Decentralized communication is the antidote to an Orwellian dystopia | Opinion
Protecting privacy means protecting freedom, providing human dignity and ensuring safety, and none of these is optional in the digital era.
Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here belong solely to the author and do not represent the views and opinions of crypto.news’ editorial.
Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the World Wide Web as a decentralized realm, ‘a place where all people had access to the best information at any time.’ But its current iteration, web2, evolved in the opposite direction in the past decades.
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Giant corporations like Meta, Google, Zoom increasingly dominated web2, turning it into a vast data mine to serve their profit-maximizing interests. Government organizations have also colluded with them in the past for illegal mass surveillance. We’re thus facing a massive threat to digital privacy.
The centralized rot runs pretty deep into web2. But everything’s not doom and gloom still. Thanks to emerging technologies like blockchain and cryptography, we now have robust tools to tackle the digital privacy problem(s). Decentralized real-time communication (dRTC) networks are a key innovation to this end, empowering users with non-intermediated communications and data sharing. This turns top-down legacy frameworks on their head.
The difference between web2 and web3 | Source: Skiplevel
The case for private communications
‘Only those who have something to hide worry about privacy’—one of the most common but misleading arguments against privacy. It betrays an often ill-intentioned ploy to undermine or shame privacy-seeking behavior, guilt-tripping users into trading privacy for convenience or whatever.
But privacy is everyone’s right. It’s one’s ability to choose their thoughts or feelings and decide whom to share them with, if at all. In Privacy, Autonomy, and Self-Concept (1987), Joseph Kupfer identified privacy as indispensable for autonomy.
Or, as Edward Snowden pointed out, the more Big Tech firms know about us, “the more they are able … to create permanent records of private lives, the more influence and power they have over us.” That’s why protecting privacy means protecting freedom, besides ensuring human dignity and safety.
None of the above is optional.
These growing concerns point to the pressing need for private, censorship-resistant communication channels that let us connect and share information online without giving everything up to prying intermediaries. But we’re only foraying further away from it.
Is the dystopia far-fetched?
One might argue that claims about a dystopian future are too alarmist and far-fetched. Refuting this point of view with real-world instances is highly worthwhile, for it’ll establish the case for private communications even more firmly. It’ll show that the threat is closer to home than most people are willing to accept.
The latest Zoom Terms of Service update—effective since August 11, 2023—gets users to “consent to Zoom’s access, use, collection, creation, modification, distribution, processing, sharing, maintenance, and storage of Service Generated Data for any purpose.”
Notably, ‘Service Generated Data’ means whatever end-users generate while using Zoom’s services: the things they say during meetings, the texts they type into the chat box, etc. Moreover, Zoom can tap into these data sets ‘for any purpose’, which includes training proprietary or third-party artificial intelligence and machine learning models.
Of course, the company promises to not use anything ‘without customer consent.’ But with so much fine print in a convoluted document written in legalese and inaccessible to most people, ‘consent’ is mostly a farce. It gives very little to end-users while the company dictating the terms gets plausible deniability, i.e., a multi-utility weapon in their arsenal.
Andrew Côté likened Zoom to NSA 2.0 following the Terms update, with good reason.
Zoom updates its Terms of Service to become the NSA 2.0:
I’m in disbelief at this update because of how far-sweeping it is, yet here we are. Direct quotes from section 10.2
«You consent to Zoom’s access, use, collection, creation, modification, distribution, processing,… pic.twitter.com/YemC2Q6es5
— Andrew Côté (@Andercot) August 7, 2023
However, Zoom isn’t the only tech giant with highly intrusive policies and totalitarian tendencies. From Facebook’s tryst with Cambridge Analytica to global leaders abusing cyber weapons like Pegasus, examples of mass surveillance efforts are a bit too many already.
Securing privacy with dRTC
Centralization, backed by opaque or ‘black box’ algorithms and siloed data structures, is arguably the biggest enabler of privacy violations in web2. It’s clear from Zoom’s example that end-users don’t have any meaningful control over the data their communications generate. Other communication platforms, like Google Meet, for instance, are no better in this regard.
Having said that, the established giants still don’t have the incentives to prioritize end-user privacy. It’s not in their economic interest and they are here to make the maximum profit. Ethical arguments urging web2 communications platforms to adopt fair means thus won’t work. We need disruptive alternatives instead.
Decentralized real-time communication, or dRTC, is the way forward. Taking P2P a step further, dRTC systems allow users to make encrypted wallet-to-wallet calls. Besides audio and video, these systems can also support other types of data transfers, presenting functional web3 versions of platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp, etc.
The non-custodial nature of dRTC systems puts individuals in complete control of their communications data. Coupled with pseudonymous interactions and verifiable computation, this heightens privacy and autonomy for end-users—here’s to innovation solving age-old problems. And with data ownership, the scope for monetization opens up for individual users as well.
Moreover, since dRTC systems replace centralized client-server architectures with globally-distributed, blockchain-powered nodes, they are more cost-efficient and have lower latency. There’s also a higher chance of recovering lost information, due to better data redundancy.
Overall, thus, dRTC fosters the holistic empowerment of individual users from a digital communications and information sharing perspective. As an integral element of web3 in the making, they bring us closer to the internet’s ideal state, where end-users are above all else. And even while doing so, it provides the means for service providers and businesses to generate multi-stream revenues: subscriptions, products, etc. That’s a win-win situation where the ground for dystopian exploitation is altogether non-existent.
Ayush Ranjan is co-founder and CEO of Huddle01, a project that was born from the 2019 ETHGlobal Hackathon, and now offers a communication infrastructure driving cross-chain audio and video at the convergence of web2 and web3 with its own video conferencing dapp, audio spaces dapp, and seamless Google Calendar integration for scheduling. Prior to Huddle01, Ayush studied at The LNM Institute of Information Technology, earning a bachelor of technology degree in electronics and communications engineering.