Since 2016, a global community of developers, organizers, entrepreneurs, and academics have gathered to share ideas and approaches to building a Decentralized Web. The DWeb they dreamt of would stand in stark contrast to today’s Web, where a handful of powerful, centralized corporations rule over our data, social networks, and network infrastructure. The DWeb would enable people to have control over their own digital lives. In order to “lock the Web open,” DWeb infrastructure would be distributed itself, in ways that could be foolproof against concentrated control. And as Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle also said, it’s a Web that needs to be more “private, secure, and fun”.
While several thousand people have participated in DWeb-related events and discussions organized by the Internet Archive, we still lacked a general consensus about the principles we collectively stand for. What values do we share beyond giving people more control, and not being “centralized”? What specific features did DWeb projects need to have to be considered, well, DWeb? These were the underlying questions that motivated us to create these DWeb Principles.
What are the shared values of the DWeb community?
The Internet Archive has been one of the lead organizers of DWeb events since 2014. As one of the world’s largest repositories of online knowledge and culture, the Internet Archive has a stake in ensuring that the Web remains free and open. It has brought together those who are transparent about their approaches and are interested in engaging across projects to learn and collaborate.
It would have been impossible to capture what the DWeb means for everyone in these principles. That’s why from the onset, this project was meant to exemplify the values of a specific group of people—those who continue to show up and engage in these conversations about the DWeb. That includes large organizations, community networks, individual developers, policy people, artists, and journalists. Each in their own way, they’re creating building blocks of a Decentralized Web that actively invites participation.
Why create yet another set of principles?
As stewards, we felt that we needed to crystallize the shared vision of this community, to demonstrate how and why we are building a Decentralized Web. Our aim is to identify our guiding principles through discussion and distill them into a living document that we can point to. It is to create a set of practical guiding values as we design and build the Web of the future.
But beyond the document itself, the objective is to help set some ethical norms for the DWeb. If we all see ourselves as contributors to the Web, we hope these values will help people examine what they are building and for what purpose. It is to inspire projects that are driven by these values, and to hold each other accountable to ensure we continue to uphold them.
How We Developed DWeb Principles Version 1.0
John Conor Ryan and I began to work on these principles beginning in May 2020. Wendy Hanamura, Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, asked us jointly to lead this project. Though we agreed on many things, we also brought starkly different perspectives and experiences around what it meant to build tech for good. Those differences created a healthy environment for open exchange.
So how do you develop something as centralized as a unified set of principles for a diverse, decentralized group? In order to have something to work with, the two of us began by creating a draft ourselves. It was meant to be a starting point, a mound of clay that could be reformed and moulded by active participants in the DWeb space.
From there, we went through several rounds of reshaping, with the editing process involving over 30 individuals. These were the phases of its development:
Phase 1: Initial Draft — The stewards of the project, Mai and John, drafted a rough document for the DWeb community to discuss and consider. It was commented on and edited by other contributors. (May – Jun 2020)
Phase 2: First Feedback — Introduced the project to individuals in the DWeb community and solicited their comments and ideas. Presented the working draft at the DWeb Meetup on July 29, 2020. (Jun – Sep 2020)
Phase 3: Focus Groups — Held a series of focus group conversations with DWeb community members about the Principles to discuss intent, purpose, and future application (Sep – Dec 2020).
Phase 4: Revise Principles — Incorporate feedback from focus group discussions into the draft Principles. (Dec 2020)
Phase 5: Second Feedback & Gather Support — Solicit final round of feedback on the Principles. (Jan 2021)
Phase 6: Publish the Principles — Launch the first version of the Principles on the DWeb website. Hold DWeb Meet-up to launch the new website and present Principles. (Feb 2021)
Every single word in this document was thoroughly and repeatedly dissected and examined. What were the implications of certain terminologies? For example, what is presumed when we use the word “empower” versus “enable”? Why did we decide not to use the term “user”, and instead opt for “people” or “individual”? We worked with the contributors to be as deliberate as possible with our language.
It was through this process that we illuminated something crucial about the aims of the Decentralized Web community: That it is about more than the technical infrastructure, it is about social and organizational norms and aspirations. Technical specifications can enable or prevent certain outcomes, of course. But what is fundamental and subversive about this Decentralized Web movement is that it is about elevating both individual and collective human agency. It is about creating more just and equitable relations between people, and creating networks that help us address the urgent challenges, not exacerbate them.
A large part of this project was reflecting on the inherited dynamics that we take for granted with the internet we have today. By putting into words our shared ideals for a better web of the future, we had to shed certain assumptions about what constitutes success.
Our contributors continued to point to other sets of principles that articulate values raised in this one, but often with more depth and clarity. We decided that it was important to acknowledge those other principles. The DWeb Principles are not designed to supplant these other frameworks, nor does pointing to them mean that all of those in this DWeb community agree with all that is said in them. It is meant to signify that we are not alone in our pursuit for more fun, equitable, and secure networked systems, and stand alongside these other communities’ efforts.
This process resulted in five overarching principles, with sub points that expand upon them. The principles are ordered from specific to general, beginning with more explicit technical features of a DWeb:
1) Technology for Human Agency
2) Distributed Benefits
3) Mutual Respect
5) Ecological Awareness
What Comes Next
We hope this is an accurate snapshot of the types of concerns that this DWeb community engages with and upholds as we strive to build better networks. We hope people will read it, share it, and even take what they agree with and remix it if they’d like. If someone were to be inspired by these principles, adapt it for their own needs and put forth their own version, we would see that as a success on its own.
Being explicit about what a project stands for is a big first step in establishing trust, not just among its contributors, but also with the people who use their tools and services. A strong value statement allows others to hold organizations accountable, to ensure that they continue striving for their highest aspirations while doing all they can to avoid making harmful tradeoffs.
At least knowing where projects stand for, at least knowing what they care about, is a big first step in our ability to know which projects are worth investing in with our time, energy and attention. These principles define what values the DWeb community stands for, not just what it stands against. We hope this document will help guide those who are already creating the building blocks of the DWeb, and appeal to those who want to join the movement to build better, more resilient decentralized webs of connection and knowledge.
Mai Ishikawa Sutton is a co-founder and editor of COMPOST, an online decentralized magazine about the digital commons, Associate Producer of DWeb Projects and DWeb Camp 2019, and Digital Commons Fellow with the Commons Network. Their previous projects and employers include People’s Open Network, Oakland Public Library, Shareable, and Electronic Frontier Foundation.
John Conor Ryan has focused on corporate strategy, while thinking as a mathematician and physicist, looking at ways to succeed where the technology is new and difficult, and the path to success not evident. He previously was part of the People Centered Internet project, with Vint Cerf and MeiLin Fung, and with the One Laptop Per Child project his wife co-led. John has more recently cofounded two startups based on decentralized technologies.