Muneeb Ali – Co-founder of Blockstack
Today I’m going to tell you about how I fell in love with the internet. And how I realize that the internet is fundamentally broken in certain ways. But we can fix it.
I still remember that I was a kid growing up in Pakistan. It was in 90s. And there was this one night where we had this big result in the morning, and my mom told us that if you and your brother both get all As, I will buy you a computer. And we were so stressed that we couldn’t even sleep that night. At some point my mom realized that and she was like you know what even if you get one B you will still get a computer.
Next day we woke up, our results turned out to be great, and we went there, we got that machine. I remember that I was the most excited not when I got the computer but when I went online for the first time. For those of you in the audience who are under 25, think of this as the old Chrome. This was the browser. This was the first browser of the internet: Netscape, that actually introduced the internet to millions of people including me. I was the only kid on the block who had access to this magical thing and who had access to all this information and that’s where I fell in love with internet.
I ended up dedicating my entire life to this. I kind of like bomb the hood open and started studying the engine inside that how does this actually work. I ended up doing a PhD in Computer Science, focusing on the internet. So today what I’m going to do is, I’m going to bomb the hood open and show you how the internet works a little bit.
For most of you, the internet is like a black box. You have no idea how this really works. You just open up Chrome and you go to facebook.com. That’s pretty much it. What most people don’t realize is that when they are going to things like facebook.com, there are so many middle hidden men and companies that you are trusting and they are there. They include companies who made your browser software, your internet service provider, the servers where you are asking “hey, where’s facebook.com?” “where is CNN.com?” and these companies that issue security certificates. Remember these green block signs that make you feel really secure? that “hey, I’m on the secure internet”? It’s mostly just this one company that says “Hey, trust me. You are talking to the right facebook!” And people just blindly trust that company.
Things don’t go well all the time. For example, recently in Turkey the company that was supposed to issue the security certificates for Google was actually issuing the wrong certificates. So an entire country is thinking that they are talking to Gmail or they are talking to the correct Google, but they actually weren’t. So this is the first big problem with the internet that we blindly trust these companies and these third parties that we don’t even know exist.
So once you do connect to the right website, the right Facebook that you wanted to talk to, what has happened all the years is that now there are these big companies in the middle. You are just a screen. Your laptop is just a screen and you are talking to these big companies that have all your data. They have so much power and control over you. The internet is Google and Facebook. And, if you want to talk to your friend, your friend connects to Facebook, you connect to Facebook and then you talk to each other.
So the second big problem with the internet, is that you don’t own your own data. These big companies own all of your data. But we want an internet that is open. We want it to be transparent. We want an internet that is fair. For that, I’m proposing two requirements. One, there can be no middle man. Two, users have to own their data.
Google has this famous tag line. “Don’t be evil.” But maybe it should be “Can’t be evil.” A company shouldn’t have that much power to begin with where they are making this decision that should I be evil or not. So today I’m going to tell you about this new revolutionary technology called the blockchain. I’ve been doing research in computer systems for almost 15 years now.
The blockchain is the most sophisticated, complex, yet elegant and beautiful technology that I’ve ever come across. The main thing that it does is that it gives the power back to the people. So it started off as an application for payments that if you just want to send money to your friend, there are all these banks and payment processors and third parties in the middle that you have to go through.
So the first application of the blockchain technology was called Bitcoin. You might have heard about it in the newspapers. What Bitcoin said was we can replace all these banks with a open network, a network that is made secure by mathematics and cryptography. And in this open network, people can own digital money directly and they can just send transactions directly to whoever they want to send them to.
So how do you use this network? There is this thing called a private key. Think of it as a really really long, and really really strong password. With the private key, it’s like you have a key to a locker that has cash in it or the key of your house where you keep all of your belongings. This private key is so secure that if someone wants to randomly guess it or crack it, they would need more energy than is present in this entire solar system. This is mathematics and cryptography keeping you secure.