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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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 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.

 

Defend Net Neutrality! Take your stand while you still can!

Net Neutrality: 3 corporations vs every other person

Wednesday, July 12 is a National Day of Action to defend the net neutrality rules that allow ordinary people the same amount of access to the Internet as the big corporations.

You’ve probably heard a lot about “fake news” lately. If net neutrality goes away, it’s the Internet Service Providers (your phone, wireless, cable company) who will get to decide how much it costs for your message to reach readers, listeners and viewers. It’s not hard to imagine that if making money or gaining power is your primary reason for being online, you’ll pay the toll to get your “news” (fake or not) out. Cost of doing business. If you’re sharing your expertise, or just spouting off (it’s your right), you’ll probably find the toll a little too steep, and find some other way to sound off.

Whenever you’re seeing this, do take the time to visit the Battle for the Net site right now, where you’ll get a variety of tools to make an impact:

  • File a comment with the Federal Communications Commission (copied to your members of Congress)
  • Share the fight on Facebook and Twitter
  • Show up at your congressional offices at 6PM on Wednesday to tell your representatives what you think
  • Make a video to show the FCC you’re a real live human, not a troll or a bot!
  • Oh yeah, they’ll ask for money too, if you have some to spare

I’m proud that Automattic, the company behind WordPress, will be part of this one-day action. Twitter, Reddit, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Kickstarter, Etsy, Vimeo, Private Internet Access, Mozilla, OK Cupid, Imgur, PornHub, Medium, and hundreds of other major sites are also participating.

Thanks for taking action! Feel free to discuss your actions and responses in the comments.

Decentralized Web Pt 2: Surveillance and Privacy

In the last post, I focused on the “walled garden” problem associated with the oligarchy that dominates web traffic today — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. That’s not the only issue associated with the Frightful Five, though. Consider your privacy online.

You’ve probably heard the bit about “if the web service is free for your use, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” It’s as true as it ever was, and if you need more proof, consider why your internet service provider is so keen to remove legal restrictions on sharing your personal information — they argue a need because the content companies have no such restrictions.

Protecting privacy and anonymity onlineAnother privacy issue related to your online conduct is that it’s becoming harder to be anonymous on the web. Here are some ways to do it. That can be a good thing; we all want online bullies, harassers and trolls to be controlled. But consider all those people who live under repressive regimes, where bloggers who write things counter to the prevailing political or cultural winds wind up jailed, tortured, or dead. An enhanced surveillance state isn’t much good for democracy either.

Do I have to mention the threats to privacy represented by the potential for electronic identity theft? With so many folks trying to break security and breaches happening so often, at some point, someone will get access to Facebook’s database.

Nearly Getting it Right

Today, you have the option of creating and maintaining your own site on the World Wide Web. Having control over your own space online allows you to define what information you are willing to share with what subset of humanity. This should be the goal, not simply posting your thoughts, plans and activities to some other billion-dollar corporate entity, hoping that they will do the right thing with your information.

Curiously enough, it was Google Plus that seemed to understand how sharing online content by and from users should be done. They made it easy to define Circles, people who received only information from you that you intended them to see. Unlike Facebook, which wants everything you share to be Public (perhaps in part so they can be less concerned about hiding material that ought not be public).

Of course, like Facebook, Google wants you to post all the things you’re interested in so that they can collect data to better sell you to advertisers. Perhaps that’s a reason Google Plus became one of the more notable Google project failures.

Having your own website is a start, but isn’t everything. In the next post, I want to tell you about the IndieWeb, a way station to the decentralized web.

What concerns you most about the centralized web described here? Do you have a personal experience with lack of privacy or oversharing in social media? Further questions on what the decentralized web might look like? Add a comment!

What is a Decentralized Web? Part 1

In my relaunch post a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of building an open, decentralized web.

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

As I write this, we mark the first anniversary of the Decentralized Web Summit (DWS) held at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. I wasn’t there, but was inspired by the ideas shared there. Click the link to see video of the keynote addresses given there, and much more information on what happened there. You may also find this Fast Company story from two of my favorite writers, Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks quite useful.

It’s occurred to me that in the year since the summit, the term “decentralized web” hasn’t gained the traction among ordinary folk that “net neutrality” has.  In this and the next couple posts, I’m here to help.

We once solved a big problem with the internet

When the World Wide Web was born, most people got online through one of two commercial services: Prodigy and America Online. If you don’t remember, these companies offered dial-up access to news, games, and community — all of which were located inside the walls of each service. Both companies worked hard to keep you inside their walled garden, even after they started offering content from the open Internet.

At that time, your “online service” completely controlled what access you had to the information resources of the wider internet. They also controlled the look-and-feel of those resources, so even if they offered a gateway outside the walled garden, you might not realize it.

Eventually, demand for full internet access forced the corporate online services to acquiesce, even though they probably knew that their internally generated content could never compete with the wonders of the World Wide Web.

Today’s oligarchy

The problem today is not that far away from the early 1990s. Consider this:

Tim Berners-Lee, who won the Turing Award for inventing the World Wide Web in the first place, describes the new problem this way in this interview with The New York Times: “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times has a slightly different list; omitting Twitter and adding the operating system behemoths: he calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Do take his survey to see how badly you’re hooked.

In the same interview, Berners-Lee identifies the results of this oligarchical control of the Web:

“It controls what people see, creates mechanisms for how people interact. It’s been great, but spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content, taking you to the wrong websites — that completely undermines the spirit of helping people create.”

So here we are again.

One solution: (Re)Decentralize the Web

The long-term solution would seem to be breaking up the Frightful Five, and putting users in control. But that’s easier said than done. I have long advocated that writers should have an online home of their own, but Berners-Lee highlights the problem that is everyone’s.

In the interests of preserving your time, I’ll stop now. In the next couple of posts, I hope to further explain the issue of centralization, how it affects you, and show you some intermediate steps along the way.

One more thing: Another blog for the Open Web

I want to introduce you to AltPlatform.org, another blog devoted to Open Web technologies. The founders are folks I have a ton of respect for, and (like me) think the time is right to move forward on these ideas.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “decentralized web”? Does my premise reflect reality? What questions do you have? Leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer in a subsequent post (if I don’t respond immediately).