YEREVAN—This week’s World IT Congress in Yerevan, Armenia is being presented under the banner of “The Power of Decentralization: Promise and Peril,” an urgent query for our times. Leviathan, a growing decentralized Internet project based in Yerevan, has chosen the event as an opportunity to introduce itself to the international tech industry. In preparation for its beta launch early next year, Leviathan is reaching out to engineers, thinkers, and ethical investors to join them in building the next generation peer-to-peer web.
For better or for worse, the Internet has radically transformed the information landscape, as well as the architecture of our personal and public lives. An increasing number of global thought leaders and tech visionaries are trying to develop a way out of the information and communications challenges embedded within centralized models.
Why would we want a decentralized Internet? Centralized networks have grown so powerful in such a short amount of time that many of us have forgotten how to live without them. Our overreliance on social media and centralized platforms has entirely replaced previous notions of community, identity, and authority. The Silicon Valley giants argue that centralization is efficiency. And their point is valid. Technology has fundamentally reshaped our decision-making processes, with easy access to platforms replacing critical thought and accountability. Our brains are busier than ever, and yet we think less.
Major online companies are now the gatekeepers of information. A recent report by Pew shows that most adults in the United States rely on Facebook to tell them what is news. Should this power be manipulated (for example, if Google was to manipulate search results for greater profit, to the detriment of competitors and users) there’s little any of us can do to stop it.
From a back-end perspective, it has become more difficult for developers, entrepreneurs and investors to navigate the Internet economy without worrying about centralized platforms stealing their audiences and profits, writes American investor Chris Dixon in a Medium post manifesto for decentralization. In the life cycle of these major platforms, the incentive to engage complements like developers, creators and businesses, wanes over time. The struggle for survival in this oligarchic climate stifles innovation, making the Internet less dynamic and interesting. Once a company’s platform is adopted, the easiest way to sustain growth is to continue competing with smaller web clients, and of course, sell user data.
This year, data breaches by Equifax and Facebook resulted in the loss of millions of users’ data or in the case of Facebook, three billion users. Governments are slow to adapt to these invasions of privacy, or ban or catch users who use anonymous, decentralized TOR networks for horrific wrongdoing. In some cases, governments collude with big companies like Amazon, recognizing their potential as surveillance tools. Self-aware participants have long been wary of the challenges of building on and using centralized platforms, and these compromises are sure to become more serious and dramatic in the future.
In the spirit of equitable access, Armenia-based tech startup Leviathan is seeking to make the current, corrupted Internet more transparent, resilient to censorship, and welcoming to small and medium sized businesses.
They’re not alone, and don’t want to be—Leviathan understands itself as a part of a larger decentralization movement to bring quality, freedom, and sustainability back to the web. “At the end of the day, if we want to have a future at all, we need to recognize that we should work together instead of against one another,” says Leviathan co-founder Enno Wein. “Decentralization is key to that.”
Wein and Armenian innovator and startup founder Vahagn Poghosyan dreamed up a non-anonymous peer-to-peer platform system formed on individual computers that subscribes directly from creators, rather than content providers. By encrypting, but not anonymizing, user interface and eliminating thought pollutants, like advertisers, from the revenue stream, Leviathan is trying to restore transparency and value to the Internet and modern world.
Vahagn Poghosyan lives in Armenia, Leviathan’s laboratory. Once the center of IT and scientific research for the Soviet Union, last year’s democratic revolution in Armenia and unprecedented market growth have created the perfect conditions for a new tech bubble: the tech industry is growing at an annual rate of 20% per year, with estimates suggesting tech is the dominant sector creating new wealth for the small nation’s economy.
In Armenia, as in every country, cybersecurity is a major concern. Due to the nation’s fraught relationship with its neighbors, it can’t afford to take any precautions with its information. Beyond privacy concerns, centralized architectures allow for a single point of failure, as reported by TechTalks, making them more vulnerable to foreign attacks.
For a platform to become ubiquitous enough for say, a nation of two million people to be on it, it requires developers to build apps and services, and of course, users. Leviathan has issued a call to action to potential and future subscribers, to sign up to be notified when the project’s beta is launched early next year. In its current form, Leviathan’s platform comprises encrypted messaging and file transfer services, as well as a decentralized data storage tool called Metax.
True to its ethos, Leviathan has no profit-model, or funding rounds. “Because it’s open source technology there is no way to make money from it,” explains Poghosyan. “This is important because we are trying to build horizontal networking rather than top-down control.” The project is largely financed by its parent company, Instigate Design, a tech consulting firm launched by Poghosyan and Wein in 2005.
Whether or not the ambitious project can compete with giants in the eyes of users, the ultimate base, remains to be seen. In the words of Dixon, “Software is simply the encoding of human thought, and as such has an almost unbounded design space.” Social attitudes to Big Tech are changing, and the landscape of online possibility remains infinite.
Leviathan is a not-for-profit startup based in Yerevan, Armenia. Our mission is to build the next generation peer-to-peer web that supports community, small business and a more horizontally integrated society.