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Redecentralize Digest — August 2020

Don’t shoot the messenger

The Google Play app store decided that several Fediverse apps (at least Subway Tooter, Fedilab, Husky, MastoPane) will be removed from the store because they ‘promote violence or incite hatred’; thereby blaming the app for the forums (typically Mastodon instances) people could connect to by knowingly entering such a forum’s address. Mastodon-developer Eugen/Gargron put it well:

“A Mastodon app does not host or promote any content. The user types the address to connect to. The responsibility of moderating resides with that server. So unless Google is going to drop Chrome, Firefox and Opera from its platform, this is completely out of line.”

You could just as well start blaming camera apps for the photos people make with them, or QR code scanners for the content of the codes they read, or even blame keyboards for the text typed on them.

On the other hand: with social media clients, it seems relatively easy to add a list of forums it could refuse connecting to, so for the clear-cut cases of objectionable places it understandably becomes tempting to impose the duty of blocking access to those. But going this route opens a can of worms: who determines what counts as problematic? What about all the cases that are not so clear-cut? What about chat apps that do not block known hateful groups? And, again, web browsers?

Note that this matter was also debated in the community of the F-Droid app store a year ago; although much of that debate was rather about the inverse: whether to reject apps that do block any servers. The F-Droid policy became to leave app developers free to choose whether to block specific forums; but require them not to promote a problematic forum — which I increasingly consider a wise solution.

Suggesting a specific provider is a decision for which an app could be held responsible. However, it seems untenable to hold provider-neutral client apps responsible for the service providers their users intentionally connect to. Or, likewise, to hold content-neutral tools responsible for the content their users might end up consuming or producing.

Quite likely Google will revert these decisions again in a second review after sufficient outcry, perhaps with an apology (as happened with a podcast app earlier this year). But either way, incidents like this remind of the deeper problem, which is not the unjustified and unexplained decisions, nor the opaque and mediocre appeal process, but people’s dependence on this single gatekeeper platform that makes their decisions too impactful. Some lessons to draw:

DWeb meetup on community networks

In July, the DWeb meetup “Community Views Around the Globe” gave the floor to several people from around the world involved in community network projects.

Unlike the typical economic development goal of ‘connecting people to the Internet’, community networks aim for people to be connecting instead of being connected; for a community to be in control of the technology it adopts. Besides (or instead of) connecting to the outside world, focus is often on local connectivity, and on the specific ways this can create value for and with the people — for example, to provide localised information about the epidemic.

Have a look at the event’s recap for the recording and for summaries of the participants’ projects and stories.

Note that DWeb meetups are often planned on short notice, so to hear of them do not rely on the events listed below, but subscribe to e.g. the DWeb mailing list.

The Internet is for End Users

Most RFC documents from the IETF specify internet protocols and practices in technical detail. Valuable exceptions however are the more reflective RFCs, such as the just published RFC 8890 with the clear title “The Internet is for End Users”. In this RFC, the IETF’s Internet Architecture Board acknowledges the political impact of creating technical standards, and stresses the importance of prioritising end users’ interests over those of other stakeholders.

The document cites for its inspiration the “priority of constituencies” defined in the HTML design principles:

“In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.”

To me that reads like poetry.

About feeds

In theory, people should not need an account on some platform to follow the news, blogs or other posts. Nearly every website also provides its posts as an RSS feed, and there is a large ecosystem of apps to read them with. Nevertheless, RSS is underappreciated and people having been debating whether ‘RSS is dead’ for years now.

A big disadvantage of RSS is that it is not self-explanatory. Whereas a “follow us on Instagram/Twitter/…” kind of button leads visitors to a web page that helps (& pushes) them to get set up, a “Follow our feed” button that links to the RSS feed would likely result in people’s screen being flooded with XML code. As blogger Matt Webb realised:

“If you don’t know what RSS is, it’s really hard to start using it. This is because, unlike a social media platform, it doesn’t have a homepage. Nobody owns it. It’s nobody’s job to explain it.”

Hence he created aboutfeeds.com to try solve this. A simple web page that explains how feeds work, why you’d want it, and suggests a few reader apps (without being partial to any of them).

The effort is simple but laudable, and perhaps worth imitating. For various underappreciated protocols and practices, rather than inventing yet another app or protocol, it may be more helpful to create (app- & vendor-neutral!) explainer pages and instruction videos. Or to undertake an especially thankless but heroic effort: improve the relevant Wikipedia articles.

“How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism”

Cory Doctorow wrote a long and long-awaited essay (see also his summary) to critique the narrative of “surveillance capitalism”, as popularised last year in Shoshana Zuboff’s book. In Cory’s view, “Zuboff puts enormous and undue weight on the persuasive power of surveillance-based influence techniques”, whereas the problem of big tech is rather rooted in their unrestrained monopoly:

“Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a “rogue capitalism” whose data-hoarding and machine-learning techniques rob us of our free will. But influence campaigns that seek to displace existing, correct beliefs with false ones have an effect that is small and temporary while monopolistic dominance over informational systems has massive, enduring effects. Controlling the results to the world’s search queries means controlling access both to arguments and their rebuttals and, thus, control over much of the world’s beliefs. If our concern is how corporations are foreclosing on our ability to make up our own minds and determine our own futures, the impact of dominance far exceeds the impact of manipulation and should be central to our analysis and any remedies we seek.”



All are online, unless noted otherwise.

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, corrections and suggestions for next editions are welcome at hello@redecentralize.org. We don’t spy on our readers, so please do tell us what you think!