Is the future of social networks decentralized?

Advantages of peer-to-peer networks

An obvious benefit of P2P networks is the resilience they have against cyber-attacks, government censorship or just plain outages. It is not possible like with centralized networks to just block access to one server to take down the entire platform. A prominent example to this is the independence referendum that was held in Catalonia. The Spanish government tried multiple times to shut down websites that contained information about the referendum. But whenever one node was shut down, multiple other nodes became active, making it impossible for the Spanish government to fully restrict access [5].

Another advantage is that it is not necessary to employ expensive data centers to operate a platform. Instead, all the storage space, bandwidth as well as computing power comes from the client nodes [7]. This also makes a peer-to-peer network very scalable. The more clients are connected to it, the higher the performance of the network. However, this also means that P2P networks with a small number of users won’t have a lot of resources available.

Most importantly peer-to-peer systems enable networks that can’t easily be controlled by corporations or governments. Done right, they make for true data privacy and platforms that work in the interest of the users and not the financial interests of a few.

Problems and challenges in peer-to-peer networks

The participants in a P2P network can be very different when it comes to their respective bandwidth or processing power [11]. A P2P network must also be robust against clients that are suddenly not accessible anymore. That’s why the availability of content can’t always be guaranteed.

Coordination in a centralized network is often easier than the protocols needed for a P2P network to run smoothly. Some changes in a P2P network must be made known to all members, so everybody is on the same level. Such broadcasts as well as simple search requests can put a high pressure on the network. Especially if the number of members inside the network rises [7].

Security is another factor that is difficult to maintain in a mostly unregulated network. Without a central instance where all data flows through there is no easy way to detect and stop attacks between peers in the network.

Probably the biggest challenge within peer-to-peer networks is the moderation of content being posted. More data privacy also means less control over the kind of data that is shared in the network. With a centralized architecture it is much easier to find and block illegal content. There is also usually an organization that can be held accountable if they don’t have measures in place to block illegal contents. In a P2P network, there is often no central authority and legal disputes have to be held with the network members directly [8]. Additionally, it is much harder to detect illegal content.