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Redecentralize Digest — December 2019

Interoperability — word of the year?

Either I started paying more attention, or people have widely started to see the network lock-in as a core problem of online platforms, and interoperability among them as an important part of the solution (albeit with varying meanings of interoperability).

It feels like proposals to force platforms to interoperate are appearing everywhere, such as in two bill proposals in the USA (see this EFF end-of-year report), in an open letter in France, and in various economic and competition reports (e.g. the EU’s ‘Vestager report’, the UK’s ‘Furman report’, this Stigler Center report).

People have even started working towards a European Citizens’ Initiative to demand digital platform interoperability. Even if getting a million signatures for such an abstract topic would be too big a challenge, it could still help raising awareness more widely. Let’s see what we can bring about in the upcoming year(s).

36C3 happened

The 36th Chaos Communication Congress took place in Leipzig. Four days of talks and talking, and hacking. Talk recordings are found here. A few picks:

Delta Chat releases 1.0

Delta Chat has released their 1.0 version for Android (APK here). This chat application borrows the user interface code of the Signal app, but has replaced its centralised service architecture with an unusual choice: email. Shortly put, it is an email client with a chat-like interface, which smoothly integrates PGP and Autocrypt for hassle-free encryption. A group chat is just an email conversation with many participants, sharing a photo or your location results in an empty email with an attachment; and so forth.

Admittedly, there are many downsides to the project’s approach, in particular because it inherits most of the problems of both email and PGP. People still expose all their communications meta-data to their email provider, thus heavily limiting the privacy protection in practice, and forward secrecy is lacking. Nevertheless, I admire the attitude of building forth on existing standards and infrastructure, providing compatibility with other software, and improving technology without simply replacing it.

Twitter will invent a decentralised social media protocol

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced they will hire five people to “develop an open and decentralized standard for social media”.

Jack writes that the inspiration came from the recent essay Protocols, Not Platforms by Mike Masnick, which convincingly explains the need for decentralisation. He also refers to Stephen Wolfram’s essay which suggests that users should be able to choose which company’s content selection algorithms (vulgo ‘AI’) select and recommend content for them; instead of being stuck with the single one developed by the content platform itself.

The project will be unguided and open-ended (tellingly, the team name is ‘bluesky’):

“we’d like this team to either find an existing decentralized standard they can help move forward, or failing that, create one from scratch. That’s the only direction we at Twitter, Inc. will provide.”

Despite this mention of finding an existing standard, the rest of the announcement sounds like they do want to be the ones to develop the protocol, and to “build a community around it”; rather than attempting to become part of any existing community. It should be a warning sign that the initial announcement lacks reference to any existing decentralised social media protocols and communities like ActivityPub (instead, only “blockchain” is hinted at as a likely part of the solution). This critique on Slate expands on this point.

It can indeed be questioned how sincerely Twitter wants to decentralise — first seeing, then believing. But in any case, the announcement is already a good step forward in one important way: a mega-silo-platform is admitting that its own nature is the cause of many troubles. It reminds of the moment when oil companies started admitting that oil itself is the problem.

Back/Forward to personal websites; using Site.js

Using some pretty examples, Laura Kalbag encourages publishing your profile, photos, posts, and all that on your own site, instead of depending on a big tech platform as intermediary.

The post promotes the Site.js tool that Laura’s Small Technology Foundation has recently been working on, which tries to make running a website easier. While it still requires using the command line, it removes the hassle of configuring the server, and the single command site enable will create your TLS certificates and put your site online. Of course, you’d first need to get yourself a server and a domain name, but that is the point of owning your site; making that easier too would be another noble endeavour!

Also quite charming: Aral Balkan (the other half of Small Tech) tinkered a pocket-sized, mobile web server.

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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 by Gerben.

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