Redecentralize Digest — May 2022
In this issue:
- PublicSpaces conference happened
- The decentralised elephant in the room
- Subsidiarity, not redundancy
- Fair Play?
- Anil on how to fix the internet
- Miscellaneous discoveries
- Notable events coming up
PublicSpaces conference happened
PublicSpaces is a coalition of Dutch public media institutions, e.g. broadcasters and libraries, that try reduce their dependency on big tech and other commercial platforms. Its second conference took place in Amsterdam.
The conference tries to put its values in practice: recordings are available on their own PeerTube instance. Some highlights:
- Bring Your Own Data (about separating apps from data; Solid and such)
- The state of play of European legislation (overviews recent EU regulatory proposals)
- The Good Web (Ethan Zuckerman’s future for social media)
In the same theme: the European Cultural Backbone conference in Linz (Austria), about “federation of civil society media infrastructures”, happened too (recordings here).
The decentralised elephant in the room
Mai Ishikawa Sutton, co-editor of the DWeb Principles, wrote a thoughtful piece comparing the “DWeb” and “Web3” terms and surrounding communities (see also December’s digest), to face the “decentralized elephant in the room”:
“The disagreement over these labels, and what is even included in the purview of each, felt like a distraction from what’s actually being negotiated as people define and claim allegiance to DWeb or Web3. What matters in this discussion – in any discussion over a technology really – is who’s designing it, who controls it, and who stands to benefit?”
This reminds of Shoshana Zuboff’s recurring question in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:
“The threats we face are even more fundamental as surveillance capitalists take command of the essential questions that define knowledge, authority, and power in our time: Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?”
Mai’s argument suggests that replacing VC-funded surveillance capitalists with VC-funded crypto capitalists does little to decentralise power:
“Reflecting on the term Web3, Evgeny Morozov points out that while its proponents evoke it as a revolutionary new phase of the web, they rarely (if ever) address fundamental issues of power that made the old web toxic.”
The focus should be less on the tech:
“Are the problems that plague the Web purely technical? If sufficiently decentralized, will these technologies fix all that ails us? There’s a major oversight when one focuses solely on the technical affordances that were available at each stage of the Web, and points to them as their fatal flaws.”
Nevertheless, tech can help, and crypto concepts should not be dismissed entirely:
“Crypto-based protocols contain the potential for large-scale coordination that is unprecedented, including the ability to collectively monetize and compensate people for their labor. Which is all the more reason why we can’t let such powerful tools for mass coordination become monopolized by those who merely want to amass wealth or control.
So if I were to oversimplify the ideologies of DWeb and Web3 as “justice-oriented” and “profit-oriented,” respectively, I would say that these movements have an incredible amount to learn from each other.”
“Building new and shinier tools out of the same political and economic conditions will do nothing to fundamentally change the world. … Instead of expecting some technology to save us, we need to organize and save ourselves.”
Subsidiarity, not redundancy
Somewhat like Mai’s piece, a Wired article argues that The Web3 Decentralization Debate Is Focused on the Wrong Question. It promotes an alternative ideal:
“Our view of decentralization is about coordination. It emphasizes solving problems through the federation of “local” units, clustered around the social contexts most relevant to the decision at hand. … The key is that these local units are composable—modular and interoperable with each other, essentially “stackable” to a more global scale—to enable decentralized systems to efficiently solve problems that may at first blush seem to require centralization for coordination. We call this model composable local control.
Composable local control would distribute decisionmaking, leveraging a core principle of both markets and democracy: Those closest to a problem usually have the most knowledge and the greatest stake in its resolution, and it is by aggregating, federating, and filtering this knowledge that the best collective decisions are made.
This “composable local control” is enabled by subsidiarity, a term more common in political parlance (e.g. it’s a core principle in the EU treaties).
Subsidiarity is contrasted with the more homogeneous architecture pursued by most crypto projects:
“The “decentralization” currently achieved by most canonical crypto projects, such as Bitcoin, is what we call “distributed redundancy”: global, open, consensus-based storage in many locations of a common, homogeneous data set.
In sharp contrast to these principles, the type of decentralization that we believe is desirable, subsidiarity, focuses on:
- Keeping data as close as possible to the social context of creation.
- A plurality of solutions linked and integrated through coordinated mechanisms of federation and interoperability.
- Leveraging and extending relationships of online and offline trust and institutions.”
“Web3 has provoked an important discussion about decentralization. However, it is time to harness this energy to achieve what is best about decentralization: subsidiarity, not redundancy—a network of networks, not a ledger.”
The privacy-friendly email app FairEmail (disclaimer: I’m a fan) was removed from the Google Play app store after being flagged as “spyware”, with the false claim that the “app is uploading users’ Contact List information”.
As 99% percent of its users download the app via Google Play (even though it is available in F-Droid), this removal drove its one-person developer team to terminate development:
“May 18, 2022 All my projects have been terminated after Google falsely flagged FairEmail as spyware without a reasonable opportunity to appeal. I appealed 5 times, basically to get the same unclear answer over and over again. Until this is resolved there will be no further development and support.”
In the end it was reinstated after two weeks of back-and-forths, but this is a sombre tune that repeats itself. I’ll likewise repeat what we wrote previously, when several Mastodon apps were removed because they would “promote violence or incite hatred”:
“But either way, incidents like this remind of the deeper problem, which is not the unjustified and unexplained decisions, nor the opaque and mediocre appeal process, but people’s dependence on this single gatekeeper platform that makes their decisions too impactful. Some lessons to draw:
- …for Android users*: Do not rely on Google Play as the only means to find and install apps — get at least F-Droid, or download apps directly from their creator’s website if possible (and poke them if not).
- …for app developers: Do not rely on Google Play to publish your app — publish it on your website (ideally not a .app domain) and other channels; a nice incentive structure is to charge money for the app on Google Play, while offering it for free on F-Droid.
- …for legislators: Regulate platforms to prevent network lock-in — do not presume that some invisible hand will come and fix things.”
Note that the first two recommendations suffer from the all-too-common tragedy: incentives for individuals do not align with collective interest. For most users and developers, just using Google Play is the most convenient option; for them the marginal benefit of using a second app store does not weigh up against the extra hassle it adds.
The third recommendation, regulation, seems a more likely way to free the market from monopolists. The EU’s Digital Markets Act is a step in the right direction, but unless/until it will effectively be enforced, Google can keep squeezing both its users and app developers. As a structural solution, we should avoid gatekeepers altogether: plurality beats accountability.
Anil on how to fix the internet
The EFF’s How to Fix the Internet podcast hosted Anil Dash, talking about how “content creators” adopted the platforms’ perspective, the need for concrete goals in political movements, and focussing on what we do want and how to get there:
“The ideal is still possible. The challenge is the society around the ideal. The architecture of the internet is such that we were all supposed to have our own domains and run our own email and our own website on them and the like. And that ain’t how it played out. It can never be solely technological, but you can absolutely imagine technology as part of that solution. We can imagine certainly the combination of technology and regulation mandating some degree of interoperability on such things. But I think there actually is one that is really culpable in this not having more users, which is: the people who care deeply about these issues and have the technical skill in order to build alternatives, generally are so invested in being gatekeepers of their own technical mastery, that they don’t make them usable for normal people. And so there’s this interesting thing where it’s like, “I look down on having all my data in one of these giant silos from the big companies, but also I look down on users who don’t know how to run their own server on the internet.””
This last bit sounds harsh, but has a point: many techies rather focus on the tech than on its users, and even less on its potential users.
- The summary & recording of April’s workshop Goodbye Facebook. Hello Decentralized Social Media?, co-organised by Internet Archive’s DWeb project, are now online. It’s a great introduction to decentralised social media, both conceptually and concretely with demos of the Element and ManyVerse apps.
- Stephan Tual reflects in two parts on the Fediverse, Self-hosting, Blockchain & more: What’s the Decentralized Web?.
- June 6–10 RightsCon, online; conference on “human rights in the digital age”.
- June 8: DOTS monthly assembly; monthly meetup about design aspects in decentralisation, by the Decentralization Off The Shelf initiative.
- June 30: Ethics of the Decentralized Web & Uses for the Law, Journalism and Humanitarian Work, online; part of the 6-part workshop Exploring The Decentralized Web.
- July 22–26: May Contain Hackers, Netherlands; outdoor hacker camp.
- Aug 24–28 DWeb Camp, California; outdoor retreat/conference all about decentralising the web.
- Sep 26–30 Rebooting the Web of Trust, Den Haag (Netherlands); “on the creation of the next generation of decentralized web-of-trust based identity systems”
For more events like these, check out and subscribe to the dweb.events calendar!
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 to Jan and all tips & suggestions.
The digest’s format and content are not set in stone. Feedback, corrections and suggestions for next editions are welcome at email@example.com. We don’t spy on our readers, so please do tell us what you think!