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Redecentralize Digest — April 2021

In this digest:

Decentralisation ⊥ orthogonality?

In “Beyond mere decentralization”, Brandon Wallace, borrowing from Peter Wang’s talk at DWebCamp 2019, promotes the concept of orthoginality. The term is related to modularity, interoperability, and ‘separation of concerns’: in an orthogonal design, the method of transport is not tied to the data format it carries, and neither is tied to identity systems.

The focus on orthogonality is a response to the terms “decentralised” and “distributed” often being used superficially, pointing only to the absence of a single central service operator. To some people, ‘decentralised’ and ‘blockchain’ are practically synonymous, whereas others note that blockchains are rather re-centralising a system.

As Vitalik Buterin once layed out, it helps to see decentralisation as having multiple dimensions, in his view these three: technical, political, and logical. A technically decentralised network with a single developer influencing its progress is politically centralised. And if all nodes have to share the same data (the modus operandi of blockchains) it is logically centralised.

Thinking about it that way, perhaps orthogonality could be seen as yet another dimension. But, importantly, the mentioned dimensions themselves are not completely orthogonal: orthogonality, as well as technical decentralisation, helps attain political decentralisation. Having multiple parties responsible for different pieces of the puzzle distributes decision making power, while the ability to mix and match different systems reduces the lock-in effect of each. An everything-or-nothing technology stack, where a single party creates software, protocols, formats, and even mints a currency, will only be decentralised in a narrow sense of the term.

Without renaming ourselves to Reorthogonalise, we’ll keep stressing that there is more to decentralisation than having multiple computers verify each others’ computations. Decentralisation is about cooperation, interoperability, extensibility, diversity — not monoculture.

Democratic governance of P2P online communities

On the dominant digital platforms, the governance of online communities and moderation of social discourse seem to find no shortage of controversies. As an alternative to forcing platforms to assume the role of ‘benevolent’ dictator, various projects are experimenting with democratic governance in peer-to-peer networks: letting people decide for themselves, individually and collaboratively, on the content they see and share.

Last year, we mentioned the TrustNet subjective moderation model and the cabal peer-to-peer chat platform. Another project in this field is Aether, a text-based ‘flood’ network with a Reddit-like use case for pseudonymous public discussions.

The creators of Aether started writing up the philosophy behind it. Their first article, “The fair moderator”, explores user consent and legitimacy of a government in a social network:

“… the only internally consistent modus operandi for a social network is that of a sovereign state, because it has to apply decisions on its people, and those decisions have to be consented to by its users.”

Its follow-up, “Death and life of great online cities”, explores what users should ask of digital platforms. It makes the case for digital user-citizens in a civilised society, where one “cannot be banned off your Gmail, Facebook account for no reason”, just as you should not be jailed for no reason nor without due process.

Upcoming articles in the series will explore how a subjective moderation system avoids the need for making a company ‘benevolent dictator for life’, but will also treat the associated social and legal complexities.

I* newsletter

Launched in January, I*: Navigating Internet Governance and Standards is CDT’s monthly newsletter to keep you informed about internet protocols, governance and politics in IETF, ICANN, IANA, I… (and elsewhere). If you like this ReDigest, chances are you will appreciate that one too.

Owning the means of computation

Ingrid Burrington writes for the Reboot on the infrastructural power beneath the internet, highlighting the importance of alternative ownership models for physical infrastructure — the “means of computation”, or “means of connection”.

“Whatever you want to call it, any vision of building a less centralized, more equitable internet has to ultimately account for ownership of all the physical stuff — the means — that makes the internet as we know it.”

But that physical stuff is pricey:

“This is partly why many projects to recreate a distributed internet begin with software. Code is cheap; subsea fiber-optic cable is not. For companies and open-source projects working at the protocol level to shift away from the internet’s hub-and-spoke model, the means of computation tends to be redistributed to users (the basis of most peer-to-peer technologies).”

And part of the solution may be a change of perspective:

“Rather than assuming that the internet starts as massive nodes of platform data centers and internet exchanges, perhaps the last mile is actually the first step in working toward a different vision of who should own and govern the means of computation.”



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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 help of Benedict.

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!