2nd Decentralized Web Summit Brings Piles of Working Code

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.

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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. 

 

 

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.

 

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!