An important derivative outcome of blockchain technology is the laying out and propagation of peer to peer networks that cannot be (easily) taken down, a feature also known in the crypto circles as being “censorship resistant”. Just as the Internet is that unstoppable mega network, these smaller networks are supposed to run for ever and ever, due to their decentralized architecture serving as a base foundational layer.
P2P networks are not new to the blockchain. The original and quintessential P2P network is Napster, as its first nemesis. Unfortunately, Napster had to be taken down in 2001 due to legal pressures, after amassing 80 million users at its peak, because it contributed to illegal music downloads. Out of its remnants, BitTorrent emerged, and it is to this day an active network for file sharing.
Lately, in the blockchain world, the Bitcoin network became the first poster child of natively decentralized peer to peer networks, serving as the infrastructure layer for an alternative global financial system to exchange digital value. Bitcoin’s success has given a new resurgence of the peer-to-peer network as a viable infrastructure method for the proliferation of technical and functional protocols. As a result, a number of aspiring and existing P2P networks have slowly emerged, and beginning to assert their footprints in our online world.
We need to understand these peer-to-peer blockchain networks as living organisms. They are in part technology infrastructure, and in part social architecture because they rely on humans who have to first agree on cooperation as a key success factor for their ongoing evolution. These networks depend on the commitments of a large number of participants (nodes) to contribute a variety of resources that are later consumed by users.
Are We Decentralized Yet?
There used to be a website titled “Are we Decentralized Yet?” tracking key metrics pertaining to the actual decentralization purity of the top blockchain protocols and technologies. The listed parameters were:
- Incentivized miners/voters?
- # of entities in control of >50% of voting/mining power
- % of money supply held by top 100 accounts
- # of client codebases that account for >90% of nodes
- # of public nodes
Although that table isn’t a perfect dashboard for decentralization, as some of these metrics could be argued upon as being the true harbingers of decentralization, it illustrates nonetheless the diversity and variety of being decentralized.
Sadly, the site isn’t operational anymore, perhaps due to the costs of pulling on-chain data, normalizing it, processing it and storing it. Keeping track of P2P is not easy. That is why some protocols have their own explorers who must do specific active/passive crawling in order to derive accurate counts.
If we look at the public number of nodes as one of the most visible metric, here is an updated sample, including new ones not on that referenced table:
- Bitcoin: 10,205 nodes (Source: Bitnodes)
- Ethereum : 9,901 nodes (Source: Ethernodes)
- OpenBazaar: 18,000 nodes per month (Source: private communication)
- ZCash: 173 nodes (Source: Zcha Explorer)
- IPFS: 2,000 nodes (Source: IPFS link, estimate)
These numbers appear small relative to the overall sheer size of the web (and their true potential), but they are large enough to depict a real and valid direction for this trend.
When you peel some of the layers of these peer to peer networks, 4 important characteristics jump out:
- The number of nodes is self-growing (on-boarding is typically permissionless)
- Each node is self-incentivized (the economic model should reward nodes)
- The overall progression should be self-governing (ensures resiliency and survivability)
- A degree of anonymity is typically inherent (makes it difficult to pinpoint single origin of work)
There is a need to emphasize that incentives are a powerful sustainability factor. Incentives ensure the long term viability and self-sustainability of the network, while making it even more resilient. And a distributed self-governance makes the network more anti-fragile because it doesn’t depend on a single entity or person to dictate its evolution. As for the anonymity factor, it is required to protect those at risk who can’t defend themselves if they make their voices heard.
Legal and Search Implications To Consider
One implication is that eventually there will be enough data on these alternative P2P networks such that traditional Googling for information will miss the mark on revealing decentralized content. We might need new types of crawlers, or Google will need to update their own tentacles, with the caveat that this type of decentralized discovery will be more difficult to achieve.
Then come to mind moral, ethical and lawfulness aspects. What if these unstoppable networks are used for bad things? What is the remedy (if any) for removing the bad stuff, punishing the originators, or holding responsible the creators?
Similar arguments have been made about the Internet,- that it was enabling the bad guys, the anarchists and the illegals to conduct their business. Who knows how many bad things were happening on the Internet- from pornography to terrorists communicating, to other types of crimes facilitated by it. One could argue that bad guys and bad stuff will always be there, and if it’s not via the Internet, or the blockchain or unstoppable P2P networks, they will always find a way.
Yet, we aren’t stopping the Internet, but just as Napster was forced to stop illegal downloads, there are cases where courts can impose their will on Internet services. For example, earlier this year, Craigslist was forced to take down their Personals section, because a US Congress Bill classified them as “promoting or facilitating the prostitution of another person”, and they could have faced fines and prison terms of up to 10 years, had they not complied. Ironically, a user can Google for similar services and end-up at the same place, yet Google was not touched by that Bill.
The future of viable P2P networks can’t be stopped, because they are necessary infrastructure for the next generation of decentralized protocols, functional capabilities and applications.
For example, you could imagine a decentralized application having to rely on multiple P2P networks,- one being a blockchain to validate transactions, another being a decentralized identity network, and a third being a P2P storage network.
Still, important questions remain: will unstoppable P2P networks be used as a tool or weapon, for good or for bad, and to promote just or corrupt causes?
Let’s hope that the dominant usages of P2P networks emerge on the right side. Let them become powerful new tools for enacting forces of good, and promoting the causes that need it the most.