Tech of, by, and for the people

On February 18, 2021, the movement toward a decentralized web took another step forward. The people behind the Decentralized Web Summits and DWebCamp 2019 launched a new website for organizing and information: GetDWeb.net.

About 100 people joined a Zoom call to learn more about the site, and talk about the future of the project, focused on the principles of this movement.

Some things I learned

Here’s a quick summary of what I learned at the launch:

  • The design and building process for GetDWeb.net took about 13 months.
  • You can access the site using two decentralized protocols besides good ol’ https. Open the Brave browser to see the site on the Interplanetary File System (ipns). Use Beaker Browser to see it on Hyperdrive.
  • The project runs Meetup groups in nine cities: Five in the US, three in Europe, and in Shanghai. The site offers tips on starting a new one where you live.
  • Want to learn more about the project? The resources page contains links to a variety of articles and videos to help you. The FAQ page (once you get past the Meetup section) answers common questions.

What I didn’t learn

Now you might come to a site called “Get DWeb” expecting to find “how to get on the decentralized web.” That is, you’d find tools to access an existing decentralized web.

The FAQ suggests this disappointing reality:

Some apps and programs, built on the decentralized model, are already available and you can sign up and use them at will. But the Decentralized Web, as an ecosystem, might not be fully functional and integrated for another five or ten years.”

GetDWeb FAQ, “OK, sign me up. How and when can I get on to the Decentralized Web?”

Is this the “only” Decentralized Web?

The thing about decentralization is that by its very nature, there’s no central control. I might set up a decentralized network of websites that might not make a bit of sense to you. You then have the option to create a different network that makes sense. Of course, then you have to justify your sensible network to get other people to join.

Last fall, a group called Rebellious Data released a report called “The Decentralized Web of Hate.” It outlined the use of decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) tech by white nationalists and other extremist groups on the political right. The report gained a whole lot of readers after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.

The folks behind this effort toward a decentralized web might describe themselves as a polar opposite to the groups described in the Rebellious Data report. Because San Francisco’s Internet Archive is its initial sponsor, I’m tempted to call this project “The Decentralized Web of Love,” but that’s just because I’m old.

This project worked out a set of principles that should make sense to more than a few people. They released the first draft on the website after being hashed out by “members of the DWeb Community — those involved with and convened by the Internet Archive’s work on the decentralized web.”

One problem with the principles

Now I happen to think that this is an excellent set of ideas to undergird this project. I just have trouble with one thing: It is abundantly clear that the folks who drafted these principles are highly educated people who have spent a really long time thinking about and building the Web and other useful technologies. That’s fantastic, of course, but if you’re not part of that group of people, you might have some trouble understanding where you fit in.

Now I have some experience translating Geek-to-English, so I tried to apply some of that experience to these draft principles, and put them in the table below. I hope they are a little easier to understand.

On the left side is the original text, copied from the Principles page at https://getdweb.net/principles. My text is on the right, labeled Revision.

Disclaimer: I never spent a minute with the Stewards or Contributors listed at the bottom of the page. I have no idea what discussions went on to carefully parse any disagreements among the drafters. Generally, I have tried to maintain all the ideas in the draft, but if I left anything out or misconstrued something, that’s totally on me.

Where I have a Note, that’s usually just my speculation aiming to improve understanding of my readers (you). But the Principles committee is certainly welcome to adopt some or all of these suggestions for improved readability.

PrincipleRevision
Technology for Human Agency
We stand for technology that enables the primacy of people as beneficiaries of the technology, by upholding their security, privacy and self-determination.People come first — Their security, privacy and the ability to decide for themselves.
We urge coexistence and interoperability, and discourage walled gardens.If you decide to switch platforms, for whatever reason, you should be able to move every character, every image, every piece of data with minimal interference.
We value open source code as a fundamental building block of an open and inclusive Web.You can view the source code of every page on the World Wide Web in a browser. This should continue. The door is open to the use of proprietary algorithms, but they should not be the norm.
We aim for peer-to-peer relationships, rather than hierarchical control and power imbalance.People use the Web to collaborate and share information. Companies that build websites should not have control over the Web.
(Note: BTW, if we’re not crazy about hierarchies, why are the principles in a numbered order? I’d favor bullet lists.)
Our technologies must minimize surveillance and manipulation of people’s behavior, and optimize for social benefits and empower individuals to determine how and why their data is used.Websites should focus on social benefits and empowering its users. People should have control over their data. Companies should not profit from user surveillance and manipulation.
We believe that multiple technical means will be more effective than a single technical solution to achieve ethical and people-centric outcomes.Our decentralized Web will not pick a single technology to achieve its goals. We will focus on ethical and people-centered outcomes.
(Note: This may be a swipe against those who believe that no decentralized web can happen without running on a blockchain.)
Distributed Benefits
We believe that decentralized technologies will be most beneficial to society when the rewards and recognition of their success, monetary or otherwise, are distributed among those who contributed to that success.Our decentralized web aims to reward and recognize the people who contribute to its success. That’s how society will benefit the most.
If that is infeasible, proportionate benefit should flow to the community at large.If we can’t effectively reward only contributors, or if everyone is a contributor, we aim to reward the community as a whole.
High concentration of organizational control is antithetical to the decentralized web.Our decentralized web will not recreate today’s web. Control resides with people, not companies, oligarchies, or similar organizations.
Mutual Respect
We support and encourage codes of conduct to ensure respectful behavior and accountability.Individuals participating on the Web should be kind.
We expect participants to remain mindful of, and take responsibility for, their speech and behavior, by acting out of respect for others and respecting physical and emotional boundaries.With great power comes great responsibility. Respect others, be kind, and do the right thing.
We stand for open and transparent organizational practices, motivations, and governance, in a manner that actively pursues equity, mutual trust, and respect.If you own a site, be open. Your users need to trust you to do the right thing.
Humanity
The objective of building a decentralized web is to protect human rights and empower people, especially those who experience systemic inequity and prejudice.Our decentralized web will protect all human rights. It aims to empower all people, no matter who they are, where they were born, what color their skin is, their economic status — all of it!
We stand for people having agency over their own data and relationships, rights to free expression, privacy, and knowledge, as these are essential to human empowerment and dignity.People come first in our decentralized web. They can define their relationships to others and to the sites they use. Free expression, privacy and the right to information are essential.
We condemn the use of distributed tools for activities antithetical to human rights, such as human trafficking; sexual, mental, or physical abuse; and arms trading.Our decentralized web opposes using decentralization to hide anti-human activities, including but not limited to: human trafficking; sexual, mental, or physical abuse; and arms trading.
We encourage building with harm-reduction in mind, and support the adoption of mechanisms that mitigate the potential for abuse, and consideration of those ‘not at the table’ — not connected, not users, and the disadvantaged.Our decentralized web aims to be free of hate. We will take steps to reduce online abuse of people, whether or not they’re connected.
We encourage the development of tools and applications in many languages and forms, with a high degree of accessibility.To be effective, the World Wide Web must be accessible. Our decentralized web aims to make the web usable and accessible to every human, regardless of their physical (dis)abilities, mental health, or the language they speak, read or hear.
Ecological Awareness
We believe projects should aim to minimize ecological harm and avoid technologies that worsen environmental health.Our decentralized web is conscious of human impact on the climate, heating the climate and making the current crisis worse. We aim to do better, because people (and other living things) come first.
We value systems that work towards reducing energy consumption and device resource requirements, while increasing device lifespan by allowing repair, recycling, and recovery.We will work to reduce technology’s impact on the climate. We recognize that no one should have to buy a new computer, phone, or other device every year to get full access to our decentralized web.
(Note: This may also be a swipe at blockchain-based distributed apps. A recent report indicated that global mining for Bitcoin uses more fossil fuels than the entire country of Argentina!

People should be able to fix, upgrade, recycle and swap parts to keep their older systems going, especially in underdeveloped parts of the world.
(Note: This is likely a swipe at Apple and other device manufacturers that plan obsolescence into their product pipelines.)

An important step for the DWeb

This website is a great way to gather new forces for the enormous tasks ahead for the decentralized web project. While kibitzing on the side of this group since discovering the first Decentralized Web Summit in 2016, I’d like to get more involved now. I hope you might too. You’ll learn a lot from the people involved, and this is an important evolution of the Web, and people’s ability to inform themselves and collaborate with others.

Brave Browser adds IPFS support: Do you care?

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

Have you ever tried the Brave web browser? Since its founding in 2015, Brave Software has quite a record of innovation with its browser, but hasn’t made much of a dent in the browser usage competition.

A long suspension footbridge across a river in a forest.
Photo by Sven Huls on Pexels.com

Over the years, Brave has implemented:

  • A built-in ad blocker that’s On by default
  • Allowing Brave users to contribute (in cryptocurrency) to registered web publishers
  • Allowing users to browse via the anonymous Tor network

Just last week, Brave added support for the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a pathway to the distributed web. Jon Porter’s story on The Verge has the details. IPFS seeks to replace the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) as the way to access sites on the web. Instead of pointing to an address on a single web server, you point your browser to an IPFS node address. The content would exist on other IPFS users’ computers.

Costs of Innovation

You would think with its focus on privacy, Brave would be more popular than its claimed 24 million users. Implementation issues have plagued the browser, though.

  • To placate sites (and advertisers) whose ads were blocked, Brave offered a scheme where users could agree to view “Brave Ads” sold by Brave Software. Users get crypto tokens as a Reward.
  • The revenue from “Brave Ads” would fund the publisher payment program. Is it an accident that the Rewards support board averages 84 posts per week? Many of those posts are variations on the theme of “Where’s my money?”

Brendan Eich and Conservative Politics

Some of us will not forget that Brave’s CEO, Brendan Eich, was forced out of the CEO’s chair at the Mozilla Corporation in 2014. He contributed to an anti-gay-marriage campaign in California two years earlier.

Eich, who created the JavaScript programming language while at Netscape, has long associated with conservative and libertarian causes. In the 1992 presidential campaign, he contributed to Pat Buchanan’s rightist primary challenge to George H. W. Bush, and also helped fund Ron Paul’s campaigns.

More recently, he apparently joined in the disinformation campaign around COVID-19. He doesn’t like masks.

A decentralized alternative: Beaker

What all the news stories on Brave’s IPFS support miss is that there’s another peer-to-peer protocol that does very similar things. It’s called Hyperdrive (originally DAT), and is supported by the Beaker Browser, which I’ve written about before (here too).

The Beaker developers explain Hyperdrives like this in their documentation.

“Hyperdrives” are like websites. They store webpages, pictures, media, user data, and so on. Hyperdrives power a lot of Beaker’s best features.

“Hyperdrives” are folders you host from your computer. They contain web pages which you can browse and edit. You can create and share hyperdrives using Beaker.

Beaker Browser Documentation

Works in Progress

I’ve played with IPFS a little, and suspect I might give it another whirl soon. Same with Hyperdrive and Beaker, which I’m a little more excited about. Go follow Paul Frazee on Twitter (@pfrazee) or YouTube (Paul Frazee) to see what’s he’s innovating on the peer-to-peer front.

The big problem with IPFS isn’t the technology per se, it’s that ordinary folks can’t access files stored on the system, even if the (Brave) browser supports it. There’s no effective search engine, or directory of the IPFS world.

Beaker/Hyperdrive/DAT has an index page to the sites they know about, but of course you have to open those sites with Beaker, the only browser to handle dat: or hyper: pages.

Looking forward to the next round of innovation for all these projects. May the best project win!

(Yes, the post is late this week. I’m the victim of two traditional Wisconsin catastrophes: The Packers lost on Sunday, and a nasty snowstorm hit last night. Aiming to do better in February…)

Related posts

Book Review: Beyond the Valley

Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, by Ramesh Srinivasan (2019, The MIT Press)

Beyond the Valley is an important look at what’s wrong with the internet’s control by Big Tech. UCLA information studies professor Ramesh Srinavasan also offers practical examples of possible remedies.

How it’s all gone wrong

The first part of the book is all about the disasters we’ve uncovered in recent years. Remember these lowlights?

  • When right-wing political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica took data generated from millions of Facebook “personality tests” to develop profiles for micro-targeted advertising. Those profiles then helped Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the US.
  • Google’s journey away from its original “don’t be evil” motto
  • Amazon’s bullying of vendors, union-busting activities and tax evasion
  • Apple’s attempts to dominate how you listen to music
  • A variety of problems with artificial intelligence

Srinavasan warns that the technology companies will always choose profits over people. The history to date has not been positive.

As robots replace more workers, companies have no interest in how those replaced workers will survive. He suggests that a universal basic income (UBI) such as that proposed by 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang may mitigate the problem.

Perhaps you read about Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition software. The ACLU of Northern California compared a database of criminal mugshots with photos of members of Congress. Srinavasan writes “For Congress as a whole the error rate was 5 percent, but for nonwhite members of Congress the error rate was 39 percent.”

Problems with technology and the internet aren’t limited to North America, of course. Repressive regimes use a variety of techniques and policies to enforce their rule. Srinavasan especially attacks China’s surveillance state and its social credit regime. The latter is the government’s policy of monitoring people’s behavior online and assigns “credit scores” to determine how well you contribute to society. Cross the government too often, or associate with people who do, and suddenly you can’t ride the bus as often.

Srinavasan explains: “A poor credit score that comes from expressing ‘bad’ speech online, smoking cigarettes, or playing too many video games could result in a range of punishments, from losing one’s freedom to travel, to public humiliation.”

Hope for the future?

Beyond the Valley isn’t all gloom and doom. The last part of the book looks to a variety of potential solutions, and alternative visions, to promote democratic control of the internet.

Among the options described:

Those of us who have been watching the movement for a (re)decentralized internet know that some enthusiasm for this idea comes from Libertarian circles, who hope to finance (and profit from) a decentralized web on the blockchain.

Srinavasan and journalist Adam Reese collaborated on a chapter about blockchain. They describe several projects and conclude (like me) that “We have no illusions about blockchain saving the world. All the same, these networks’ decentralized architectures make them potentially valuable tools for building grassroots solutions that support the needs of ordinary users. … we’ll keep our eyes open for emerging voices and continue to listen to those who talk past the hype.”

As with any academic work, Beyond the Valley is extensively documented with books, articles (both journalistic and scholarly), and web links (though I wish he had included more links to the projects and organizations he’s covered). Yet it is easy enough to read for most people.

Srinavasan doesn’t offer any panaceas, but some hopes for the future. . If you have any curiosity about how to solve the problems and inadequacies of the internet, it’s worth reading. I expect to be mining that bibliography for a while.

Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Word cloud of terms related to net neutrality
Cover of "How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone" by Brian McCullough.

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (2018: Liveright) is the result of Brian McCullough’s researching and hosting the Internet History Podcast for the last few years.

The book’s subtitle tells you a little bit of what the book does and doesn’t cover: This is not about building the network and connecting the academics in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not a social history of the Internet, nor does it cover much of the open-source movement that underlies so much of what the internet is today.

What you will get in this book is a clear sense of how a military/academic network of mainframe computers and terminals familiar to very few became an essential part of most people’s lives. The narrative is often informed by the people at the center of the transformation. Among the topics covered:

  • The transition from proprietary commercial online services to the open World Wide Web
  • The browser wars of the 1990s
  • How the mainstream media botched online news in the early days
  • Amazon, eBay and the birth of online commerce
  • How we began to think of the internet as the “New Economy,” immune from business cycles, and how that bubble burst
  • The origins of online search
  • The birth of digital music and the copyright wars that ensued
  • The rise of blogging and social media after the bubble burst
  • A brief history of how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to being the wealthiest corporation on Earth

McCullough also tells us how Google managed to survive the dot-bomb crash of 2000-01 to become one of today’s dominant companies. This happened almost by accident.

The new version of AdWords had advertisers bid against competitors’ ads, but Google’s system was not simply pay-for-placement. Ever enamoured with math and the power of algorithms, Google ingtroduced an important new ranking factor for the ads it called a “Quality Score.” In essence, Google’s system took into account how often that ad was actually clicked on, in addition to how much an advertiser was willing to pay per click. … Over time, more money would come in from a 5-cent ad that was clicked on 25 times—than from a dollar ad that was only clicked on once.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone p.230

What this means is that Google discovered the importance of learning everything about its users (meaning: you and I), because they could make money from that knowledge. To fully understand, you should check out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m reading that now, and will probably have a lot to say about it when I finish. Right now, I can tell you it succeeds in altering one’s perception of what’s wrong with Big Tech.

McCullough is more interested in the businesses that built the web, you’ll get a lot of stock prices, investment numbers, and net worth of the founders. If you liked the National Geographic Channel series, “Valley of the Boom,” you will enjoy the more detailed stories. All the main subplots get at least a mention. If the docudrama elements turned you off, you’ll appreciate the research and storytelling that McCullough delivers.

What scares me most about this book is that, for better or worse, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off the best of all the book’s founders, as the person who (accidentally) really had the purest vision. Once he figured that out, he refused to sell out. That worked out, didn’t it?

I’ve read a lot about the history of the internet, and How the Internet Happened is one of the better ones. I started listening to McCullough’s podcast, which continues on, as a result of this book, and learned a bit from both the source interviews and the collected text. You likely will too.

2nd Decentralized Web Summit Brings Piles of Working Code

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

Honestly, for a while there, I thought the movement for a decentralized web was quietly fading away. There wasn’t a followup to the 2016 Decentralized Web Summit, and hardly anyone outside of a television sitcom seemed to be talking about these ideas, much less building alternatives.

Well, I am here to happily admit I was wrong. Truth is, it takes time to build software that might change the world. The second Decentralized Web Summit happened at the beginning of August, again in San Francisco. I didn’t go, but followed it intensely from afar. The sponsoring Internet Archive promised “working code” as a theme, and it delivered. The summit opened with a “science fair,” where 70 different projects showed off what they’d been working on, and there were enough people to walk around and see the presentations!

Wendy Hanamura of the Internet Archive reported that 800 people registered for the conference. I don’t know what expectations organizers had, but that sounds like a lot of people to this observer!

Time to follow Mozilla

It’s really exciting to see how heavily involved folks at the Mozilla open-source browser project are with solving the problem of decentralization.

Before the Summit began, the Mozilla Hacks blog for developers started a series of posts “Introducing the DWeb.” Since then, every Wednesday the blog features a developer of a decentralized project describing the project. As of this writing, three projects received exposure:

Mozilla Chair Mitchell Baker also gave a keynote address at the Summit, “Revitalizing the Web.”

I am really looking forward to a version of Firefox that supports the decentralized Dat protocol that Beaker uses.

Where was the tech media?

Startling that more mainstream journalists weren’t there. Vanity Fair profiled Tim Berners-Lee the week before, but as I write this, there were no reporters like Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks writing stories for Fast Company as in 2016. I could be wrong, of course.

In the meantime, I can point you to a pair of good conference summaries:

Computing.co.uk: A nice summary from John Leonard

TheNewStack

More summit resources

As you can see, a lot happened. As I watch more video and otherwise catch up with what happened in San Francisco, I’ll keep reporting here. I’m also looking forward to playing with MIT’s Solid protocol, which I almost didn’t mention!

In the meantime: You can pretty much watch the whole conference in bits here. You can also spend some time following the #DWebSummit hashtag on Twitter.

Two more keynotes to bring to your attention:

  • Cory Doctorow always gives a thought-provoking talk, this one focusing on the question of “big tech.” I would have loved to seen any interaction he had with Tim Berners-Lee during the summit.
  • Host Brewster Kahle (founder of the Internet Archive) gave a laid-back talk about how we got ourselves into this mess, and how we can get ourselves out.

This is all to say that I am more confident that we may be at the dawn of another age on the Web than I was six months ago. I’ll still be writing about it, here and elsewhere.

Were you at the Decentralized Web Summit? What’s the most important thing I missed? If you weren’t there, do you wish you had been? Thoughts on the prospects of decentralizing the web on a mass scale are also appreciated.