How Cryptocurrency Can Decentralize the Internet, Fight Corruption

What will the Internet look like in 10 years? Or 50? If the Internet's rapid evolution so far is any indication, it won't be the Internet we know today.

Some people—only time will tell whether they're idealists or fortune tellers—think a decentralized Internet has a shot. And some think cryptocurrencies could play a role in this future. Last week, developer Greg Slepak joined the Epicenter Bitcoin podcast to discuss the ways that the Internet structure could be improved with cryptocurrency. Slepak and other developers are pursuing these ends at the okTurtles Foundation. (The name implies shell-like security, but Slepak explained that the name emerged because he “really liked the word turtle” in 2012.)

The discussion kicked off with an analysis of DNS, the name system that matches IP addresses to human-readable addresses. There are a couple of problems with it as it stands. Slepak pointed out that governments can (and do) censor websites using the DNS system. For most people in developed countries it isn't a problem of censorship, but “fairly significant” security issues and surveillance, Slepak explained.

HTTPS, which is another vital component of the Internet, secures communication over the Internet and prevents man-in-the-middle attacks. It's more secure than plain ole HTTP, but it has its own share of problems. The protocol relies on certificate authorities, which can be corrupted or hacked, providing the users with a false sense of security. Slepak argued:

"That's too much power to give to so many entities that people have absolutely no reason to trust."

Greg Slepak, OkTurtles Foundation

Namecoin, one of the first Bitcoin forks, replaces both DNS and HTTPS, solving many of the above issues. Users can query the blockchain, rather than trusted DNS server, for which IP address matches a domain and the blockchain, rather than a certificate authority, for the hash of a public key.

DNSChain serves as a proxy to an existing Namecoin node, relaying information back and forth between a Namecoin node and clients. People can run these DNSChain servers or use their friend's, and tell people what the public key is of that DNSChain server.

“Instead of trusting the least trustworthy out of a thousand entities, you're trusting someone you have reason to trust and only that person,” Slepak said.

But if you don't know anyone running one of these servers, then you still need to trust someone you have no reason to trust. One solution is to query two DNSChain servers and check that they both give you the same response for increased security. But another option is to make these servers easier for people to run. okTurtles is also working on a thin client protocol, which is not as resource intensive as running a full DNSChain server. They're kind of like the SPV wallets used in Bitcoin.

Slepak sees decentralization as a principle to work for, even beyond the Internet and okTurtles projects. He explained:

“Decentralization as a concept is a great solution to many of the challenges that humanity is facing today—in many different diverse fields. The more centralization you have in a system, the more it tends towards abusive power and cronyism. The answer to that is a decentralized system.”

Listen to the full episode for further explanation of these decentralized Internet projects.