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Redecentralize Digest — October 2019

This month was special for us as we hosted the second-ever Redecentralize (un)conference, last Friday in London. A lively, inspiring get-together of about 80 people from various backgrounds — more about it below. Thanks to all of you who made this happen! And for those who could not attend, we hope the next event will take less than four years to manifest itself. :-)

Updates and reviews

Redecentralize unconference happened

The Redecentralize unconference took place in London. The format was to have many small, self-organised, participative sessions running in parallel, which gave everybody plenty chance to both listen and talk. The downside is of course that everybody misses out on many other interesting sessions, and that with a single camera only a small part can be recorded. A few resources for who still wants to get a glimpse:

Lloyd, our fantastic facilitator, sums up the whole event:

“Overall, my take was that interoperability is seen as a more important focus than decentralization for its own sake. There were conversations about standards, models, public policy and UX patterns. There was concern in the room about how to deal with personal and group abuse effectively. There was a healthy mix of light-hearted joking and serious talk about important issues.”

MozFest happened

Mozilla Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary, and took place for the last time in London as it now plans to become nomadic (next year’s location is still unknown). Especially with a whole floor explicitly dedicated to decentralisation, there was too much to watch or cover, but here are a few picks:

Mobilizon replaces Facebook events

Because many people are on Facebook mostly for its event calendar, the strategic approach of Mobilizon (by Framasoft) is to make a good alternative just for that. Instead of creating just another silo, Mobilizon will let people and events be homed anywhere on the web. For such federation support (likely based on ActivityPub), we will have to wait some more months, but a first beta of the software is already out.

“Why decentralize”

John Ryan curated a collection of quotes about the decentralised web. It connects various people’s visions around the problems to solve, their inspiration & aspiration, and the technical possibilities. As it is mostly made up of quotes itself, I will refrain from pulling quotes from it.

Break open, not up

Irina (co-founder of Redecentralize) argues much of the debate about big tech is wrongly focussing on breaking up the giant companies (like Mozilla argued last month).

“While breakup plans will go some way to address the unhealthy centralisation of data and power, the two biggest problems with Big Tech will remain:

  1. It won’t give us better privacy or change the surveillance business models used by tech platforms; and
  2. It won’t provide genuine choice or accountability, leaving essential digital services under the control of big tech.”

The proposed alternative is in the essay’s title: Instead of breaking up big tech, let’s break them open.

“These monopolies are not natural, they are monopolies by design — choosing to run on closed protocols and walling off their users in silos. We need to regulate Facebook and others to force them to open up their APIs to make it possible for users to have access to each other across platforms and services.

Nicely phrased goal:

“No more getting left out as the cost of caring about privacy.”

Matrix got funding

New Vector (the company formed by Matrix founders) got $8.5M in a second round of VC funding, demonstrating that some investors still put their money into open standards — Matrix aims to interconnect all messaging systems with an open protocol.

Besides rolling out deployments (governmental institutions seem main customers), the company also has plenty work planned on the Matrix protocol, like improving end-to-end encryption and “furthering development on P2P Matrix, so users can have full control of their communications without having to run or trust a server”.

VC-funded idealists tend to raise some eyebrows. Hopefully New Vector manages to make a sustainable business while (or by) keeping true to their principles. It is interesting to see how it tries hard to keep the Matrix.org Foundation separate “as a neutral custodian of the standard”:

“We set up the Foundation very deliberately to enforce the protocol’s neutrality, formalise the project’s mission, goals and values and hold true to them no matter what - specifically to protect the project from conflicts of interest with commercial Matrix endeavours, including New Vector.”

App stores and politically sensitive apps

HKmap.live shows a map of Hong Kong with reported locations of police, street closures, mass arrests and other information relevant to protestors. Apple removed the HKmap.live app from its App Store, as it “allowed users to evade law enforcement”.

The Revolution of Our Times is a role-playing game that lets you play a protestor in Hong Kong. Google suspended it from its Play store, for violating its policy about ‘sensitive events’ (though it appears available again, at least from Europe).

Both decisions are controversial, and likely made to appease the Chinese government. However, the core problem is not the App Store’s decisions, but its inevitability due to restrictions built into ‘your’ device: it does not let you install apps from other sources than Apple’s own App Store, thereby making its decisions much too impactful.

We may need a ‘right to install’ to avoid paternalistic power over people through such forced intermediation; and a boycott of Apple’s products meanwhile. Google’s Android is a little better: it does allow installing apps from other sources than its own store, but it’s not on equal footing and users are nudged away from doing it.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, pro-independence group Tsunami Democràtic created an Android app based on Retroshare, the peer-to-peer communication and file sharing software that feels nearly old enough to deserve its name. It’s used in protest coordination, and is currently not even available for iOS nor published on Google Play: people have to download the app as an APK file from its website.

Ironically, GitHub then took the app down for visitors from Spain, after an order from Spanish law enforcement — which is novelty by itself, Spain now being the third country on GitHub’s takedown log, besides Russia and China. But at least, unlike the very centralised landscape of app stores, alternative web hosting options are plenty; and files can be passed around in many ways.


About this digest

The Redecentralize Digest is a monthly publication about internet (re)decentralisation. It covers progress and thoughts relating technology and politics, without ties to a particular project nor to one definition of decentralisation — figuring out its meanings and relations is part of the mission.

This edition was written and edited by Gerben and Irina.

The digest’s format and content are not set in stone. Feedback and suggestions for next editions are welcome at hello@redecentralize.org.