A New Browser Is Making Peer-to-Peer Web Hosting More User-Friendly
The technology behind Beaker makes it possible to host websites and share files with a few clicks.
Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
The state of web hosting today is a paradoxical situation: On the one hand there are an enormous number of hosting providers and cloud storage services, and on the other, a handful of giant actors like Microsoft, Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services control a large swath of the market, centralizing control of the internet like never before. This is part of the reason why prominent figures such as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, have spoken of the need to rethink the structure of the internet to return it to the decentralized system that was first envisioned.
One project that could help play a role in that restructuring is Beaker. Billed as a "peer-to-peer web browser," the idea behind Beaker is to provide a simple way to build and host websites directly from the browser, which can then be visited by other users of the browser without the need for any intermediary hosting providers. (This is in contrast to the way many websites are currently hosted, on separate cloud servers.)
"The number one thing that bothers users is the feeling that companies are sucking up their personal information, reading everything they do and taking away their personal control," said Paul Frazee, Beaker's co-founder and CEO, in a phone call with Motherboard. "Imagine if the web could live entirely on your own computer, so you had control over the software, the data, and the network itself ... We're making it possible to create a website with one click on your computer."
The concept behind Beaker is similar to torrent file sharing: A user can create a site on their local machine by opening a menu and clicking a single button, which creates a folder on the hard drive that can be shared over the internet with other Beaker users via a URL, with data sent via the Dat protocol, software designed for sharing content over a distributed network.
The browser is open source and free to download, and there are currently versions for Mac and Linux computers. It can also be used to visit regular websites over HTTP or HTTPS connections.
The browser allows visitors to a site to download a copy onto their own computer to host (like re-seeding a torrent), or fork and modify it for their own purposes. Another advantage to Beaker's content distribution system is that once a site has been shared among users, it becomes much more resistant to DDoS attacks and inherently more reliable to access, as copies of the site are stored in and accessed from many different locations.
A few days ago, the team behind Beaker launched a new product, Hashbase, a service for hosting these peer-to-peer sites when all local copies are offline—in effect replicating some of the functionality of conventional web hosting. It's priced on a "freemium" model, where 100MB of storage is free, after which $7/month buys you an extra 10GB; an additional advantage is the provision of easily readable URLs (e.g. website.hashbase.com) rather than the long alphanumeric character strings used by Dat. Importantly, it also serves a version of any site hosted on it over HTTPS, so that users with other browsers can still access it without using the Dat format.
Frazee explained that promoting the decentralized web also means being careful not to alienate users of the current system, which is why this kind of backwards compatibility is important. At the same time, since decentralization is the goal, the content hosted on Hashbase doesn't occupy any hierarchical position with respect to other nodes, acting as if it were just another peer in the network.
Not all internet users will need to create websites, but Beaker's ability to facilitate simple peer-to-peer filesharing might win over more converts. Beaker's secret file share function makes it easy to share large files over an encrypted connection without needing to go through a third party cloud storage system, and leads to fast transfers based on some benchmark testing I did (sending a 100MB file in 30 seconds or so). Of course, being able to send files like this still relies on the person you're sharing with installing Beaker or Dat on their computer first, which presents a barrier compared to services like Dropbox or WeTransfer that require no extra software from the file recipient.
With the desktop browser market still dominated by Google Chrome, different versions of which together account for more than 50 percent of internet browser market share, it will be an uphill struggle for Beaker to reach large scale adoption. The technology seems both powerful and user friendly on first impression—not an easy balance to strike—but success will depend on the extent to which regular internet users can be convinced they need what Beaker is offering.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.