Decentralizing the internet with mesh and blockchain: pipe dream, or possible?

internet decentralized network blockchain

Today, if you send a message to a person a few blocks away, your message might go across the continent or even across an ocean, bounce around on a few servers from a number of different companies, and then ping down to your friend a few hundred meters away. But does that really make sense? In a decentralized internet, your message might take a few hops locally across machines and network and then make it to the receiver.

Can that change? Can we really decentralize the internet with blockchain? We know that the internet was originally designed to be decentralized … that’s how it was supposed to work even if there were emergencies and disasters that cut some of the physical connections.

But lately, it’s been getting more and more centralized, with major corporations owning huge swaths of the web and major countries like China and Russia locking down what people can see, where they can go, and what services are available.

One company thinks it has a solution.

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we go chat with the cofounder and CEO of ThreeFold, Kristof de Spiegeleer.

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Full transcript: Decentralizing the internet

John Koetsier:  Can we really decentralize the internet with blockchain?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. The internet was originally designed to be decentralized. That’s how it was built. That’s how it was supposed to work, for emergencies and disasters, perhaps even nuclear war. Recently, however, it’s getting much more centralized. Major corporations control it in much of the world, and of course, countries like China and Russia have clamped down internally, others as well. One blockchain company called ThreeFold thinks they have a solution.

We’re going to chat with the cofounder and CEO, Kristof de Spiegeleer right now. Welcome Kristof! 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Thank you very much, welcome, thank you so much for inviting me here.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Did I butcher your last name?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: de Spiegeleer, but it’s too complicated, just Kristof will do. 

John Koetsier: It’s almost as bad as my last name. In any case, how far are we off of the original concept of the internet today? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Great question. Well, when the internet started, it was truly a kind of hippie movement. It was just people connecting cables, and in the beginning the internet was even very small, you could literally go everywhere. Today, that’s not the case anymore, right?

Today, the internet is everywhere. It’s almost as important to be on the internet than you used to be able to read and write. Yet still the internet today is controlled by very few companies in the world, and they say that less than 20 companies actually own more than 80% of the internet capacity, which is the storage and the compute. So yeah, there is still somewhere to go to make it decentralized again. 

John Koetsier: Exactly. Talk about some of the consequences of that, perhaps from a commercial perspective, but also perhaps from a national or global perspective. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Yeah. Quite, so if today you look in the news, clearly a lot of countries want to have their sovereignty back and they realize that the internet is not like that anymore. It should be a little bit like electricity, right? Because it’s so much in our life that it should be everywhere, you just should be able to get to it.

Yet still today it’s produced in very few locations. If you look as an example in Africa, there is almost nothing, or South America, or many places in the world don’t have it yet. It’s the same like we’re having a long, long cable to like a nuclear plant going from — I’m just saying something, I’m in Ibiza right now — going from Ibiza to America to get my power. It just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and it has a lot of consequences to do with power loss. So we’re burning too much power, the cables need to be too big. If something happens with the cable somewhere we get outage, to also giving too much power in the hands of the few which can then potentially abuse it.

And that makes the internet not what it should be, because it really needs to be something like electricity. It needs to be everywhere and everyone needs to have access to it. It needs to be cost effective, it needs to be reliable, it needs to be independent. All of that good stuff. 

John Koetsier: So, talk about your solution. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Well, first of all, what we try to do is not become yet another big company, which is going to resolve everything, right? No. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: What we try to do is to come up with, it’s an ID, it’s a movement. It’s where we invite a lot of people to become part of and basically help us to build a new internet. Now it sounds a little bit weird building a new internet. We’re not trying to replace the cables. There are a lot of cables out there, right? And there are more satellites being put in the sky and so lots of things are happening from that perspective. What we need to help with is that we get more compute and storage capacity close to us.

Because today it’s a little bit weird, if we send a message to each other basically it goes to a server somewhere in America and you will then go to a server close by, and it’s really not how it should be. If I send a message to my friend here, wouldn’t it be more logical that my message goes from me to my friend directly here on the island? And it’s not like that. And why do we need like ten messaging applications, like WhatsApp, and chat, and this and that, and SMS. It just doesn’t make sense.

So you can see that all of these things are broken. 

So what if we all together, everyone in the world, can extend this internet. And how can we do that? If you’re all about build — or not build, sorry, that’s too complicated — if we all buy a box, any piece of hardware will do, we just plug it into the internet, the existing cables we plug it into power, we download some piece of software and put it on top of it. Then that note, we call it a note, could extend the internet. So as such, we don’t have to build these huge, big, what they call data centers, these are these huge, big generators of internet capacity which are centralized.

But we all can buy a small or a big box, put it in an office, at home, put it somewhere where there’s maybe more bandwidth, and then all of these boxes together would create enough capacity in such a way that if we need something from this new internet it will be close by us. If the internet, if the cable would be cut, we still would be able to communicate, we wouldn’t need like five applications anymore, but a lot less. So it’s a very different design.

John Koetsier: What kind of redundancy do you need in a system like that? I mean, obviously in a cloud scenario you’ve got massive data centers that you just talked about, in the hands of a few — it’s more than a handful, but it’s not a huge number of companies.

And sure they store things redundantly as well locally, but if I need to get something and maybe I need a file that you have, are there five copies of it in existence? Is it chopped up and distributed across many different nodes?

Where’s that actually coming from and how’s it work?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Again, a great question. Today in centralized data centers, they would typically make copies or sometimes a little bit more intelligent, but you know that your data is with a centralized company, and not once, because you exist many times, right? You exist for Facebook, you exist for any of these companies, basically.

And every time again, they need to build a full blown new infrastructure to store your information, to make it an index around it, to allow people to find it, security, all of that. And that leads to a lot of overhead because literally we exist 100 times and everything around that needs to be redone, and that’s not what we need.

Now blockchain came which was really amazing, it’s still there, but people said, ‘okay, great, blockchain is going to resolve everything.’ It became this Swiss army knife which is going to make it free and probably do everything else in our life. Now, while blockchain is amazing for certain things like getting to consensus about money as an example, or maybe smart contract. It is not very well suited to give us a new digital life because we share information amongst many, many people. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: And that makes it very hard to make it redundant. I mean, how can I, if I store something on that blockchain, how can I make sure I never lose it? How can I make sure no one can ever get to it, so you can encrypt and stuff like that, but it’s going to be in a lot of nodes. It’s very hard to get that to work properly. Now our system is different, basically what we do is we virtualize every person.

What do I mean with that? Everyone gets a digital twin and your digital twin is you, we call it “crystal twin” by the way. It’s you living there on top of this grid of capacity, and all the data is only owned by your crystal twin, by your digital twin. And this digital twin is now using a very special mechanism to store the information on multiple places at once, but you control it. So I could say, look, I want to, I’m still in Ibiza but on 10 locations, not as copies, that would be not fast enough.

So it’s now more, yeah, about 10 years ago we took something from space, it’s called “forward looking error correcting codes.” It has to do with the fact that if you send something from here to Mars and you miss some information, you don’t want to send it again because that would be not being very effective, right? So we took that ID but we applied that on storage. So basically if you store your information, it’s in such a way spread out with only 20% overhead, but yet still you can lose lots of notes, lots of peers, and yet still your data will be there, but you’re the only one who can get to it.

So that’s one of the secret tricks we’re having. 

John Koetsier: So, explain that for me in terms of the current internet. You talked about that Facebook has a version of me, Google has a version of me, Apple has a version of me, and whatever company that I work with or have an account with has some fraction, small or large, of who I am, or a piece of my digital identity, some of my work, those sorts of things. In your scenario, how does that get shared out?

How do pieces of me get shared out when I want it to happen to a social application, to an application where I need to authenticate to get some information or data or access a service, those sorts of things.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Yeah. Well, first of all, there are two levels to this, and I’m trying not to make it complicated, but one is, there is a level of capacity, right? Which is just, you need compute and storage capacity close to where you live. And that can be used by any application provider or experience provider in the world, right?

That’s one step, and that’s the step we’re already having today.

Your question is about my digital twin, which is my alter ego if you want, it lives there and it has my data. How much can I make sure that this data is not being abused? Well, 100%. So it works with circles because in our life it’s the same way, right? We have groups, we are in an organization and we want to define who can have access to my information.

So this changes a lot of things. As an example, eventually if enough people have that digital twin, if, as an example, we would like to go to a bank, the bank would have to ask us permission to get a certain piece of our information. And this can be it’s because everything will be owned by us at that point. So, and we just define circles. Our country is a circle. Our football club is a circle. That bank would be another circle we are part of.

And that way we can decide which information from us gets shared with who, but we always keep the full security and privacy of it. So by design, GDPR and all of these complicated things are resolved. It also allows to change money flows. As an example, you want to be part of an artificial intelligence thing making pictures nice, I’m just saying something, but it needs knowledge. Maybe it’s in my interest to allow that AI to use my information because maybe then I can use it back for my own benefit.

So this exchange becomes something more tangible. I allow the AI to do something, but I get the benefit. But always under our control. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. Does it become cumbersome to allow access to certain amounts of information? How do you make that simple? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Well, we are there for everyone. That’s why I like to call it our solution. It’s literally everyone putting boxes makes it bigger. And a search even any existing service or application provider can go and live on top of our grids. So it could still be the same, it could still look like the same application for you, but underneath, if they want to, they can get it to work on your crystal twin, you’re on your digital avatar. Which means that for you, not necessarily something has to change, but underneath it can talk to your backend. So basically you become your server, you become the only place where your data is, and then it will be up to the app provider to change behavior or not. 

John Koetsier: And that actually makes it simpler for me because if I spin up a new service, a new Facebook, a new WhatsApp or something like that, I don’t have to reapply, load a profile picture or group or whatever, I just have to authorize access to it, which already exists. Correct?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Exactly. 

John Koetsier: Interesting.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: It’s much easier, so if I send a message to one app, I already have it in the other two, right? And even easier than that, I can just ask my digital twin ‘Look, I want to play, I don’t know, squash,’ and it knows who I am, what my friends are, where my circles are, and so many things can get more automated because today we are in these little pyramids, not big pyramids, and these pyramids they’re trying to keep us isolated because that’s their business model. The more we are stuck into such… silo. 

John Koetsier: Box? Yep.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Yeah, exactly, in a box the more that it’s easy for them to get their business models to work, because it would be too easy to go everywhere. But if you change that, it’s not the case anymore. Then we need to be, we are part of that solution too, we’re not just a product. So their business models don’t go away, but they have to rethink the way how they deal with it. 

John Koetsier: What’s super interesting to me about this, and pretty hopeful, is that if we look at the promise of AI, which has done a lot in our work, in our networks, in maybe photos that we want to use, other things like that, but it has not done a lot for us personally yet, in terms of helping us manage our schedules, manage our lives, know what we need to know, give us the information we need at different times — it’s really challenging for a company to create a great AI for you when it has only a slice of what you own.

And it’s really challenging for any of us to give all of us to any given company. And so we’ve kind of missed out on the real benefit of AI as a personal assistant. Siri doesn’t know everything about me, Google doesn’t know everything about me and I don’t want it to know everything about me. And so that really opens up the door down the road for a truly personal AI that I control that works for my benefit and not necessarily some other companies. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: I couldn’t agree more, but look, there the interest of a big company is not necessarily the same as ours. So then you can wonder if they apply AI technology, what is the reason for that AI technology? It’s probably not for us and that’s what we need to keep in mind. But once we get our data back, we can force that around again, because then a company will have to think about being at service for us, rather than the other way around. Because what people don’t realize is that if you get something for free, we are a product, right?

John Koetsier: Yes.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: So we shouldn’t, and it doesn’t even have to cost much, we made full calculations. You can have your wireless mobile data, all applications for less than a dollar a month. It shouldn’t have to cost more than that. Okay, but then we have to pay. You don’t get it for free, but if that way we get our freedom back actually everything else will become cheaper. So we want it back, it’s just a mentality shift. 

John Koetsier: Yes. What are you shipping today? What can somebody use or buy from you today? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Well today we’re in… we’re working on this for a long time, actually, more than 10 years we were working on this. Going out, I first called it “ID as Energy” but no one understood it. So it took a while before we got somewhere.

So now we have a second generation with our grids, the grids technical term, but basically it means that today we have quite some capacity online — 21 countries, 600 we call them “farmers,” these are people who connect to these boxes, which is a lot and not a lot. It’s more than all the blockchain projects together, so that says something, and now people can use that capacity for their own applications.

So any developer or person who has something to offer to their customers, or their users on the internet, can do it in a more decentralized way. It will use less power, it will be more decentralized in a country, so good for sovereignty, so it has a lot of benefits.

That’s where we are today, and that’s growing, and now we want to add 10,000 locations to it. That’s what we’re kind of pushing. We are launching our … we have the token, of course, but we’ll start making more noise about it. That’s where we are now, and the next phase will be with what we have in our working prototype, which is this crystal twin. It’s actually a separate company, it’s not the same company. We work from out of the Foundation but that is a separate entity, and they will think whoever wants to, we have already a prototype, but it’s like, okay, how can we get us as this digital twin on top of this network? And that’s what we start doing now. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. And what’s the business model? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Foundation basically is promoting the grid, is motivating the farmers, it’s a non-for-profit to basically extend the network, and 10% of the revenues on that network go back to the Foundation, and then the Foundation uses that to keep on expanding, make sure the code gets further developed and stuff like that. That’s the basic revenue model for the Foundation. We also have a technology company next to it, which is called ThreeFold Tech — one is ThreeFold Foundation and the other one is ThreeFold Tech — not very original, but anyhow. And ThreeFold Tech is about helping others to use the same technology. So if an enterprise, or government, or someone says, yeah, we want to have the same technology as the grids, but we want to do it in our country or whatever. So these are the two models we’re having. 

John Koetsier: The red hat to Linux.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Ah, maybe.

John Koetsier: Interesting. So it’s a huge vision. You’re literally talking about not just rewiring in some sense, the software of the internet and how it works, but also how we engage with it and interact with it, perhaps not at the level that we understand, but the level that is actually happening. Talk about your chances of pulling it off. What makes you think that you can be successful? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: We’re doing it… this was one of the things we said from the beginning, which is we’re not going to talk too much. It’s only now that we start talking, you know, but I’m literally working on this all my life. And actually when the Corona thing started, it was really this moment for me, like, okay, now is the time. Now is the time that we have to go out and start talking about this and show people that actually it exists, because it’s not a dream of something in the future. It’s more like we have it, we have the technology, we have the ambition.

Already more than $40 million was invested from multiple parts of this story, and now we just need to go to the next scale, so actually I’m super positive. We have many, many partners which want this to happen. You can feel that something which was not the case, not even two years ago. Two years ago, I had to fight and talk and talk and talk, and people were, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ You know, and now it’s so much more easy, everyone realizes yeah, but if this internet link goes down and I’m home, and this and that, I mean, it really is not what people want, but then it’s like it needs to be in our region, it needs to be closer to us, we need more. So it’s super active, which is that, and it’s not us, if it would be just our own company we have no chance…

John Koetsier: Yes.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: But because we have all of these farmers and the partners coming now, it’s all together we’re doing this. We have more than 30 partners coming online a little bit by little bit. It’s not tomorrow, but they’re already looking how to integrate and how to help us to find momentum. So it’s happening. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: It’s incredible it’s happening. Still a lot needs to be done… it’s not that we need more funding. We need, I mean, it’s like every startup, but it is happening.

John Koetsier: Yes. And talk a little bit more about the size of your current grid or the size of the current network. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Okay. Technically we have 18,000 CPU cores and 90 million gigabytes, which is a lot of capacity. It’s probably between five and ten times more than all of the capacity of all the blockchain projects together.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Now that sounds like a lot, but if you would compare that to an Amazon or a Google, it’s nothing. So it’s only how you look at it. It’s a decent amount of capacity to start with, and it’s very good, but now we need to go to the next phase where many more farmers need to come, but it’s for sure already big to prove the concept where people say it works. 

John Koetsier: Now, if somebody wants to join, if somebody wants to be one of those farmers and if they want to participate in the project, where do they go? What do they do? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: They go to, where basically they should find if the website is good enough, a place where they can register their interest to become a farmer and then we help you in a decentralized way. We call them cooperatives, where we bring you in contact to people who can help you. You can then find your way and become a farmer.

Or you can buy the token. The token is not, we never did an ICO, it’s not like another of these crypto things. There are many good crypto things as well, but in our case, it’s a result of like, oops, it’s a result of farming. So people who already connected boxes, who had this token created, and by buying that you basically help the Foundation so we can fund the project to make it happen. So these are two things you can do. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Okay, cool. So I’ve got to ask you the TechFirst 5-in-10… it’s actually 10-in-5… ten questions, five minutes. Favorite piece of tech gear in your house?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: It’s what I just got, it’s virtual reality glasses, the new ones, you know, the… what’s the name again? Oculus Quest.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: That’s going to change so much. We are working on also putting on a grid. It’s amazing, I love it. 

John Koetsier: Excellent, good, good, good. Can’t-do-without-it tech that you wear?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Without it tech that I wear, why, I guess that’s our phone, even, or is that not wearable? 

John Koetsier: You can call it that. I was going for more of a smartwatch or something like that, but you know what, you even wear a Quest, so maybe you answered that already. Android or iOS? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Android. 

John Koetsier: Okay. I could’ve guessed that one, I guess. EV or gas, electric vehicle or gas?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: That’s an easy one, EV.

John Koetsier: Very good. Mac or Windows or Linux?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Mac. 

John Koetsier: Mac, interesting. GIF or JIF? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Hmmm, GIF or JIF, don’t even know what JIF is. 

John Koetsier: Animated GIF, graphic…? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Haha, then it would be JIF. 

John Koetsier: Okay, wow, wrong answer, but hey, it’s all good. Your favorite tech news source? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Wow. Actually it’s like everything, what is favorite tech news source… I don’t know.

John Koetsier: Okay, no worries. Self-driving car, or do you want to drive yourself forever? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Self-driving car and please yesterday. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Elon Musk offers you a trip to Mars, are you in or are you out? 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: I love that question. I love Elon Musk and everything he stands for, but I still like the world too much, you know I love people, I love humans, I want to be there. 

John Koetsier: You’re not the only one going to Mars in this scenario, but it’s all good. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Yeah I know, but look, if you look outside it’s so green. It’s wonderful, I don’t want to miss that. Look, I want the world to be fixed. I don’t want to have to escape, you know, so I stay here. 

John Koetsier: Okay. No worries. And Alexa, or Hey Google, or Hey Siri, or none of the above?

Kristof de Spiegeleer: Look, this one I’m very strong. None of them, because we need it ourselves. We need a personal voice thing which listens to us and does it for us. 

John Koetsier: Excellent, excellent. Well, thank you so much. 

Kristof de Spiegeleer: My pleasure. Thank you. 

John Koetsier: And everybody else who’s been along for the ride, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier, I appreciate you being along. Whatever platform you’re watching on, please like, subscribe, share, comment, all the above.

On the podcast later on? Please rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.