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Protocol Labs:
Advancing Technology for the Benefit of Humanity

A research and development laboratory that creates innovations designed to improve the Internet and computing, Protocol Labs brings web users across the globe more control and independence. In 2021, wanting to work with like-minded organizations to achieve shared goals, Protocol Labs became an Internet Society member.

A Conversation with Yiannis and Jorge

Hailing from Greece and Portugal, respectively, and working on a wide range of projects, Yiannis and Jorge are the perfect embodiment of Protocol Labs’ broad geographical and topical scope. Over a cup of coffee and a Zoom connection, they spoke about the company’s beginnings, values, and vision.

Everything Protocol Labs does is geared toward achieving its mission of advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. More specifically, it builds tools that improve the way data is stored and distributed over the Internet among web users, creating more resilience, increasing fairness, helping resist censorship, and giving more control back to ordinary citizens. Like the Internet Society, Protocol Labs sees the Internet as a key lever for a better tomorrow.

Building the Next Generation of the Internet

Protocol Labs CEO Juan Benet founded the company in 2014 to support the development of the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), a new method of storing and accessing digital files (including documents, webpages, videos, and datasets) that he created. IPFS is an appealing alternative to the current model as it allows a file to be stored in many places rather than just one. This makes it easier to access the file while safeguarding it from the destruction—accidental or intentional—that it would be vulnerable to if stored only on a traditional centralized server.

Its name is a nod to a computer-industry inside joke but also happens to highlight one of the system’s advantages. The way computers in an IPFS network communicate, it doesn’t matter how far the user is from a server—the performance can be better than with standard Internet protocols. “Even if they’re on another planet,” Yiannis says with a grin. This feature makes for a stronger Internet while enhancing connectivity for people in remote locations, helping close the digital divide.

After IPFS, the next logical step for Protocol Labs, in its quest to safeguard humanity’s data, was to develop a cryptocurrency-backed file-storage network. This became Filecoin, a network model in which users can store their files in several places around the globe, on the servers of other ordinary citizens, in exchange for payment with a cryptocurrency. This is what’s known as a peer-to-peer system. It creates better resiliency for the data since it can be retrieved from a number of peer servers instead of being vulnerable to the whims of one centralized Internet giant.

Another innovation Protocol Labs has been developing is its distributed randomness (drand) project, which is managed by a consortium known as the League of Entropy. This community effort of 16 partner organizations worldwide provides a public, verifiable, and decentralized randomness generation service that can be used to guarantee fair, tamper-proof lottery drawings, for example. Randomness is also crucial for accurate post-election audits in which the results of a sample of precincts are examined. In these two applications, as in others, the fact that the randomness is being generated by multiple sources significantly decreases the possibility of adversarial manipulation and increases people’s trust in the results.

Yiannis Psaras, Research Scientist

Before joining Protocol Labs three years ago, Yiannis was a university researcher and lecturer specializing in networks and network protocols. When he was brought on board, the team was hard at work developing one of its flagship products, the file-storage network Filecoin. This was an especially memorable project for Yiannis. “Those were challenging but exciting times,” he says. “Although we all participated as a team, we also each had this sense of personal satisfaction in a job well done.”

Jorge Soares, Technical Program Manager

Jorge has been with Protocol Labs since 2019, after completing a joint doctorate in robotics, control, and intelligent systems. One of the projects he has most enjoyed to date is ResNetLab on Tour, an educational initiative spearheaded by Yiannis and designed to teach people about Protocol Labs innovations and emerging web concepts. “This whole educational and documentation side of things is easy to overlook,” he says, “because it’s not as flashy as, say, a new cryptocurrency. But it’s very important too.”

people sitting at the roundtables and discussing

Creations such as IPFS, Filecoin, and drand are all part of the current trend toward greater decentralization and independence, with users regaining control of their data. “We’ll be seeing more and more changes like this over coming years,” Jorge said. “A new era of the Internet that people are calling Web 3.0 seems about to dawn.”

A new era of the Internet that people are calling Web 3.0 seems about to dawn.”
Jorge Soares

An Open Internet as a Foundation for Progress

Not only is an open Internet a key goal for Protocol Labs, but it’s also a prerequisite for its very existence. It relies on the Internet to be able to connect, collaborate, and jointly advance the state of the art, regardless of where in the world people are.

Since the creation of IPFS, the team has kept innovating and growing, bringing more new staff and external collaborators on board to work on various projects aimed at moving technology forward to benefit humankind. As applications building on existing Protocol Labs products have been devised, spinoff companies have formed to focus on them.

Today, Protocol Labs is not just one company anymore but a collaborative ecosystem of nearly 200 companies. Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s an example of a fully distributed organization, having no physical offices at all. Its highly international staff is located in over 36 countries, and employees have worked from places as far-flung as Siberia, New Zealand, Iceland, Nigeria, and Argentina.

Yiannis describes the work environment at Protocol Labs as stimulating and fun, especially over the past few years as the company doubled in size. “Many new people have been coming in, so we get lots of new opinions and perspectives from fresh minds. But everyone is working toward the same goal of making the Internet better and stronger.”

Everyone is working toward the same goal of making the Internet better and stronger.”

Yiannis Psaras

Putting Control Back into People’s Hands

Today, IPFS is in widespread use, both as a large public network that anyone can join to store, retrieve, and share data but also in many private networks operated by specific institutions or applications.

Running an IPFS-based system to store and share data with others in a free and uncensorable manner can be a game-changer for countless communities around the world. While the cost is very low compared to standard storage models, this system’s greatest advantage is the control it gives users and the role it plays in preventing centralized ownership of people’s data. “A small handful of players should not be able to control 90% of the data on the internet,” says Yiannis.

Helping Keep the Internet Accessible to All

One threat to an open Internet that has emerged in recent years is the “Splinternet”—the splintering of the Internet into fragmented networks that occurs when governments block their citizens’ access to websites they deem “unsafe” and reroute them to approved alternative sites. Like the Internet Society, Protocol Labs believes that to defend users’ rights and safeguard human progress, it’s important to oppose such censorship and help people stay connected to vital information.

The Internet is the planet’s most important technology. A tool as powerful as this will always be a tempting target for control, but it should be available for everyone to use freely.” 

Yiannis Psaras

In 2017, IPFS did just this on two occasions, providing a path to access Wikipedia after the Turkish government blocked it and to access information on the Catalonian independence referendum after the Spanish government did the same. By allowing copies of the sites to exist in many other places online, IPFS effectively neutralized these censorship attempts. “The Internet is the planet’s most important technology,” says Yiannis. “A tool as powerful as this will always be a tempting target for control, but it should be available for everyone to use freely.” 

More and more IT engineers are putting their skills to work to resist censorship. Jorge recently interviewed a job applicant who cited this as their reason for wanting to work for Protocol Labs. “I’ve experienced censorship first-hand, here in my country,” they said, “and I want to work against it.”

Decentralizing the Internet to Empower Users

But such governments aren’t the only obstacles to a more open Internet—the gradual centralization of traffic in a handful of global Internet giants, who have enormous influence over access and content moderation, also has an effect.

Furthermore, these very same players, whose business model largely revolves around leveraging personal data, are responsible for many of the latest developments in Internet protocols, standards, and infrastructure development.

In today’s Web 2.0 model, web users get free music, storage, or bandwidth in return for having their data tracked and handing over all control of this data. The companies then sell this data to advertisers, and the users effectively become a product.

“None of this was part of the original vision for the Internet, and it’s not a scenario we should sleepwalk into,” says Jorge. There is a vital need for alternative business models for open and closed source development that can still advance Internet protocols and expand the entire Internet ecosystem in fairer and more privacy-respecting ways.

There is a vital need for alternative business models for open and closed source development that can still advance Internet protocols and expand the entire Internet ecosystem in fairer and more privacy-respecting ways.”
Jorge Soares

Alternative Business Models for a Better Future

Other ways are possible. People aren’t always averse to paying for things, as on-demand services like Netflix and Spotify have demonstrated in recent years. Before they emerged, people often downloaded movies and music illegally to get them for free. But today, with such platforms making access to the content seamless, the experience is so easy that illegal downloading has become too much of a hassle for many. Some piracy still exists, of course, but people are willing to pay as long as they receive a quality service.

The tracking and profiling is what we want to see go away in the next generation of the Internet.”
Jorge Soares

This shows that there is a place for a direct peer-to-peer system such as Filecoin, where people can pay for storage or retrieval and make transactions for whatever they need, all without handing over control of their data and losing their privacy to an Internet giant. New market protocols such as these will revolutionize the Internet, creating efficient markets that enhance our quality of life.

Another solution is advertising without a data-tracking component. “Advertising itself is a perfectly valid business model,” says Jorge. “It isn’t the core problem. The tracking and profiling is what we want to see go away in the next generation of the Internet.”

Protocol Labs and the Internet Society

When asked about the company’s reasons for becoming an Internet Society member, Yiannis said, “The Internet Society’s vision and goals are so aligned with our own, the decision to join was an easy one.” Both are working toward an Internet that is globally accessible and a force of good in society.

In the year since Protocol Labs became a member, its staff has attended talks and other events that the Internet Society has held. Protocol Labs looks forward to working with other members in areas such as disseminating innovative projects in countries where connectivity may not always be optimal and advocating for access to the Internet to be considered a human right.

Our interaction with the Internet Society has been excellent, and we wholeheartedly recommend membership to our ecosystem partners.”
Jorge Soares
By working together, we can champion a stronger and better Internet and help ensure it’s available to all for the benefit of human progress.
Together with our global community, members of the Internet Society have the unique chance to grow, strengthen, and shape the Internet of the future. Join us.

Image credit (in order of appearance): ©Nyani Quarmyne, ©Protocol Labs, ©Unsplash, ©Nyani Quarmyne