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One Startup’s Vision to Reinvent the Web for Better Privacy

Blockstack’s system would let you control your own personal data—for example, by revoking a site’s access to it.
January 13, 2017

Venture capitalist Albert Wenger has done well by investing in Web businesses—he was an early backer of Etsy and Tumblr. But at his urging, Union Square Ventures, where he is a partner, is backing a company founded on the principle that the Web needs a rethink.

“We’re living in a time period where the new incumbents like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have firmly established themselves, and are near monopolists in their markets,” says Wenger. “If we want a long-term, open playing field for innovation, we’re going to need new, decentralized infrastructure.”

Blockstack received $4 million in funding from USV and others this month to try to establish that more open playing field. The startup is working on open-source software that will create a kind of parallel universe to the Web we know—one where users have more control of their data.

Later this year, Blockstack will release software that lets you surf sites and apps created for this new digital domain using your existing Web browser. You will still be able to load sites by clicking links or typing Web addresses, perhaps to find places to chat with friends or go shopping. But instead of needing to create accounts with each site, as people do with Google or Facebook, users of sites built on Blockstack’s system will control their own digital identity (or identities). To use a site that needs your information, you will grant access to a profile under your control alone. If you want to stop using a service, you can revoke its access to your profile and data and take it elsewhere. Sites will run all their code on your computer, in the browser.

“We’re trying to turn the existing model on its head,” says Ryan Shea, CEO and cofounder of Blockstack. “You can try to work with the existing model from within, but sometimes it’s easier to step outside of it and build something new from a clean slate.”

Blockstack’s vision is made possible by an identity system built to be independent of any one company, including the startup itself. It uses the digital ledger, or blockchain, underpinning the digital currency Bitcoin to track usernames and associated encryption keys that allow a person to control his or her data and identity. A collective of thousands of computers around the globe maintains the blockchain, and no one entity controls it.

Blockstack’s system uses the blockchain to record domain names, too, meaning there’s no need for an equivalent to ICANN, the body that oversees Web domains today. Software built on top of the name and ID systems gives people control over the data they let online services use. Microsoft is already collaborating with Blockstack to explore uses for its platform.

Blockstack’s tweaks on how the Web functions may seem abstruse. But Shea argues that low-level features of the Web’s design, like the lack of a built-in, independent identity system, are at the root of problems such as the dominance of large companies and the latitude they have to make use of user data. He says that companies will still be able to seek profits on the new platform, but power will be tilted more in favor of users.

The Web’s creator, Tim Berners-Lee, has lately made similar claims. In recent years he has urged technologists to “re-decentralize” the Web to better serve users and society. Berners-Lee registered the username via Blockstack’s platform last summer, and he is working on his own decentralized Web project, called SOLID, at MIT.

The dream of a new kind of online sphere faces some significant obstacles, though. For example, Bitcoin’s current design has proved to lack the capacity needed for a widely used currency (or online platform)—and it’s not clear how to build similar, fully decentralized systems that do, says Emin Gun Sirer, an associate professor at Cornell University.

Decentralized systems might also struggle to resolve disputes over things like copyright claims on domain names, which are solved relatively easily by a central authority, he says.

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, which hosted the first major conference on decentralizing the Web last summer, is optimistic that such challenges will be worked through.

Questions about privacy and the power of large companies are motivating more and more people to think seriously about alternatives to the status quo, he says. “So many of us now depend on the Web, but it is a 20-year-old technology that is showing its age.”

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