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Redecentralize Digest — June 2022

In this issue:

Give up GitHub

The Software Freedom Conservancy launched a campaign encouraging software developers to Give Up GitHub. They bring up many reasons to switch to other tools, but the core reason also makes it hardest:

“The reason that it’s difficult to leave GitHub is a side-effect of one of the reasons to leave them: proprietary vendor lock-in. We are aware that GitHub, as the “Facebook of software development”, has succeeded in creating the most enticing walled garden ever made for FOSS developers.”

It’s especially ironic that GitHub is a platform based around git, the version control system that is designed to be decentralised. A git code repository can be moved to any server, not just GitHub. But the discussions, issue trackers, and other collaboration features only work within GitHub, with other GitHub users.

Various open source, self-hostable equivalents to GitHub exist. Unfortunately, so far they follow the same design: to collaborate with others, you need an account on the same instance. For example, to propose a correction to our website, you would first need to have an account on code.redecentralize.org; quite a show-stopper. Why can’t you message from your instance to ours?

Projects like forgefriends (previously Fedeproxy) and the ForgeFed protocol (based on ActivityPub) are aiming to solve this. According to forgefriends’ latest status overview, we may expect collaboration between our self-hosted code forges to become reality next year.

Chrome alone

While there are many web browsers around nowadays, most (including Microsoft Edge) are based on Chromium, the open source core of Google Chrome — which is the most used browser globally.

Mark Nottingham therefore asks a reasonable question: What willwould a Chromium-only Web look like?:

“It’s also not that far-fetched. Microsoft has already ditched their engine for Chromium; we’re all worried about Mozilla’s health and long-term (or even medium-term) viability, and Apple is only one competition judgement away from having to open up iOS to other engines.

After all, the code is what determines what browsers are capable of and therefore it defines the shape of the Web. Chromium already has a high market share of browser engines; why not just formalise it?

Putting aside the many arguments one might raise about diversity, risk management, innovation, and so on, I want to focus on one aspect of this potential change – governance.”

In the ‘Chromium-only web’, what constitutes the web would not be defined in standardisation organisations but by a (Google-run) software project. The author fears this would lead to a loss of legitimacy, and to governments stepping in and regulating the web to death:

“I strongly suspect that in a Chromium-only world, governments already suspicious of big tech’s influence over SDOs will have absolutely no inclination to consider Open Source governance as legitimate for something as important as the Web.”

As the author notes, the web has been moving away from its original nest for a while:

“Arguably, wrenching HTML, the DOM, and other core Web infrastructure away from the W3C into the WHATWG – a very Open Source-flavoured club of browser engine vendors – was a first half-step towards this”

The history, in short: After HTML 4, browsers vendors were unhappy with the W3C’s direction and created WHATWG (in 2004) to develop a separate specification, which resulted in two parallel definitions of the web. In 2019, the W3C conceded standards-setting authority to WHATWG to end the schism.

While there were good reasons for the fork, it resulted in governance of web standards resting with WHATWG, whose steering group members are Google (Chrome), Microsoft (Edge), Mozilla (Firefox), and Apple (Safari) — it only accepts web browser vendors. Web publishers, aggregators, archivers, and other stakeholders (users!) can participate in discussions but ultimately the browsers decide.

Web browsers have dominated in defining the web since its early days (remember Internet Explorer? RIP!). You could say the WHATWG/W3C agreement simply formalised their power.

Chromium, or well, Google, dominates WHATWG; albeit informally. Google is in a position where it can propose and implement new features, that websites (especially Google’s own) will then use, leaving other browsers to either catch up or become obsolete.

Some such features can be useful. But when an extremely dominant provider of services on the web is also (de-facto) defining what the web is, its incentives bend the direction of innovation. For example, I would not rely on Google for making the web tracking-free, or local-first, or unhosted-capable, etc.

Rather than formalising (and cementing) the status quo, we should look for ways to reverse the trend. Separating Chromium from Google? Opening WHATWG to other stakeholders? Standardising a stable subset of the web specifications? All seem helpful, none seem likely.



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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 to Amy, 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 hello@redecentralize.org. We don’t spy on our readers, so please do tell us what you think!