Redecentralize Digest — September 2020
A bit late and short this time (too busy last week), but here is our monthly rumination on decentralisation.
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We got a last-minute opportunity to host a workshop at the NGI Policy Summit last week, part of the European Union’s Next Generation Internet programme. The workshop topic was the problematic use of centralised social media platforms by public institutions; with a focus on the alternative of adopting decentralised social media (specifically Mastodon / the Fediverse).
A nice discovery while preparing this workshop was that one German State Ministry (Baden-Württemberg) already has an official Mastodon account, and their head of online communications was able to join and tell about this pioneering move. Moreover, Marcel Kolaja (MEP for the Czech Pirate Party) shared his views to enlarge the political perspective.
The recording is available here.
Response to DSA public consultation
Redecentralize (sorry to keep talking about ourselves) responded to the European Commission’s public consultation on the upcoming Digital Services Act (see earlier digests), along with a few thousand other organisations and individuals. We skipped most questions and just hammered home the point that regulation should not (only) focus on current platforms’ behaviour, but rather on enabling people to leave these ‘gatekeeper’ platforms and their apps without having to part from friends, content or audience. The need seems clear for mandatory interoperability to escape from network lock-in. Even Twitter, itself a walled garden, acknowledges the problem:
Certain companies limit interoperability to cement their market power and limit competitive challenges. We believe a multi-layered and nuanced approach that takes market size and resources into consideration when drafting regulatory measures would be useful.
Interoperability protects competition and cultivates choice. The #OpenInternet encourages economic diversity and enables democratic, domestic digital creativity; populated by companies of all sizes. It stops gatekeepers forming and promotes an open, competitive ecosystem.
In recent months, discussions around regulation of gatekeeper platforms seem to be moving from ‘whether’ to ‘how’: how to define gatekeepers and their obligations, how to express such obligations in law, how to ensure effective enforcement? This leaked draft lists unfair practices that could potentially be banned (either as a blanket ban or through case-by-case interventions). Most of the obligations sound helpful and important, though a positive interoparability obligation is listed only near the end, and only as an alternative:
28. Gatekeeper shall not discriminate in providing interconnection between their service and other services, or in the interoperability between their service and related services. [ALTERNATIVE: Gatekeepers shall offer meaningful interconnection with and/or interoperability to their services]
The debate around this topic will likely louden next year, once the Commission’s proposal is out (ETA: December 2020) and the Parliament and Council will start discussing, amending and eventually approving it.
Two weeks ago, the Internet Archive hosted another DWeb meetup: “If Big Tech Is Toxic, How Do We Build Something Better?”:
Many of us know that the Internet is broken, so how do we build something better? On September 22, DWeb San Francisco invited a panel of experts to share their views on the most viable paths forward. The panelists included author & EFF advisor Cory Doctorow, Matrix.org co-founder Amandine Le Pape, decentralized social media researcher Jay Graber, and TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. They covered a range of approaches including technical, regulatory, and organizational that could bring us towards a future where our networks are more resilient, participatory, and decentralized.
About the panelists:
Best-selling science fiction author and EFF Special Advisor, Cory Doctorow, emphasized that we need to fix the Internet, not the tech companies by doing a lot more to bring back principles of interoperability, to enable more competition and innovation.
Developer, and founder of Happening, Jay Graber, shared her insights on what she found hopeful about the decentralized web ecosystem, and some of the challenges that some of these protocols still need to grapple with moving forward.
Chief Operating Officer of Element and Co-founder of the Matrix.org Foundation, Amandine Le Pape, shared what she learned as Matrix built a new open standard for real-time communication from the ground up, as well as her ideas on how to counter the information silos of the big centralized platforms.
Journalist and co-founder of Techdirt, Mike Masnick, shared about the way people were realizing the need for change, and also some of his skepticism about how some proposed regulations to enforce interoperability may harm start-ups and other less-resourced projects. Masnick’s 2019 white paper, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech” has been an influential call to arms for the decentralized tech community.
This is from the recap, which also provides the recording of this interesting discussion.
While the discussion was full of good points and insights, I will add a small remark regarding the last-mentioned point, “skepticism about how some proposed regulations to enforce interoperability may harm start-ups and other less-resourced projects”, which is a doubt heard more often but about which I remain puzzled: the main proposals and discussions I have seen so far explicitly aim to regulate only large platforms — e.g. the US ACCESS Act defines this as having ≥100M users in the US, while the European Commission is rumoured to think of perhaps a dozen ‘gatekeepers’. I would hope for the nets to actually be cast a bit more widely, but clearly start-ups would remain outside of it, while they could greatly benefit from the ability to interact with the user bases of incumbant giants. If you haven’t already, do however read Mike’s mentioned white paper “Protocols, Not Platforms”, which presents a spot-on analysis of the problem with platforms.
- The creators of PeerTube, the federated video streaming software, now opened a cross-instance search engine: SepiaSearch; but not without reflecting on how to avoid obtaining or abusing the power over people’s attention that such a gateway can get.
- Spritely is a multi-faceted project by ActivityPub co-author Christopher Lemmer Webber, aiming to “level-up the federated social web” by applying research on topics like object capabilities and content-addressed storage.
- This article briefly describes the history of QoS and multicast to illustrate the need for technical internet architecture to align with business models of internet service providers.
- A critique of decentralisation, extending on Signal-founder Moxie Marlinspike’s (widely criticised) talk — which may be worth a more thorough scrutiny and rebuttal than seen so far.
- With Blocktober, the IndieWeb community has — in the light of The Social Dilemma’s rebuke to social media — put out a call to action for folks to block their social media (at least stop scrolling their feeds) in October, preferably through the US election on 3 November; see also their how-to tips for leaving Facebook.
- The UXFund, “a targeted pool of funding dedicated to improving the usability of open source security and privacy tools used by at-risk communities around the globe”, is open for applications throughout October.
All are online, unless noted otherwise.
- Oct 6: Decentralized Alternatives to Big Tech; event by New America’s Open Technology Institute
- Oct 14: Open Tech Will Save Us; monthly presentations hosted by the Matrix project
- Oct 20–22: Internet Identity Workshop; unconference about decentralized identity/self-sovereign identity, organised twice a year
- Oct 22: The State of Internet Freedom Around the World; knowledge sharing workshop by the Internet Freedom Festival
- Nov 14–15: IndieWebCamp East; unconference about self-hosted & home-made personal websites (aligned with US East Coast hours — see also the previous West event, and the many other IndieWeb events)
- Dec 7–11: 1st International Workshop on Distributed Infrastructure for Common Good, Delft, Netherlands (or online)
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, corrections 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!