When you upload a file or send a tweet, your information is stashed in some corporation-owned mega data center in the middle of nowhere. The endless racks of computers in these facilities hold millions of ledgers, and with a flick of a switch, companies can censor or misuse the data.
But what if instead of handing it to, say Amazon or Google, your data is broken down into pieces and scattered across the globe so that no one except you and your key — not even the government — can access it?
That’s the idea behind a radical new online framework for storing data called the Interplanetary File System or IPFS. It went live a few months ago, and Skiff, an online document editor, is one of the first platforms to take advantage of it.
Skiff looks and behaves like any other productivity service you may be familiar with, like Google Docs. You can create new documents, edit them together with your colleagues, and generally use it just like you would any other docs program. However, when you toggle on its IPFS switch, it stores all those documents in a way that none of its counterparts can.
Unlike, for instance, Google, which would save your file in one of its storage facilities, Skiffs splits it into smaller chunks, encrypts them with your private key, and distributes them across a network of hosts. These hosts can be anywhere in the world and aren’t towering servers sitting in a freezing warehouse, but rather users like you and me with the bare essentials: A computer with enough storage space and an internet connection.
So when Skiff wants to fetch your documents, it won’t need to establish a connection with a server sitting thousands of miles away — it could likely be just going a few blocks down from you. The way Skiff locates your files is also what truly sets IPFS apart from what we use now.
You see, the internet we know runs on physical addresses. To load an image, this webpage, or any other piece of data, your device needs to know the coordinates of the server where that piece of data is stored. IPFS turns that setup on its head. Instead of the data’s location, its addresses point directly to the content itself.
Each bit of IPFS data has a unique fingerprint. An app like Skiff takes that fingerprint and feeds it into the IPFS network, which tracks down the shortest routes to all the bits of data, and returns them. Not only is this much faster than traveling miles — often continents — to get your data, it also saves tons of bandwidth and energy. But there’s more to why IPFS has come into the picture.
Since IPFS doesn’t centralize your information in servers owned by a handful of giants, it’s more resilient to widespread outages that are getting increasingly more frequent, like the Amazon disruption from a few months ago that took down Slack and Epic Games for hours. On top of that, when you access any IPFS data, it’s cached on your devices indefinitely because you’re also acting as a host. So even in the event of a network failure or sporadic bandwidth, you should be theoretically able to continue browsing the web like normal.
IPFS servers can’t suffer any large-scale data breaches either, since all the broken down bits of data are individually encrypted and are meaningless until they’re pieced together with your key and can’t be intercepted on the way over to a device.
“With IPFS, there’s no single point of control and failure,” says Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, one of the first browsers to let its users access IPFS content right from the web address bar, “so it’s impossible to shut it down.”
IPFS has been only a couple of years in the making, but it draws inspiration from the same principles that spawned the internet decades ago. Back then, the U.S. Department of Defense’s objective was to build a decentralized system that could survive unforeseen events and allow peer-to-peer communication — just like how IPFS works. But when Big Tech took over, these principles were forgotten, and the power of the web was eventually concentrated into the hands of a few.
IPFS revives those fundamentals with better technology. It’s part of a greater push by Silicon Valley, dubbed the “Web3” age, to yet again decentralize the web.
There have been a couple of decentralized successes, such as Napster and BitTorrent, from the early web days. Daniel Erik, who researches distributed systems at the Berlin Institute of Technology, believes next-gen data networks such as IPFS “can build upon their predecessors and take advantage of technological advancements to address weaknesses.”
Erik’s research into platforms like IPFS found a broad range of upsides — but also a handful of challenges. Most importantly, what happens to your data if hosts back out in the future?
The long-term availability of data has always been a hurdle for peer-to-peer systems, and IPFS will be no different. But its creator, Protocol Labs, has a plan to keep people invested in it: Cryptocurrency. The company intends to distribute its in-house cryptocurrency, Filecoin, to users who rent out storage space, and the hope is that once IPFS adoption picks up, Filecoin’s value will grow and be enough to attract mainstream interest.
Importantly, though, Protocol Labs isn’t doing this for the crypto gains. The main goal behind IPFS is to protect the internet from aggressive and rampant online censorship. In the last few years, governments across the world have increasingly resorted to censoring the web to suppress dissent and squash uprisings. As there’s no central switch anyone can flip to boot a given piece of content off of the IPFS network, it’s better-equipped to resist censorship. In 2017, when Turkey banned Wikipedia, people were able to get it back up by hosting it on IPFS, keeping it alive for the entire three years the crowdsourced website officially remained banned in the country.
But what enables IPFS to be resilient against moderation could also potentially make it easier for malicious actors to hide. BitTorrent is notorious for enabling illegal file sharing via peer-to-peer networks, and experts fear IPFS could end up just being a more advanced version of it.
“It is a difficult problem,” Erik told Digital Trends, but fortunately, he adds, developers are already building countermeasures to track, report, and protect copyrighted data on IPFS, which would prevent this network from turning into the kind of internet dark underbelly that BitTorrent has become.
IPFS’s and Web3’s path to the mainstream will be nothing short of an uphill battle, however, as decentralized solutions face resistance from established financial institutions, governments around the world, and most of all, the large corporations that benefit from the existing Web2 model.
But ultimately, platforms like IPFS make sense for end users because they are more fair and transparent. Consumer apps like Skiff could offer the momentum decentralized technologies need to attain commercial success, argues Fan Long, a computer science professor at the University of Toronto.
“In a decentralized world, large corporations are losing the power they currently have,” Long adds. “Most corporations will be eventually forced to join the trend or be left out.”