Decentralized Publishing is a ‘web 3.0’ technology which allows media and information to be published electronically, by any member of a group of users and without the need for a central repository or publishing authority, using a peer-to-peer network.
Any data can be published in this way, from books to social media posts, cat videos to scientific research. The published media may be offered for anybody to access for free, or integrated with digital currency payment protocols to offer paid access or the option to tip the creator.
Normal electronic publishing methods involve the submission of information to a central publishing outlet who, after formatting it and applying any relevant editorial practices, will store it on their own computers in a data centre. Users access this data by sending requests to these computers, called ‘servers’, often via the http protocol using a website address or through an app. In a decentralized publishing system the data is instead stored in multiple locations on a peer-to-peer network of computers, in which it is common for the media consumers themselves to play a role in storing the media and serving it to other users.
The use of decentralized publishing methods has a number of major implications for both media producers and media consumers.
Unique Characteristics of Decentralized Publishing
Built-In Redundancy – No Single Point of Failure
When data is stored centrally it is vulnerable to a number of problems. Servers can be hacked into by thieves and data stolen or manipulated, damage to the computers due to accidents or disasters can lead to the data being lost, and technical problems can lead to the data being temporarily or permanently inaccessible.
Decentralized networks have a much greater level of redundancy, meaning that the information is stored in an accessible from a wide range of locations, making them much less vulnerable to all of these problems.
One of the biggest difference compared to conventional publishing is the absence of an editorial authority.
Because information is shared directly between users, and because it is stored in multiple locations which may be difficult or impossible for an authority to identify and which are subject to change, it is generally impossible for authorities to censor media which has been decentrally published. This is generally viewed as a positive design feature by its users.
Censorship resistant publishing has many positive applications. Even in democratic countries enables whisteblowers to leak information about illegal or immoral government practices, whilst making it impossible to government to pressure or threaten media outlets to keep that information secret from the public. It allows journalists and bloggers to exercise their right to free speech without being curtailed. But it really comes into its own in countries with more oppressive governments or during war time, when the government may try to block access to social media websites or prevent protesters from using them to organize their actions. Decentralized publishing of information about protests, as well as social media communications between protesters, can allow users to circumvent malicious controls put in place by oppressive governments.
Of course there is also another side to that – governments cannot censor content which the majority of people in a country may agree should be illegal, the most common example of which is pirated media content.
Creators Control Content
In many decentralized systems, especially those which make use of blockchain technology, media creators are often able to keep full control of their creations – there is no need to hand control over to a third party for publishing. Instead the creator can share their media directly with consumers according to their own terms and confident in the knowledge that they retain full rights to it and that only they can edit it.
Proof of Publishing
In centralized system you have to rely on the publisher to protect the integrity of the media and to provide accurate metadata. In a decentralized system it is possible to provide verifiable proof of publishing which identifies the media producer, verifies that the information has not been altered or tampered with, the exact date and time of publishing, the number of people who have paid for premium content (presuming the use of cryptocurrency) and more, all in a transparent and publicly accessible manner.
Decentralized Publishing and Torrent Technology
Arguably the first example of a popular decentralized publishing system is the use of torrents for P2P file sharing. Although this is often used for illegal file sharing, it is also commonly used for publishing original media.
This technology provides one of the best ways to store and share files decentrally, but does have some limitations. Often there is insufficient incentive for users to ‘seed’ content, meaning that there are more people trying to consume network resources than there are providing those resources. It is also true that torrent file sharing works best for popular media, and may fail for less popular media.
Decentralized Publishing and Blockchain Technology
Blockchain based networks usually cannot be used for publishing large amounts of information or media due to storage constraints. However, they can often be used in conjunction with other technologies for indexing data and providing a native payment mechanism. This native payment mechanism allows media producers to charge for access to their content, or integrates a micropayment system for tipping, without the need for a central payment processor.
Decentralized Publishing Projects
The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather features some of the most interesting projects at the moment, in the humble opinion of the editor. There is a particular focus on software which integrates blockchain technology, as that is the main topic of this site.
(If you would like to suggest an addition to this list please leave a comment below)