“You’ve got unlimited time and resources, you can build anything in the world you want with your compression — anything at all, what’s it gonna be… 3… 2… 1… go!” shouts billionaire douchebag Russ Hanneman in Silicon Valley’s Season 4 premiere.
“A new internet” stutters Richard Hendricks, the show’s bumbling, but lovable nerd protagonist. LOL, what?
“We put a man on the moon using the computing power of a handheld calculator,” Richard continues. “There’s literally millions of times more computing power in my phone, and that’s just sitting in my pocket doing nothing. So then I thought there’s, what, billions of phones all over the world with the same computing power just sitting in peoples’ pockets.”
“And then I thought, what if we use all those phones to build a massive network? We use my compression algorithm to make everything small, efficient, move things around. And if we could do it, we could build a completely decentralized version of our current internet with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying. Information would be totally free in every sense of the word.”
It’s a seemingly insane idea that Russ not only loves and says he’d consider funding, but also divides Richard’s data compression startup Pied Piper, ultimately forcing him to quit so he can figure out how to make the “new internet” a reality.
“I don’t know if it’s possible,” Richard admits. “I haven’t really thought this through.”
That’s exactly what fans who watched the episode have been wondering. Is Richard’s “new internet” even possible, or just TV nonsense?
Today, the internet is a mixture of decentralized and centralized networks. Anyone can go create a decentralized peer-to-peer network that connects directly between devices, like BitTorrent. Similarly, anybody can go out and create a centralized network and pass data through a server, like most big online services such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter.
The benefits of an encrypted decentralized network are obvious: security and privacy. Because of the way data is stored and moved around on decentralized networks, no online service can pry into your data without your knowing and no government can do so either.
There are several ways Richard could theoretically go about building this “new internet.” The first is with a mesh network.
It’s a network comprised of any number of devices or nodes, and data is passed between the nodes. Firechat is a perfect example of a service that uses a mesh network, connecting phones to other phones via Bluetooth.
In fact, some intrepid reddit users who analyzed the scribbles on Richard’s whiteboard in the preview video for the next episode have seemingly found clues that suggest he’s at least considering mesh networking.
The downside to using a mesh network and relying on a wireless protocol like Bluetooth is, of course, lower range and slower data speeds. Your connection to another device depends on your device’s Bluetooth spec. You can get around this with “relays” in between you and the device you want to connect to, but that’s assuming there are middlemen devices to pass data through to begin with.
On the flip side, while Bluetooth 4.0 only has a range of 200 feet, new devices with Bluetooth 5.0 have a range of up to 800 feet. Moreover, Bluetooth 5.0 doubles the amount of data speed from 4.0’s 25Mbps to 50Mbps. It’s no Gigabit Wi-Fi or LTE, but hey, privacy and security over speed, right? That said, Richard’s super awesome compression algorithm, which would “make everything small, efficient,” would be the special sauce to make a mesh network internet possible.
Another way Richard could go about his grand plan would be with a peer-to-peer (P2P) network like Maidsafe’s SAFE Network or Storj. Though the latter is only for decentralized file storage, I can’t see how someone as code-savvy as Richard wouldn’t be able to tweak the infrastructure to make it more like the former.
The SAFE Network, which bills itself as “the new decentralized internet” (heh), actually promises much of what Richard’s idea does, except instead of using the unused computing power from connected smartphones, it does so from PCs.
According to the company, users create an account without needing to identify themselves and then choose how much space to allocate to the network. Maidsafe then pays out “Safecoins” (its own cryptocurrency with real market value) as you contribute more storage space into a “vault,” further incentivizing users to join the network.
Before you upload a file, it’s encrypted, then broken up into smaller data packets and spread across the network. Data is stored with redundancy and files are autonomously moved across the network as computers are turned on.
In a nutshell, all of the “new internet’s” data is stored in fragmented, encrypted pieces on all of the devices on the network. When you need to access your data, you’ll simply download the rest of the pieces from another device. It’s basically BitTorrent but for everything.
The SAFE Network’s only in alpha testing right now, but it’s inching closer towards a public release. And while it’s only for Windows/Mac/Linux, the company has plans for mobile in the future. Speaking to TechCrunch last year, Maidsafe founder David Irvine said the vault, which is a core feature, “wouldn’t be good enough for people to just run from a mobile phone.” Additionally, tapping into a phone’s unused processing power would be a major battery suck; it’d need to be plugged into an outlet or connected to a battery pack most of the time to be useful.
Alternatively, the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) P2P protocol could also be used to create a new decentralized internet that replaces HTTP. This story from Motherboard back in 2015 does an excellent job extolling the advantages of IPFS; for example, videos would download faster resulting in increased bandwidth savings and sites wouldn’t vanish forever like they did when Yahoo! pulled the plug on every GeoCities website.
The technology to make a new internet is already here, and up and running. There are still technological hurdles to overcome to make it all happen on phones, but it wouldn’t be impossible. The bigger question is, how many people would join a new internet?
WATCH: This self-proclaimed cyborg turned his prosthetic eye into a tiny camera