Redecentralize Digest — January 2021
Following a years-old resolution, we finally moved the Redecentralize.org website to our own server (from GitHub Pages; turns out there is a self-hostable drop-in replacement for that). Apologies for any hick-ups that might occur (if you follow our RSS feed, you might have received all our old posts anew, sorry!).
In other news, your usual digest editor is starting with a job at noyb; and may thus have a little less time for writing these digests. Again, apologies for any hick-ups that might occur, and helping hands will be extra welcome!
In this digest:
- Writings on centralisation and/versus democracy
- A decentralised social media ecosystem review
- A new publication, The Reboot
- Brave browser supports IPFS
Centralisation vs democracy
After several platforms finally decided the (ex-)US President to be violating their policies of what’s acceptable, even those who felt he was given a platform for too long are queasy about the abrupt reversal, with concerns about broader ramifications of mainstream social media platforms’ exercise of their editorial control.
Whether it’s Angela Merkel, Věra Jourová, or the Pirate Party’s Marcel Kolaja, political leaders feel even more need to regulate social media platform companies in one way or another. The devil, as always, is in the detail of how such regulation would function, and a naive approach could further entrench platforms’ positions as arbiters of the public sphere. As Daphne Keller explained well in “Who do you sue?”, the power sharing between mega-platforms and governments leads to a symbiosis that impedes free speech while neither power can be blamed.
What’s fit for the web should not depend on some CEO’s mood swings, nor anybody else’s. Decentralisation advocate Michał “rysiek” Woźniak tries to point attention in a better direction, writing a guest post on our blog (thanks!):
This is too much power, and power corrupts. But the question isn’t really about how these platforms should wield their power — the question is whether these platforms should have such power in the first place.
And the answer is a resounding “no”.
As the alternative to a centralised platform with a single moderation policy, he promotes a plurality of arbiters each having only local influence; the model of the Fediverse. Moving towards this model requires both individual and collective action:
“On an individual level, you can join the Fediverse. Collectively, we should break down the walls of mainstream social media, regulate them, and make monetising toxic engagement spilling into public discourse as onerous as dumping toxic waste into a river.”
Besides giant social media platforms booting people, we have seen giant infrastructure providers booting social media platforms, with Amazon Web Services discontinuing its hosting of the Parler platform. As the EFF writes: “Whatever you think of Parler, these decisions should give you pause.” Their article then digs down into the layers of the “free speech stack”, coming to a clear conclusion:
“Whether you agree with those decisions or not, you will not be a part of them, nor be privy to their considerations. And unless we dismantle the increasingly centralized chokepoints in our global digital infrastructure, we can anticipate an escalating political battle between political factions and nation states to seize control of their powers.”
In the same vein, Article 19 formulates it very well:
“We need decentralised power, a variety of providers with different business models and systems, which compete fairly; we need viable alternatives and the option to switch for users. Any other solution appears short sighted: a patch that cures the symptoms but leaves the cause unaddressed.”
This ecosystem review, authored by Jay Graber with help of various contributors, presents an extensive comparison of several protocols and applications for decentralised social media. For each of them, it describes aspects such as content moderation, discovery, privacy and governance, and finishes with treating those topics separately. For anyone lost in the plethora of projects, this document may be a helpful map to start with.
The review was written to inform Twitter’s ‘bluesky’ project, an initiative supposed to have an independent team develop a social media protocol that Twitter would become a client of (see digest of December 2019). While in a recent interview Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appeared to see blockchains as the holy grail for decentralisation, the ecosystem review covers a wider range of peer-to-peer and federated systems.
The review was announced along with a short update that bluesky is still looking for a project leader, so don’t expect to federate with your Twitter-homed friends already next week (if ever). We are still sceptical, but it could help that, as others have also noted, Twitter might just be “big enough to do something ambitious and technically expensive, precarious enough to take the risk”; so let’s see.
The Reboot, launched past December, is “a new publication that critically examines the internet.”. It is published by blockchain computing startup dfinity, so expect some favouritism (e.g. their internet’s history culminates in the launch of dfinity), but the first articles nicely cover some of our favourite topics: alternatives to proprietary platforms, the tendency towards monopoly, decentralising social media (mainly about Mastodon and Twister), and data liberation/portability, etcetera.
Brave & IPFS
The Brave web browser now supports visiting websites hosted over the peer-to-peer IPFS protocol, as an alternative to the good old HTTP(S). Unlike HTTP(S), IPFS does not rely on a single server to keep hosting the website. Thus even if the website’s own server goes down, or is not reachable from the visitor’s side of the internet, the browser could just get a copy from anywhere else. See the IPFS blog for more info and background of the collaboration.
You might remember that IPFS support in Opera was revealed last year; that however still relied on using a gateway server that would access the IPFS network on the browser’s behalf. Brave went a step further, as it runs a full IPFS node that connects to the peer-to-peer network directly from the user’s computer; much like Beaker Browser does for the Hypercore protocol.
It has to be seen if other browsers will join the peer-to-peer train. Progress on ‘dweb-friendliness’ is being tracked at arewedistributedyet.com.
- Mozilla’s 2020 Internet Health Report is out, with a review of the year, slides with facts and figures, and three spotlights on racial justice, labour rights, and platform transparency.
- EFF explains the widely misunderstood ‘Section 230’ that is debated in the US in context of platforms’ responsability for users’ speech; and redirects attention to strengthening and enforcing competition regulation instead.
- Decentralized Identity Foundation’s highlights of its latest community event.
- Like with Fediverse apps in August, this time the flagship Matrix client app Element got suspended in the “Google Play ban-of-the-week lottery”; this time with quick reinstatement and apologies.
- PeerTube, the federated video streaming software, released its third major version, with live streaming.
All are online, unless noted otherwise.
- Feb 6–7: FOSDEM; conference of free & open source software developers (see especially the distributed web devroom)
- Feb 10: Open Tech Will Save Us; monthly presentations hosted by the Matrix project
1118: DWeb meetup: A New Portal for the Decentralized Web; the launch party 🎉 of getdweb.net, a new website for the decentralised web community, hosted by the Internet Archive
- Mar 8–19: Mozilla Festival
- Mar 12: Public Spaces Conference; new conference about ‘repairing the internet’, focussed on (Dutch) public sector institutions
- April 20–22: Internet Identity Workshop; unconference about decentralized identity/self-sovereign identity, organised twice a year
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!