Digital Europe: Peer-to-peer technology for social good
Over the past year we have been working with some of Europe's leading digital experts to identify areas where an inducement prize would be useful in stimulating new ideas from a wide-pool of innovators. We asked Primavera De Filippi from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard to write about peer-to-peer technology for social good.
Do you remember the Internet, back in the 90’s? The Internet was, at that time, still an emergent and highly decentralized network that was accompanied by the promise of individual freedom and emancipation.
Eventually, however, economic interests and competitive dynamics penetrated into the Internet landscape, leading to a progressive concentration of the network’s traffic into the hands of a few large service providers. In spite of the great opportunities provided by the Internet in terms of decentralization and peer-to-peer communication, the old social, economic and political order has, to an extent, replicated itself across large parts of the decentralized network.
More than a decade ago, the web 2.0 introduced new opportunities for people to express themselves and to collaborate together on a global scale. The large online operators —such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter— now extract profits from these interactions. Uber disrupted the private transportation industry, letting people exchange rides; yet, as the sole intermediary, Uber dictates the conditions for all of these transactions. Many still regard the Internet as a space for decentralized collaboration and freedom of expression, but its potential for promoting individual autonomy and emancipation has become limited in several key regards.
Today, we are back in 1994, when the Internet was slowly taking form, and the advent of the web turned an obscure and unfriendly technology into one of the most used tools in our everyday lives. Another decentralized technology is slowly emerging, the blockchain, which might eventually lead to a new (r)evolution in the way we work and organise ourselves.
First implemented as part of the Bitcoin network, blockchain technologies have spurred the deployment of decentralized applications enabling people to coordinate themselves and to operate as a group, independently of any central authority or intermediary. From distributed cloud storage (MaidSafe, Storj) to decentralized marketplaces (OpenBazaar) and real-time peer-to-peer ride-sharing platforms (La’Zooz), new blockchain-based applications are emerging in many different fields of endeavour. The technology is still immature, and we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what may be possible in the future.
Another decentralized technology is slowly emerging, the blockchain, which might eventually lead to a new (r)evolution in the way we work and organise ourselves.
While the U.S. is pioneering in the field of financial applications, Europe is taking the lead in the context of more socially-grounded applications, with initiatives including:
- Mutual credit cooperative FairCoop
- Ascribe project for registering intellectual property on the blockchain
- EU funded project Provenance for bringing more transparency in a product’s supply chain
The potential for social innovation is great, and the technology has the potential for a strong, positive social and economic impact on the life of individuals and online communities (and also at the level of corporate and governmental institutions).
While the invisible hand of the market will ensure that innovation occurs whenever there is a profitable business to explore, it is of crucial importance that less profitable applications of these emergent technologies —such as those designed to further the general interest and promote the social good— also be explored and encouraged.
This is why actors in the public and social sector should incentivize these kinds of initiatives, through grants or prizes, to reward socially beneficial endeavours which are less likely to emerge in an environment shaped solely by market forces.