’s path to the mainstream will be nothing short of an uphill battle, as decentralized solutions are met with resistance from established financial institutions, governments around the world, and most importantly, large corporations. businesses that benefit from the existing Web2 model.
But ultimately, platforms like IPFS make sense for end users because they are more fair and transparent. Consumer apps like Skiff could provide the boost decentralized technologies need to achieve commercial success, says Fan Long, a computer science professor at the University of Toronto.
“In a decentralized world, large corporations are losing the power they currently have,” Long adds. “Most companies will eventually be forced to join the trend or be left behind.”