Blockchain Offers Hope for the Broken Internet

May 27, 2017, 4:41 PM UTC
Vector of Internet Security Systems
Photograph by Getty Images

A version of this post originally appeared in the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter.

If we were to design the Internet all over again, it’s a good bet we wouldn’t build what we have today: A giant advertising oligopoly where consumers trade privacy for free services, and which is so insecure that hackers and criminals run wild.

But path dependency is a powerful thing, and so replacing the Internet we know with something else is very hard. That doesn’t mean, though, people aren’t trying.

There are big ideas in the air these days, including those shared this week at the bitcoin-blockchain extravaganza known as Consensus. The three-day event in New York City revealed some radical technology to change how we interact with the Internet.

The most ambitious announcement came from a company called Blockstack, which is building a new type of Internet browser using the distributed ledger software known as blockchain. The idea is that people will no longer have to supply log-in information to the likes of Facebook and Google to interact with others on the web. Instead, they’ll keep control of their identity by using blockchain’s authentication features.

If all this sounds pie-in-the-sky, don’t write it off too quickly. I spoke with executives from major companies who are all making the same case that “identity” is the biggest problem with the Internet right now, and hinted they’re set to unveil blockchain-based solutions of their own. Look for announcements this summer.

Meanwhile, at the Cyber Investing Summit, where Fortune’s Robert Hackett and I hosted panels this week, there was a feeling the tide is starting to turn against hackers. The arrival of new biometric and network technology, combined with the rise of cybersecurity focused investors like Strategic Cyber Ventures, mean Internet security is improving rapidly.

Finally, Hyperledger—a relatively new non-profit group that focuses on blockchain—is growing quickly, and getting support from everyone from big banks to IBM to independent developers. If the project succeeds, the result will be a governing body to make blockchain technology secure and easy to use for everyone. In the long term, it could mean we’ll all be using a blockchain-based Internet that is superior to the broken web we use today.

Yes, all this feels far off. But as tech writer Walt Mossberg observed in a farewell column titled “The Disappearing Computer,” we’re in a transition period, and waiting as companies create subtle new types of software that are “simultaneously more intelligent and more secure.” The future, as it always does, will arrive.


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