Redecentralize Digest — December 2020
Happy new month! A good moment to look back at the last month. In this digest we’ll cover:
- The EU’s new proposals for regulating ‘gatekeeper’ platforms
- The Remote CCC conference and DWeb meetup
- Technology’s trade-offs discussed in “The Decentralized Web of Hate”
- Misc tips & updates and events coming up
EU’s DSA & DMA proposals
The European Commission finally published its proposals for the DSA and DMA (Digital Services/Markets Act; we might have mentioned them before). The DSA refreshes and expands rules around content moderation and liability (see EFF’s summary), but the DMA is the more interesting and novel one as it addresses the market power of “gatekeepers”: platforms that business users depend on to reach their audience (unfortunately, non-commercial use of platforms is largely ignored). Besides e.g. marketplaces and social networks, the definition of platform includes search engines and operating systems; so for decentralised software developers being disadvantaged by a dominant OS or app store, this regulation could make a difference.
Once the Commission designates a platform provider as gatekeeper (e.g. due to having ≥€6.5B turnover and >45M users in the EU for ≥3 years), it would be restricted regarding a whole list of unfair practices. For example, a few such restrictions (see article 6) command that “a gatekeeper shall…”
“(c) allow the installation and effective use of third party software applications or software application stores using, or interoperating with, operating systems of that gatekeeper …”
“(e) refrain from technically restricting the ability of end users to switch between and subscribe to different software applications and services …”
“(f) allow business users and providers of ancillary services access to and interoperability with the same operating system, hardware or software features that are available or used in the provision by the gatekeeper of any ancillary services;”
“(h) provide effective portability of data generated through the activity of a business user or end user and shall, in particular, provide tools for end users to facilitate the exercise of data portability, in line with Regulation EU 2016/679, including by the provision of continuous and real-time access ;”
These seem like very welcome rules to reduce some of the platforms’ anticompetitive practices and helps fairness within a platform. However, the proposal does not try hard to remove the platforms from their gatekeeper positions. We hoped it would go further by e.g. requiring interoperability of platforms’ core (not just “ancillary”) services, to break network lock-in. As the EFF’s analysis explains:
“The DMA’s requirement for “realtime data portability” looks good, but users can’t take advantage of it unless they have an account on the gatekeeper service. So if you left Facebook for Diaspora and wanted to stay in touch with your Facebook friends using “realtime data-portability,” you’d have to keep your Facebook account and connect it to Diaspora, which means you’d still be subject to the sprawling garbage-novella of abusive legalese Facebook laughably calls its “terms of service””
The DSA and DMA proposals will now move on to be discussed and amended in the EU Parliament and Council, and (prospective) gatekeepers are ramping up their lobbying efforts to water them down. Having decentralised software and services (especially those involving EU-based startups) raise awareness of their presence and needs could be most helpful to improve the final version.
Remote Chaos Experience was the corona-compatible replacement for the CCC’s yearly congress, taking place in a collaboratively created virtual 2D space. Many talks have been recorded. Two highlights:
Building Blocks of Decentralization: Will Scott introduces and compares various types of decentralisation projects, then gives a high-level overview of some recurring concepts (federation vs p2p, gossip, DHT, BFT consensus, sybils), and explains their properties and limitations.
Funkwhale and the Importance of Decentralized Podcasting: Ciarán Ainsworth explains how the self-hostable, Fediverse-connected music streaming software Funkwhale moved into podcasting (both for publishing & listening). He also emphasises the importance of decentralisation, as the open podcasting ecosystem has already started being eaten up and walled off by Spotify.
December DWeb meetup
The Internet Archive hosted a DWeb meetup on 4 December, which involved a dozen projects telling about their missions, challenges and lessons learnt, in a series of twelve 5-minute lightning talks:
- IPFS (on the protocol’s ecosystem and progress)
- A Shanghai mesh network workshop
- DOTS (on documenting UX patterns for decentralisation)
- Gun (on scaling up a distributed database to millions of users)
- OneCommons (promoting open cloud services)
- Beaker browser (demoing its brand-new 1.0 release)
- Brick House (a new coop to protect press freedom)
- Agregore (a browser supporting many p2p protocols)
- Fluence (an open application platform)
- itme (on self-determination of our digital bodies)
- PLAN (a virtual 3D workspace for collaboration & organisation)
- Braid (an extension of HTTP to support state synchronisation)
More info, links, and the recordings of each are found here.
“The Decentralized Web of Hate”, a recent report by Emmi Bevensee of Rebellious Data and the ScuttleButt community, investigates how peer-to-peer communication tools developed with social ideals end up being used for purposes antithetical to those — specifically, by white supremacy groups — and what could be done about this. Being both sympathetic towards and worried about the technology, the report gives nuanced reflections about trade-offs and challenges:
“Centralization, such as a server controlled by a corporation, allows us to quickly remove dangerous content but it puts the control for what constitutes “dangerous” in the hands of a privileged few.
Radical democratization of the responsibility for maintaining a healthy Internet that respects difficult discourse, free speech, and the rights of marginalized persons to safety online is the great task of the P2P era”
Interesting is the analysis of the different attitudes and motivations that drive people in the peer-to-peer space:
“For many in the P2P space, particularly those influenced by political ideologies such as techno-libertarianism, a belief in a combination of maximized liberty through free-markets and technology, the affordance of malicious use of their tools is understood as a necessary risk to advancing goals like freedom of speech and curtailing state overreach. To those in the P2P space more influenced by leftist and social justice ideologies, affordances such as use by white supremacists using a technology is something to be counter-acted as much as possible while still trying to leverage the potential of the tool. Further, there is a subpopulation of people in the P2P development space who themselves identify with white supremacist ideologies though they may take the cover of other political ideologies or dogwhistles.
There are also those in the P2P space who are driven not so much by political or moral ideology but as by curiosity of the technical and mathematical possibilities. … This group is less concerned overall about whether any given group, hate or otherwise, uses their tools and more that they can advance the technology and theory.”
Of course, most people do not fit in exactly a single category:
“The reality of these communities though is that many ideologies and motivations overlap and most people that I’ve spoken to have nuanced and complicated views on a range of these issues. Tensions at the level of code are embedded in the social context that creates them. The freedom of speech represented by an uncensorable P2P protocol interacts with the freedom to not experience racist violence organized through the very same protocol. Therefore it is important to investigate how some actors are pushing back against hate in a technological space that is, by design, difficult to censor.”
Rather than giving up on decentralised tools, the report looks for ways to discourage or mitigate their abuse, hinting at explicit project values, various content moderation approaches, and instance block-lists as practiced against Gab in Mastodon (on the latter topic, see also this recent talk by Derek Caelin).
But, as the author concludes, in the long run we need social solutions to social problems. “P2P systems mimic the questions of how we combat racism and intolerance in the real world” — much depends on the real-world communities and culture around the technology. Perhaps this writing itself already helps by cultivating a culture among decentralisation enthusiasts in which nuances, trade-offs and responsibilities are acknowledged and appreciated.
- Beaker browser, after being in beta for several months, dropping several planned features to focus on the essence, published the 1.0 release of its peer-to-peer web browser/editor.
- Two studies that show the domain name system (DNS) has become more and more concentrated and less redundant.
- Volunteers fixed the German official Corona-Warn-App to finally be usable without needing Google services.
- Session, a messenger app that forked Signal to make it decentralised and anonymous, explains why it is now replacing Signal’s protocol with its own.
- NGI Assure is the latest grant scheme in the EU’s Next Generation Internet programme. First call is open until 1 February.
All are online, unless noted otherwise.
- Jan 13: Open Tech Will Save Us; monthly presentations hosted by the Matrix project
- Jan 26: PrivacyCamp; conference on digital rights and (EU) policy
- Feb 6–7: FOSDEM; conference of free & open source software developers (see especially the distributed web devroom; its CfP is extended to 7 January)
- Mar ≥8: Mozilla Festival
- Mar 12: Public Spaces Conference; new conference about ‘repairing the internet’, focussed on (Dutch) public sector institutions
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!