Decentralized Web Pt 4: Progress and Setbacks

At long last, here’s the last of a four-post series introducing the new themes for Notes from the Metaverse. In case you’re just joining us, look these over:
What is a Decentralized Web?
Surveillance and Privacy
Join the IndieWeb

While I was composing those posts, and otherwise living my life, Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman at the Center for Civic Media & Digital Currency Initiative of the MIT Media Lab were preparing and producing a 112-page report on the progress towards — and problems facing — the builders of the decentralized web, called Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future? Click the link to download the PDF of the report.

Read the 6-page Executive Summary to get the gist of the report, but it’s worthwhile to go through it all if you have the time.

Honestly, this study spends more time discussing the dominance of corporate social networks, mainly Facebook and Twitter, than about the open Web. Yet it does offer case studies of some of the important building blocks that lay the groundwork for a return to the Web as a basis for communication and collaboration.

In this summary, I’ll look at those pieces of the report that directly address the Web, as opposed to social networking. You can bet I’ll write about that soon.

The Freedom Box

I’d forgotten about this effort, which was a big deal in Linux circles when it launched in 2013. Initially, this was a desktop computer designed for “personal publishing.” It soon devolved into a router with privacy built in to the firmware. The standard router included a secure digital card (SD card) with custom firmware that enabled additional ad blocking, malware detection and support for things like OpenPGP. This enabled users to leverage the web of trust for authentication of TSL/SSL communications through the use of familiar tools, such as one’s web browser or a secure shell.

The report (p36) describes the central aim of the Freedom Box project:

The Freedom Box project aimed to give greater autonomy and control over user publishing, by shifting from corporate owned hardware to a community ownership model for storing content. They also explicitly sought to enable users to discover and filter one another’s content by supporting projects like Diaspora, which enabled a set of users to exchange information and interact within a federated framework.

The Freedom Box lets you communicate more securely through the web without as many passwords, but more folks usually accept the routers offered them by their Internet Service Provider. Privacy just isn’t enough, for now.

Blockstack and Passwords

We all know that passwords are evil. We have too many of them, and can’t effectively keep track of them. We have a variety of software to generate and store them — until their database gets hacked. All kinds of really smart people are looking for a replacement to them, but the spectre is raised of bad guys hacking off our fingers for the prints!
Meantime, a lot of sites allow us to identify ourselves through our already-established Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter accounts.

One solution the report looks to is Blockstack. They write: “Using Blockstack, an author associates a public key with their username of choice, which can then be used to verify that documents associated with that name were produced by that person.” (p51)

Your name and public key gets stored in a blockchain transaction, which is a tamper-resistant (but not tamper-proof) record of the stuff that gets entered on it. Once you establish your username on Blockstack, it could become your single ID on the Web, not controlled by Google or Facebook.

The report notes that we used to have the OpenID standard for authenticating humans without requiring passwords, which worked quite well for years — until Facebook and the rest decided that they could collect still more information about us (to sell to their advertisers) based on the sites we visit.

This section of the report again denies the ability of ordinary users to break from the existing reality. “The average user doesn’t see the need for secure identity and thus isn’t interested in learning more about independently controlled identity solutions in order to adopt them.” (p53)

This may be true, but that’s where movements like IndieWeb come in. If users are persuaded that secure identity is essential to avoid theft (just think about Equifax), they can see how relatively easy it is to do the right thing.

There’s another long section about how hard it is to manage public key cryptography, but I’ll hold off comment on this for another day. Shall I note that the report cites a public opinion poll from 1999 on how people feel about the usability of crypto keys?

The Interplanetary File System (IPFS) and Distributed Hosting

Of course, everything starts with the really cool name. The concept is similar to the principles behind SETI At Home. Where distributed computing focused on harnessing spare memory and chip cycles to look for coherent signals from the galaxy, IPFS wants you to share hard drive space. In the report’s words (p2): IPFS “is a distributed storage service with a proposed mechanism to incentivize resource sharing creating a new transport protocol to address challenges around preserving links to content online.”

While theoretically, any computer can be on the internet, and if you have web server software installed, you can host and display content in any web browser. Of course, you have to have that machine on 24/7/365 for the content to be read. Your machine’s Internet Protocol (IP) address should also have a domain name attached to it. Oh, and you have to have the expertise to fix anything that goes wrong. This is why most people use a web hosting company to store their content. Also why most people post and share content using the existing social media silos.

Participants in IPFS aim to provide enough space someday to hold all active content on the web, and make it available to everyone.

The report offers a nice description of this (p62):

… anyone can easily copy and serve content, making it harder to take that content down, and potentially improving latency by making files accessible in multiple places. IPFS stands in contrast to the way content is currently discovered online today, using URLs and HTTP links to identify a specific server host, where that content lives.”

IPFS also has the ability to serve as a content archive for the Internet. One goal for the system is to enable users to find content even after a website owner (or government agency) decides to remove it, or migrates to a new location.

As for a downside, the MIT authors worry about freeloaders, where people consume the available data, but don’t contribute any space to the project. I suppose some of that is inevitable, but ideas will move forward to solve it.

Solid: A Protocol for User-Centered Sharing

This is the project that I have the most hope for, not least because Tim Berners-Lee is involved, along with a team from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. Instead of proprietary Share buttons owned by the siloed social networks, Solid is a web standard for sharing content with silos. With a little bit of engineer-speak, the project explains its goal (p69):

The goal of Solid is to support a high degree of interoperability between applications, as well as to enable greater portability of data between servers. The Solid team aims to do this by developing a standard API that makes it easy for developers to write applications that allow users to use the same data in different applications instead of leaving it locked inside different application data repositories.

Translation: Let social networking software work together better, and allow folks to copy and move data that they create, or comment on, or otherwise manipulate, from one site to another reasonably easily. So you can share interesting stuff you find on Facebook with your own site, other people who share your interests on their sites, and anywhere else on the web. Your stuff should be yours, not be siloed in just one place because that one place needs exclusivity.

It uses an already existing web standard called Resource Description Framework (RDF).
What’s the downside? According to the report, it will be hard for developers to switch. The authors claim that RDF is a “deeply ideological protocol,” by which I think they mean it is deeply committed to an open, and semantic Web. What’s so wrong about that?

The report authors conclude (p74):

The approach of Solid towards promoting interoperability and platform-switching is admirable, but it begs the question: why would the incumbent “winners” of our current system, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, ever opt to switch to this model of interacting with their users? Doing so threatens the business model of these companies, which rely on uniquely collecting and monetizing user data.

Well, that’s the problem now, isn’t it? People might object to business models that “rely on uniquely collecting and monetizing user data.” Without an alternative in place, they may also feel stuck where they are.

An Appcoin-Based Web Economy?

The fundamental question for any linked electronic system is how both content and computers get paid for. Blockchain-based currencies seem to be the best option today. The report authors look at “Appcoins” like Steem as a “digital currency framework that enables users to financially participate in ownership of platforms and protocols.” In addition, they see four main ways that Appcoins might support collectively owned and managed digital networks (p78):

  • by creating a new funding model for open source software
  • by helping bootstrap new fledgling networks
  • by enabling greater competition
  • as a tool for collective governance

They go on to look at Steem as a case study, and suggest that so far, this hasn’t worked.

I do not claim expertise in the area of financial instruments and crypto-currencies. That said, I’m skeptical of those who believe Bitcoin and its progeny represent a solution to the evils of the current banking system. At the same time, I like many of the ideas put forward by the “platform cooperativists,” who are, in turn, big on a decentralized web backed by crypto-coins. More investigation required, I guess.

Summary and Final Thoughts

Overall, this is a pessimistic report, largely because the authors have a tough time seeing anything changing, particularly when it comes to the state of social networks. These blinders are most apparent in passages like these, talking about decentralized social networks (p43):

Large companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon pay less per unit of compute power and storage space because they purchase and manage it in bulk. A smaller company purchasing less of each resource would not be able to negotiate the same low prices. Moreover, the most successful model for monetization of social publishing platforms is advertising. Existing mega-platforms have huge troves of data on user behavior. New platforms start out at a competitive disadvantage to existing networks that already control the advertising space.

The status quo remains stable until it doesn’t. Species don’t evolve, until they do. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould gave this process a lovely name: “punctuated equilibrium.” Change happens, often when you least expect it. Notes from the Metaverse hopes to both chronicle that change, and help to nudge it forward. Join us!

I am deeply interested in what you think of the ideas posed in this series of posts. What would it take for you to become part of the IndieWeb? Does the upside of the status quo overwhelm its downsides? What would force you to break completely from corporate social networks? Are the authors right? Is this all a pipe dream? Comment below or use Webmention to comment on your own site.

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