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.

Inrupt: A Watershed for the Decentralized Web?

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

When Tim Berners-Lee launches a new project for the World Wide Web, it has an impact. Saturday morning I woke up to the news that Sir Tim had a new project. With an interview with Fast Company and a new website, Inrupt was born, and everything might change.

Inrupt is a startup company that will support the Solid project that Berners-Lee and his research group at MIT has been working on for a few years. Berners-Lee’s business partner, John W. Bruce writes:

Inrupt’s mission is to ensure that Solid becomes widely adopted by developers, businesses, and eventually … everyone; that it becomes part of the fabric of the web.

I love the basic idea of Solid, where you store all your relevant information in a “personal online data store,” or POD, and make your own decisions about what information you share online. If you want to tell people that you’re going to some concert tonight on some online service, go ahead and share it with that service’s Solid app. When you decide that you’re embarrassed that you ever liked that performer, you can revoke that permission, and it disappears, everywhere you shared it.

 

Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid POD (Personal Online Data store), via Fast Company

 

I’m really excited that Inrupt wants to build the ecosystem around Solid, get more developers, more apps. Ultimately, that should lead to more users, presumably leading to an Internet closer to the Web founders’ original vision.

Reactions

When I read the Fast Company piece, and read the Inrupt home page, I admit that I thought “This is really on the right track, and where do I send my resume?” I even filled out the contact form at Inrupt (before I saw the mailing list subscription link) suggesting that when they started thinking about user docs, they should keep me in mind! And yes, I’m following them on LinkedIn too.

After reading every word on their website (OK, maybe I skipped some of the developer parts), I asked myself whether Inrupt was just a way for Sir Tim to cash in on his invention. Not that there’s anything technically wrong with that, but there is a downside.

Just a year or so after caving to the Copyright Cartel on the Digital Rights Management (”Encrypted Media Enclosures”) standard at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), you have to wonder whether Berners-Lee has just become another corporate pawn.

Child of Silicon Valley

I don’t know much about John Bruce, Inrupt’s CEO. I’ll be doing more research.

What I do know is this: Inrupt seems to be following one of the traditional Silicon Valley funding paths. Charismatic founder starts company, sucks up a ton of venture capital to stimulate growth, then either goes public with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or a sale to another big company. When successful, the end game makes the founder rich, and the venture capitalists even richer.

The Inrupt website describes John Bruce thusly:

John led four start-ups, three of which resulted in global acquisitions. John will apply his decades of strategic business leadership and experience with leading software and service companies to launch Inrupt and the next phase of the web.

There’s nothing wrong with this experience, either. I worry though.

Yet, there are more than a few companies in the world of free and open source software that manage to make money without projecting evil onto the landscape: Automattic, Mozilla Corp, Red Hat, and SUSE come immediately to mind.

I’d rest a little bit easier if Inrupt declared itself a Public Benefit Corporation, which bylaws aims to put social good ahead of profit.

I’ll be watching Inrupt’s progress with hope, mixed with a little bit of dread.

Very interested in hearing what you think about Inrupt, Solid, and their prospects. Leave a comment, or otherwise get in touch.