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Redecentralize Digest — August 2021

In this issue:

Human rights are not a bug

Decisions made by engineers in internet standards bodies (such as IETF and W3C) have a large influence on internet technology, which in turn influences people’s lives — people whose needs may or may not have been taken into account. In the report Human Rights Are Not a Bug (see also its launch event), Niels ten Oever asks “how internet governance processes could be updated to deeply embed the public interest in governance decisions and in decision-making culture”.

“Internet governance organizations maintain a distinct governance philosophy: to be consensus-driven and resistant to centralized institutional authority over the internet. But these fundamental values have limitations that leave the public interest dangerously neglected in governance processes. In this consensus culture, the lack of institutional authority grants disproportionate power to the dominant corporate participants. While the governance bodies are open to non-industry members, they are essentially forums for voluntary industry self-regulation. Voices advocating for the public interest are at best limited and at worst absent.”

The report describes how standards bodies, IETF in particular, focus narrowly on facilitating interconnection between systems, so that “many rights-related topics such as privacy, free expression or exclusion are deemed “too political””; this came hand in hand with the culture of techno-optimism:

“There was a deeply entrenched assumption that the internet is an engine for good—that interconnection and rough consensus naturally promote democratization and that the open, distributed design of the network can by itself limit the concentration of power into oligopolies.

This has not proved to be the case.”

To improve internet governance, the report recommends involving all stakeholders in decision procedures, and adopting human rights impact assessments (a section on human rights considerations should become as normal as one on security considerations).

The report only briefly touches what seems an important point: that existing governance bodies may become altogether irrelevant as both tech giants and governments move on without them:

“Transnational corporations and governments have the power to drive internet infrastructure without the existing governance bodies, through new technologies that set de facto standards and laws that govern “at” the internet not “with” it.”

How much would having more diverse stakeholders around the table help, when ultimately Google decides whether and how a standard will be implemented, or founds a ‘more effective’ standardisation body instead?

Preventing the next Google

While various European politicians pursue ‘tech sovereignty’ by creating ‘European champions’, Katja Bego urges the European Commission to build a Next Generation Internet on public rather than private digital infrastructure:

“Europe should move away from pursuing this ‘domestic superstars’ strategy to an approach focused on creating a more vibrant and diverse ecosystem of smaller digital applications, technologies and infrastructures. Because rather than try to build the next Google, should we not focus on building the infrastructures that prevent the next Google instead?”

“Such an approach would help us move away from a platform economy, where one player owns a whole suite of tools, towards a protocol-based economy, in which we could see a collaborative ecosystem of smaller, interoperable solutions and applications emerge.”


Full stack public media

The GMF published a report, A “Full Stack” Approach to Public Media in the United States, which takes a historical perspective at media in the US: it tells about Congress improving the postal system in 1792, press reform proposals by the Hutchins Commission in 1947, and the Carnegie Commission’s report that led to the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967. It draws the lessons that “the U.S. government has always invested in the country’s communication infrastructures because democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry”, and “private firms … have never met the public’s information needs on their own”.

In line with this history, it recommends that the government takes action again now that the next information medium has turned sour.

“More than 70 years ago, the Hutchins Commission put forward a social contract for communications in response to information monopolies, commercial excesses, social marginalization, and widespread public distrust in the media. Today, faced with a remarkably similar set of crises, the United States needs a new digital social contract that rearticulates the public’s relationship to its communication networks and takes advantage of technology to advance democratic interests.”

It recommends to reestablish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as one for Public Media, and create a “public media stack” of layered infrastructure:

“This would not be a free-standing alternative infrastructure, but rather a stack of interventions into the existing infrastructure that takes various forms of regulation, subsidy, supported collaboration, and persuasion.”

Interventions it recommends include investing in protocol development and to “mandate interoperable, standard APIs to enable digital interconnection in the public media stack”, in order to break open the internet’s gatekeepers: (emphasis mine)

“Public broadcasters would have been singing into the wind if Congress had not passed the All Channel Receiver Act to ensure that television receivers were actually equipped to receive these channels. Today, effective distribution means the ability to penetrate on digital platforms. The social media platforms have taken steps to amplify authoritative information, and they have been urged to do more. This is better than no action, but the Jeffersonian ideal of decentralized power over information militates against relying on digital platforms to order our information flows. Something else is needed.”


Proposals keep appearing to combat illegal content in end-to-end encrypted messaging (CDT just published a report explaining and comparing several methods). Moving the content scanning into the endpoints, i.e. people’s devices, is a creative ‘solution’ to get around the encryption.

Apple created controversy this month with such a plan, which would make iOS compare people’s data against an illegal content database. While the plan is limited in scope (only detecting child abuse photos that the user uploads to iCloud, which is not even end-to-end encrypted), people worry that Apple let the genie out of the bottle, and sooner or later any device will scan for any content considered inappropriate by any government.

Perhaps the uproar stems from a deeper feeling about ownership. To quote from a footnote by Aral Balkan:

“Whether or not Apple bows down to pressure on this and reverses course, it offers you precious insight into how they think.

It’s their phone, not yours.”

He points at the underlying issue of Apple’s market dominance:

“I’m seeing people say “just don’t use an iPhone.” It’s not that simple when everyday things like financial apps with two-factor authentication are locked into the two main platforms.

We need legislation to ensure critical services use open standards so you can use your PinePhone to buy lunch in the future.”

Legislation however seems to head in opposite directions. While some policymakers try hard to break the Apple/Google duopoly, others see them as useful partners to fight crime.

Any solution that relies on people’s computers to police their users relies on an unfree technology market: people should not be able to simply switch software and avoid the surveillance.

Even if we would (justifiably) consider this particular ‘feature’ acceptable and we would (naively) not worry about scope creep, the concept of on-device policing seems incompatible with the ability to choose or tweak the software on ‘your’ device. A result may be that free software becomes associated not with harmless geekery but criminality.



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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 digest was written by Gerben, with thanks for all tips & suggestions.

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!