More Thoughts on a Decentralized Web

Last week, Tara Vancil from the Beaker Browser project posted a timely set of tweets about how supporters of a decentralized web talk to people about it.

In Plain English…

Some good ideas here, especially when aiming to win developers over to the cause. I truly hope this doesn’t come off as “mansplaining,” but in more common terms, more people might understand the benefits she raises in the first tweet:

  • Algorithmic transparency: You should be able to describe why you see what you see online. Content providers (including social networks) should also be able to describe what the rules are when they display some posts over others. Algorithms used in web development should be based on open standards. It should also be transparently easy to determine whether Internet Service Providers are providing fast lanes for preferred sites.
  • Customizable apps: You as a user should have control over what your software does. You should define what information you share and with whom.  The providers of a web service should not collect information about you that you don’t explicitly approve. The same terms go for Internet Service Providers, should you choose to use one.
  • Member-defined communities: In a decentralized web, you don’t need a service like Facebook or Google Plus to engage with other people like you. If everyone has a website, and used web standards to Mention and Comment on posts made by friends, colleagues or total strangers, that’s a decentralized community. In the early days of the Web, people set up “WebRings” of sites sharing similar topics. Rings helped users to find information on things they cared about. These sites often engaged in conversation with each other.  Sounds a bit like what people use Facebook for today.
  • Permissionless publishing: This is the essence of the Open Web. Anyone can publish anything online without getting someone’s approval first. Of course, this central value is a mixed blessing when some people, companies, and political entities (parties, interest groups, governments and the like) are not morally committed to publishing the truth. We need to remember that this has always been true. There’s a reason “It has to be true!  I read it on the Internet!” is a cliché.

Descriptive Names

Of Vancil’s more descriptive names, I’m OK with all of them, with a slight preference for “person-first.” All of them might get a befuddled reaction (“huh?”) at first, but should spark further conversation. The idea of putting people first will generate more smiles at first hearing, and may generate more ideas for how to put people first, which makes for a more productive discussion about what the web means with either developers or other persons.

Good News: Second Decentralized Web Summit

Speaking of conversations, there’s a venue for that! A second Decentralized Web Summit is happening this summer! As you may know, the drive to (re)decentralize the web gained a bit of public attention two years ago when some of the web’s founders convened the first Summit at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. The same folks are preparing a second gathering at the Internet Archive on July 31 – August 2. Visit the conference site to get on the Updates mailing list.

Announcement of the 2nd Decentralized Web SummitI hate when conferences skip a year, especially after the first time. It seems like nothing is moving forward. I’m glad to be proven wrong. The theme for the conference is “Global Visions / Working Code.” Certainly a hopeful theme. The conference founders (not-so-coincidentally present at the web’s creation) will give keynote addresses, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Mozilla Board Chair Mitchell Baker, and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.

They will be joined by some of the people building that working code: Juan Benet, the founder of the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), and leaders of the DAT Project, a data sharing protocol, on which you can build applications (like the Beaker Browser) and connect with other people. While none of these leaders are named in this announcement, I suspect (and hope) that Tara Vancil will be among them.

Assuming the conference will follow a similar schedule as its predecessor, the keynotes will be followed by workshops and other opportunities for participants to learn, discuss and collaborate. I hope more can come out of it.

Do these new terms help you understand the promise and the value of a decentralized, “people-first” web? What stumbling blocks do you foresee? Is this the future, or a futile bid for a world that has become hopeless? Thoughts, critiques, support and well-reasoned denunciations welcome in the Comments section. 

 

 

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Yes, you can communicate on Twitter!

Topsy's collection of @WorkingWriter's first tweets

I have a story to tell. There may be lessons to learn, but I guess we’ll see.

One Little Tweet

It started a few nights ago, when Twitter called my attention to this post by Zeynep Tufekci about Facebook:

She was responding to this post by someone you may have heard of:

I shared Dr Tufekci’s post, but thought it might be a little wordy, so I rephrased it a little:

See those numbers next to the heart and speech bubble? In the 11 years and 1 week I’ve been on Twitter, I don’t think I’ve gotten that kind of feedback for any single post. Twitter even followed up with an analytics report! Over 20,000 sets of eyeballs saw my little sentence! If you’re reading this post because you saw the tweet, Welcome!

But the endorphin-goosing traffic of social media love was just the beginning.

A Twitter Conversation

So while my iPod is giving me minute-by-minute updates of all the people who connected with my words (a wonderful thing to happen to any professional writer), I also suddenly receive feedback of a somewhat different sort: “Straight up wrong.”

At least it wasn’t a personal attack from some white nationalist. After my pride recovered a little, I offered a brief response:

BTW, Cory is a total stranger to me. He studies math in Stanford, California. If he goes to the school with the same name as the town, you might conclude that he’s way smarter than I am. You’d probably be right. It is still a little thrilling to have a conversation online about something — anything — important.

He responded:

I didn’t think I was pushing a “they don’t sell (data) at all anymore” idea, but rather something else:

If you think Twitter has become a place where conversation is no longer possible, and is only a place where conflict over politics gets ever more heated, I offer this small miracle in evidence:

Thanks, Cory Griffith! Mathematicians can still be human.

Conclusions

There is hope that the world can learn something from this Facebook atrocity. If we can have online conversations that don’t end in flame wars, that’s a great thing. If we can understand the real problem with Facebook’s vacuuming up of their users’ personal information, so much the better.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has gotten in hot water over this. It might be the last, but that’s up to us. That’s for another post, though. In the meantime, do read the Guardian story that Cory linked to when I was “straight up wrong.” They’ve been doing some fabulous work on this story overall. If you can, send them some cash to help pay the writers, editors, printers and web people too.

Let me close with the same words I finished my chat with Cory on:

Some questions come to mind: How did I handle this conversation? Is there something I could have done better? Have you been involved in online conversation, flame war, or something in between. What communication lessons can you share from them? Of course, comments on Facebook’s data practices and business model are welcome here (and on the Michael McCallister Facebook page) too.  

How can we win the fight for the Web?

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

On the 29th birthday of the World Wide Web, its father, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, posted a warning about its future.

Berners-Lee leads off with some exciting news: “This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online.” Then poses two questions we need answers for:

  1. How do we get the other half of the world connected?
  2. Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?

He pledges the Web Foundation to fight to get everyone online, and “make sure the web works for people.”

The post (which also appears in The Guardian and Axios.com, and possibly elsewhere) is correct, as far as it goes, but a strategy to win the goals he’s looking for is lacking.

In this post, I want to focus on the latter goal. Of course, we want to get everyone on the planet online, but it will require a social movement to preserve the Web as something that works for people. Social movements aren’t easy to build.

Sir Tim explains the problem

There’s some really good stuff here (emphasis added):

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

His solution is a bit hazier. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future.”

Bright Minds Not Enough

Smart people will be needed to save the web, but a successful movement will need all kinds of people. Case in point: The 2016 Decentralized Web Summit. A bunch of brilliant people gathered at the Internet Archive for two days. Founders of the internet (including Berners-Lee) met with younger developers of the incipient decentralized web.

The first day had the founders of the internet offer a set of keynote addresses pointing the way forward, and describing what had gone wrong with their brainchildren in the last 25 years.

The second day focused on workshops where developers of different decentralized projects got to meet with each other and get a sense of what was coming. Some reporters attended to document the event, and some other people (including me) got very excited about the possibilities. You can read more about it here.

Two years later, and progress has been limited, though anger at the state of the internet rises. The danger of its domination by what Farhad Manjoo calls “the Frightful Five”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (occasionally joined by Twitter) is just one component of what’s been called the “techlash.”

Why has progress been so limited? I will argue that the value and benefits of the decentralized web have not been communicated to enough people. Many people have an uneasiness about a corporate-dominated online future but feel powerless to stop it. A vision of a solution and a plan to achieve the vision can relieve that feeling of powerlessness. That’s when we can change the internet for the better.

So how do we get there? Let’s start with some basic principles.

Principles for a pro-Web movement

pexels-photo-270404.jpegAs I write this, tens of thousands of young people in the United States walked out of some 3000 schools this morning at 10 AM to mark the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They presented concrete demands for changes in the law to prevent any more school shootings. They believe that when people act, politicians will move.

They have lessons to teach us, even for people who want to change something as ubiquitous — and obscure — as the internet. Some brief thoughts on what to do.

Focus

While there are plenty of organizations out there that seek to broadly change the world, sometimes you need a smaller, tighter group concentrated on one issue. The fight for the open, democratic, decentralized web should have such an organization or coalition of organizations.

Global Scope

earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-87651.jpegThe internet is a global network of networks, and the fight to preserve and extend it should be a World Wide Web. And not necessarily led by the usual suspects from the industrialized global North.

Action-Oriented

Opponents of the student walkout tried to pose an alternative, suggesting that instead of “walking out” of school as citizens in a democracy, people should “walk up” to a stranger;  try making more friends with unpopular kids who might grow up to be a shooter someday.  The two ideas aren’t exactly counterposed — citizens can still make more friends. The kids understood that politicians still play a role.

The fight to preserve net neutrality in the US (which, incidentally, involved a lot of young people) aimed to bring ordinary folk together. Anyone trying to preserve and extend the internet should also aim to involve and activate as many people as possible.

Bottom-Up Democracy

Involving people in a fight they don’t have a stake in is a recipe for failure. Sure, get those smart people into a room to discuss what may need to be done, but the folks who will take that campaign forward need to understand and buy into it. That isn’t a technological solution, it’s a participative activity.

Let’s move forward.

What do you think? How could you see getting involved in the fight for a better web? Is a meeting of “the best and the brightest” all we can do to preserve, democratize and extend the internet?  Are there other principles we need to win? Say your peace below.

 

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.

Decentralized Web Pt 3: Join the IndieWeb

Back in May, when I relaunched Notes from the Metaverse, I told you that this blog would now focus on three important areas related to the Open Web:

  • Software tools that empower
  • Defending net neutrality and universal access to the Internet
  • For an open, decentralized web

I wanted to explain the concept of a decentralized web in a little more depth, and started out strong with a pair of posts. Between the normal summer activities, and a few other intervening projects, I’ve been slow in producing the remaining explainers. I’m fixing that now.


If you need a refresher, here are the first two posts:



The IndieWeb: Your Place for Your Content

indiewebcampIn recent months, I’ve been learning a lot about the “IndieWeb,” an idea spread by folks who understand that the Web offers a unique platform where ordinary people without the financial clout of the 20th century publishing industry could still potentially reach millions with their ideas.

Starting with early sites like GeoCities, Tripod and AngelFire, anyone could create a “home page” on the web, and pontificate on whatever came to mind. When these services went bust in the dot-bomb era at the turn of the century, “Web 2.0” fostered the creation of personal blogs and the systems (like WordPress) that managed them.

Today, far too many of us who want to use the internet to communicate with friends, family and total strangers do so in “walled gardens” like Facebook. Services that treat its users as products to sell to advertisers. As I’ve mentioned before, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

IndieWeb is all about you controlling your content, connecting with people you want to connect with, with nobody using your stuff to get others to sell you things you may not want.

Why You Should Be Part of the IndieWeb

I’ve been saying and writing this for years: You need to own your ideas, and how you express them. Especially true for writers, but really true for everyone who wants to communicate on the internet. This idea is at the core of IndieWeb organization.Protecting privacy and anonymity online

But to be honest, I’m not sure I can tell you why — and how — to join up any better than Chris Aldrich did in this piece originally on AltPlatform. So just go over there now.

What Does the IndieWeb Have to do with a Decentralized Web?

The IndieWeb is a bridge to the decentralized web we really need. Think of it as a way to get used to the idea that the Web should belong to you. Over time, perhaps you’ll break with being dependent on corporations to communicate. You’ll still be able to connect with all these other services and the people on them, but still have access to everything you contribute. Even if that service goes bust, or makes insufficient profits for its parent company, your stuff remains in your hands (or at least your hard drive).

The decentralized web needs different software, and different ways to connect up. It may take time, but the more people who stake out a homestead on the IndieWeb, the closer we’ll get to the real deal.

Coming soon: An Update on the Decentralized Web

A few weeks ago, the MIT Media Lab released a report on the state of the Decentralized Web, one year after the original Decentralized Web Summit. I’m reading this report now, and will comment on it in the next post.

Also coming soon, my redesigned, IndieWeb-ified website at MichaelMcCallister.com.

Are you on the IndieWeb yet? What problems do you anticipate if you decide to go indie? Is the IndieWeb (or the blogosphere) actually better than Facebook for virtual communities? Comments always appreciated.