Redecentralize Digest — April 2020
Contact tracing apps, continued.
Whereas in March some buzz was growing around bluetooth-based contact tracing apps to help contain Covid-19 (see previous digest), in April it almost felt like that was the only thing being written about. For some countries’ governments it also appeared to be the only option on the table for the next step against the epidemic, in what appears a severe case of ‘app solutionism’ as the effectiveness is highly uncertain.
Interestingly for us, much debate arose about privacy and centralised versus decentralised approaches. This graphical explanation by Nicky Case sketches how a decentralised approach would avoid the surveillance that would be enabled by a centralised approach. The most notable project pursuing this type of decentralised approach is DP-3T, whose documents and discussions may be an interesting resource if you want to dig deeper.
Especially peculiar in this situation is the role of smartphone/OS makers Apple and Google, who announced a partnership “to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design”. While contact tracing app developers would want these companies’ cooperation in order to get better access to the phone’s bluetooth functionality, the companies came up with much more involved plans that would instead do core tasks of the contact tracing apps in the operating system itself.
The approach by Apple and Google looked better than one may have expected, following a decentralised approach with various privacy protections. However, some call it “a wolf in sheep’s clothes”, elaborated by Jaap-Henk Hoepman. An overarching concern is that the duopoly bypasses democratic decision making and steers the world through people’s pockets, as Seda Gürses explains. If the tech giants pursue their plans, their chosen approach could well become the de-facto standard, and move tech companies into the realm of public health policy making.
Of course this is somewhat speculative, and perhaps the issue will just become irrelevant. As of now, some countries (e.g. UK) seem to keep pushing to roll out a contact tracing app, but others have already lost some of their zeal after the seeing the many issues around legality, privacy, trust, uptake and of course effectiveness.
In any case, while this tracing app craze will hopefully wane again, a welcome result may be that the distinction between centralised and decentralised approaches has come to the attention of people who may otherwise not think much about this dimension; maybe this grows the understanding that such complex things as contact tracing can be done without having to trust a central operator, and the benefits this can bring to a system’s trustworthiness.
Wikipedia’s social protocols
This article by Eleftherios Diakomichalis from last October (surfaced by the P2P Foundation) researches the collaborative social protocols governing Wikipedia, particularly those for dispute resolution, and asks what lessons could be drawn for blockchain protocols; which instead tend to create economic incentives and zero-sum games in a trustless environment.
For example, the article regards (pseudonymous) editors’ histories of edits as a proof-of-work process that assigns people privileges both explicitly and implicitly, and thereby enables a meritocratic self-organising hierarchy.
The writing may appear a bit too rosy about Wikipedia’s processes, and may also appear to compare apples with pears (would Wikipedia’s model still work when lots of money is at stake?). Nevertheless it makes one think about how blockchain-minded engineering could be limiting oneself to a suboptimal subset of solutions, by pursuing fast-settling protocols that work without trust, rather than iteratively converging protocols that enable creating trust.
IPFS’ mobile design research
Observing they had thus far focussed on desktops and servers while the world moved to smartphones, the IPFS project started conducting research into decentralised apps for mobile devices. The first resulting guide and its accompanying blog post go through the findings. A large part consists of comparisons of features and user flows of various decentralised communication and file sharing apps (ManyVerse, Sharedrop.io, Status, FrostWire, uTorrent Mobile, Haven, Fairdrop); possibly interesting material for other app developers.
Better than Goodreads
This proposal aims to create a decent alternative to (Amazon-owned) book discussion site Goodreads:
“Thinking through building some kind of “web of books” I realized that we could use something similar to RSS to build a kind of decentralized GoodReads powered by indie sites and an underlying easy to parse format.”
One response to this suggested how one could actually just take RSS itself and OPML, and tweak them a little to serve the described purpose. There may be reasons for taking other approaches, but it is pleasant to see how people investigate ways to extend an existing ecosystem and create (more or less) backwards-compatible software. As well as to observe how projects (might) start from bouncing ideas around between blogs. Let’s see if this will lead to something.
Yet another of the EU’s Next Generation Internet programmes opened for applications: NGI Pointer gives grants of up to €200k per project to work for 12 months on “open internet renovation”, in which they include areas such as privacy-by-design, internet at the edge, network optimization, virtualisation and isolation, etcetera. First call closes 1 June 2020, and subsequent calls should keep coming until June 2021.
In what could be called an 8-week hackathon that just took off, Mozilla’s Fix-the-Internet Spring MVP Lab is mentoring and paying small student teams to work on internet-improving projects.
In the first ‘Open Tech Will Save Us’ online meetup hosted by Matrix, participants talked about Jitsi’s scaling challenges, libp2p’s gossippub and Riot’s UX design. See the recording.
- May 4–6: Ready Layer One; “open blockchain week 2020”
- May 7: Solid World; monthly presentations related to the Solid project
- May 13: Open Tech Will Save Us; monthly presentations hosted by the Matrix project
- June 10–12: EuroDIG; European Dialogue on Internet Governance
- Aug 7–9: Our Networks; “a conference about the past, present, and future of building our own network infrastructures”
- Sep 18–20: ReclaimFutures; “a technology and culture conference around the broad subjects of post-capitalist desire, utopian exploration, ecology and alternative computing.”
All these are held online. For more creative activities against social isolation, you may also like to check out (or place things on!) the Love Chaos Quarantine calendar.
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, with thanks to all who contributed.
The digest’s format and content are not set in stone. Feedback and suggestions for next editions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. We don’t spy on our readers, so please do tell us what you think!