Like a lot of projects in the cryptocurrency space, the Internet Computer Protocol (or ICP) is much more than a form of digital money. In fact, the ICP token that can be purchased and traded via exchanges like Coinbase is just one part of a much bigger idea.
ICP’s basic idea is to create a new kind of decentralized internet and global computing system — where independent data centers all over the world could join together to create an alternative to the cloud services (from companies like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud) that power most of the current internet. ICP’s plan is to have the protocol running on millions of computers around the world.
ICP developers say the resulting network has some key advantages over the centralized alternatives. For one, it operates via open standards and avoids the conflicts of interest that can arise when a major cloud-computing provider hosts products that compete with its own services.
Originally called DFINITY, ICP’s global and distributed network of data centers can run all of the applications that are accessible via traditional Internet standards such as DNS (the domain name system you use via web browsers and smartphones).
The ICP token has several major uses: it acts as a governance token (allowing holders to “lock” some of their ICP into the network in exchange for having a say in the future development of the ICP protocol), is rewarded by the network to participating data centers for good behavior, and is used to pay transaction fees on the network.
How does ICP work?
The Internet today is highly centralized. Popular applications on the web are often closed-source, proprietary, and are hosted on a handful of data centers owned by big tech firms. And if one critical data center fails, huge swathes of the web can also shut down with it. Another major concern (particularly for privacy advocates) is that centralized, corporate web-services providers have the ability to censor or deplatform applications.
The Internet Computer attempts to offer a fundamental alternative so that developers can build, host, and serve applications in a more decentralized way — allowing websites to be deployed directly onto the public internet. Further, the Internet Computer would incentivize open-source and transparent software development.
As explained in the MIT Technology Review’s profile of the Internet Computer: “Instead of running on a dedicated server in Google Cloud, for example, the software would have no fixed physical address, moving between servers owned by independent data centers around the world.”
One way you can think of ICP is as a way of converting crypto into processing power — the network will establish a fee based on the amount of computing power required by a developer’s project. As long as the fee is paid, the website will run on the public internet.
In theory, any kind of application can be created and run on the Internet Computer — from social networks similar to LinkedIn and TikTok to software similar to all the familiar applications you know today to new kinds of applications not yet conceived. As a demonstration, ICP developers have published open source code for CanCan, which they describe as a “decentralized TikTok.”
What risks might the Internet Computer face?
Participating in the Internet Computer may require more robust hardware than traditional blockchain projects, potentially threatening its ethos of decentralization by limiting the number of potential participants. If the hardware requirements are too large, only large and well-capitalized players would be able to set up data centers and participate.
Further, in a truly decentralized network, who can be held accountable for hosting abusive content? Corporations running the Internet today employ some degree of moderation, although the flip side is that they can also arbitrarily de-platform anyone at any time. Ideally, Internet Computer (and other crypto protocols) can create solutions that allow decentralized governance to moderate these difficult questions.
Internet Computer isn’t the only protocol aiming to reinvent the Internet. Other potential competitors include IPFS/Filecoin and MIT’s Solid (which was created by web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee).
Who originally developed the Internet Computer?
The Internet Computer is built by the DFINITY Foundation and was started by a developer named Dominic Williams in 2016. The DFINITY Foundation is a nonprofit organization devoted to researching and developing the Internet Computer — after years of research, it officially launched in May 2021. Researchers all over the world contribute to the foundations’ work — including cryptographers that hold around 100,000 academic citations and 200 patents.