The session featured founders of some of the top decentralized social media networks including Jay Graber, chief executive officer of R&D project Bluesky, Matthew Hodgson, technical co-founder of Matrix, and Andre Staltz, creator of Manyverse. Unlike Twitter, Facebook or Slack, Matrix and Manyverse have no central controlling entity. Instead the peer-to-peer networks shift power to the users and protect privacy.
If Twitter is indeed bought and people are disappointed with the changes, the speakers expressed hope that the public will consider other social networks. “A crisis of this type means that people start installing Manyverse and other alternatives,” Staltz said. “The opportunity side is clear.” Still in the transition period if other platforms are not ready, there is some risk that users will feel stuck and not switch, he added.
Hodgson said there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about Musk purchasing Twitter. The hope is that he will use his powers for good, making it available to everybody and empowering people to block the content they don’t want to see. The risk is with no moderation, Hodgson said, people will be obnoxious to one another without sufficient controls to filter, and the system will melt down. “It’s certainly got potential to be an experiment. I’m cautiously optimistic on it,” he said.
People who work in decentralized tech recognize the risk that comes when one person can control a network and act for good or bad, Graber said. “This turn of events demonstrates that social networks that are centralized can change very quickly,” she said. “Those changes can potentially disrupt or drastically alter people’s identity, relationships, and the content that they put on there over the years. This highlights the necessity for transition to a protocol-based ecosystem.”
When a platform is user-controlled, it is resilient to disruptive change, Graber said. Decentralization enables immutability so change is hard and is a slow process that requires a lot of people to agree, added Staltz.
The three leaders spoke about how decentralized networks provide a sustainable alternative and are gaining traction. Unlike major players that own user data and monetize personal information, decentralized networks are controlled by users and information lives in many different places.
“Society as a whole is facing a lot of crises,” Graber said. “We have the ability to, as a collective intelligence, to investigate a lot of directions at once. But we don’t actually have the free ability to fully do this in our current social architecture…if you decentralize, you get the ability to innovate and explore many more directions at once. And all the parts get more freedom and autonomy.”
Decentralized social media is structured to change the balance of power, added Hanamura: “In this moment, we want you to know that you have the power. You can take back the power, but you have to understand it and understand your responsibility.”
“How Decentralized Identity Drives Privacy” with Internet Archive, Metro Library Council, and Library Futures
How many passwords do you have saved, and how many of them are controlled by a large, corporate platform instead of by you? Last month’s “Keeping your Personal Data Personal: How Decentralized Identity Drives Privacy” session started with that provocative question in order to illustrate the potential of this emerging technology.
Self-sovereign identity (SSI), defined as “an idea, a movement, and a decentralized approach for establishing trust online,” sits in the middle of the stack of technologies that makes up the decentralized internet. In the words of the Decentralized Identity Resource Guide written specifically for this session, “self-sovereign identity is a system where users themselves–and not centralized platforms or services like Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn–are in control and maintain ownership of their personal information.”
Research shows that the average American has more than 150 different accounts and passwords – a number that has likely skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. In her presentation, Wendy Hanamura, Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, discussed the implications of “trading privacy and security for convenience.” Hanamura drew on her recent experience at SXSW, which bundled her personal data, including medical and vaccine data, into an insecure QR code used by a corporate sponsor to verify her as a participant. In contrast, Hanamura says that the twenty-year old concept of self-sovereign identity can disaggregate these services from corporations, empowering people to be in better control of their own data and identity through principles like control, access, transparency, and consent. While self-sovereign identity presents incredible promise as a concept, it also raises fascinating technical questions around verification and management.
For Kaliya “Identity Woman” Young, her interest in identity comes from networks of global ecology and information technology, which she has been part of for more than twenty years. In 2000, when the Internet was still nascent, she joined with a community to ask: “How can this technology best serve people, organizations, and the planet?” Underlying her work is the strong belief that people should have the right to control their own online identity with the maximum amount of flexibility and access. Using a real life example, Young compared self-sovereign identity to a physical wallet. Like a wallet, self-sovereign identity puts users in control of what they share, and when, with no centralized ability for an issuer to tell when the pieces of information within the wallet is presented.
In contrast, the modern internet operates with a series of centralized identifiers like ICANN or IANA for domain names and IP addresses and corporate private namespaces like Google and Facebook. Young’s research and work decentralizes this way of transmitting information through “signed portable proofs,” which come from a variety of sources rather than one centralized source. These proofs are also called verifiable credentials and have metadata, the claim itself, and a digital signature embedded for validation. All of these pieces come together in a digital wallet, verified by a digital identifier that is unique to a person. Utilizing cryptography, these identifiers would be validated by digital identity documents and registries. In this scenario, organizations like InCommon, an access management service, or even a professional licensing organization like the American Library Association can maintain lists of institutions that would be able to verify the identity or organizational affiliation of an identifier. In the end, Young emphasized a message of empowerment – in her work, self-sovereign identity is about “innovating protocols to represent people in the digital realm in ways that empower them and that they control.”
Next, librarian Lambert Heller of Technische Bibliothek and Irene Adamski of the Berlin-based SSI firm Jolocom discussed and demonstrated their work in creating self-sovereign identity for academic conferences on a new platform called Condidi. This tool allows people running academic events to have a platform that issues digital credentials of attendance in a decentralized system. Utilizing open source and decentralized software, this system minimizes the amount of personal information that attendees need to give over to organizers while still allowing participants to track and log records of their attendance. For libraries, this kind of system is crucial – new systems like Condidi help libraries protect user privacy and open up platform innovation.
Self-sovereign identity also utilizes a new tool called a “smart wallet,” which holds one’s credentials and is controlled by the user. For example, at a conference, a user might want to tell the organizer that she is of age, but not share any other information about herself. A demo of Jolocom’s system demonstrated how this system could work. In the demo, Irene showed how a wallet could allow a person to share just the information she wants through encrypted keys in a conference situation. Jolocom also allows people to verify credentials using an encrypted wallet. According to Adamski, the best part of self sovereign identity is that “you don’t have to share if you don’t want to.” This way, “I am in control of my data.”
To conclude, Heller discussed a recent movement in Europe called “Stop Tracking Science.” To combat publishing oligopolies and data analytics companies, a group of academics have come together to create scholar-led infrastructure. As Heller says, in the current environment, “Your journal is reading you,” which is a terrifying thought about scholarly communications.
These academics are hoping to move toward shared responsibility and open, decentralized infrastructure using the major building blocks that already exist. One example of how academia is already decentralized is through PIDs, or persistent identifiers, which are already widely used through systems like ORCID. According to Heller, these PIDs are “part of the commons” and can be shared in a consistent, open manner across systems, which could be used in a decentralized manner for personal identity rather than a centralized one. To conclude, Heller said, “There is no technical fix for social issues. We need to come up with a model for how trust works in research infrastructure.”
It is clear that self-sovereign identity holds great promise as part of a movement for technology that is privacy-respecting, open, transparent, and empowering. In this future, it will be possible to have a verified identity that is held by you, not by a big corporation – the vision that we are setting out to achieve. Want to help us get there?
Memory institutions know the headaches of storing their ever-expanding physical collections: fire, flood, access & space over the long-term. But storing digital assets presents even more diverse challenges: attacks by hackers, deep fakes, censorship, and the unforeseeable cost of storing bits for centuries. Could a new approach—decentralized storage—offer some solutions? That was the focus of an Internet Archive webinar on February 24.
In the utopian version of decentralized storage, there would be collaborative, authenticated, co-hosted collections. Wendy Hanamura, Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, said this would make information less prone to censorship and less vulnerable to a security breach. “Taken together, resiliency, persistence, self-certification and interoperability — that is the promise of decentralized storage,” she said.
Librarians and archivists are a key part of creating a solution that is networked, said Jonathan Dotan, Founder of the Starling Lab, the first major research lab devoted to Web 3.0 technologies.
“As a community, if we can all come together to guarantee the integrity of information, we’re in a unique position to create a new foundation of digital trust,” Dotan said. “When we think about decentralization, it’s not a single destination. It’s an unfolding process in which we continually strive to bring more and more diverse nodes into our system. And the more diverse those notes are, the more that they’re going to be able to store and verify information.”
Other speakers at the webinar included Arkadiy Kukarkin, Decentralized Web Lead Engineer for the Internet Archive, and Dominick Marino, Senior Solutions Architect and Ecosystem lead at STORJ.
On our current web, most platforms are controlled by a central authority—a company, government, or individual—that maintains the code, data and servers. Ultimately, consumers must trust that those central authorities will do what is in their best interest.
“In order to have ease of use, we have ceded control to these big platforms, and they manage our access to information, our privacy, our security, and our data,” explained Wendy Hanamura, Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, who led the workshop.
In contrast, the decentralized web is built on peer-to-peer technologies. Users could conceivably own their data. Rather than relying on a few dominant platforms, you could potentially store and share information across many nodes, addressing concerns about censorship, persistence and privacy.
“It is still very early days for the decentralized web,” Hanamura said. “All of us still have time to contribute and to influence where this technology goes.”
At the event, Mai Ishikawa Sutton, founder & editor at COMPOST Mag, explained how her publication can be viewed over the decentralized web using IPFS and Hypercore, while using Creative Commons licensing to openly share its contents. In addition, Paul Frazee demonstrated Beaker Browser, an experimental browser that allows users to build peer-to-peer websites on the decentralized web.
Using the current system, Web 2.0, relies on content living on web servers in a certain location.
“This is a problem because [publishers] want to change it. They want to update it. They … go out of business. They want to merge with somebody. And it goes away,” said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, noting that the average life of a web page is 100 days. The Wayback Machine was built to back up those web pages after-the-fact, but there is a need to build better decentralized technology that preserves a copy as the content is created, he said. “The Web should have a time axis.”
According to Kahle, in the future a decentralized web would look much the same to the user, but could build features such as privacy, resilience and persistence right into the code. It could also create new revenue models for creative works. For example, a decentralized web could enable buyers to make direct micropayments to creators rather than licensing them through iTunes or Amazon.
“This is a good time for us to try to make sure we guide this technology toward something we actually want to use,” Kahle said. “It’s an exciting time. We in the library world should keep focused on trying to make robust information resources available and make it so people see things in context. We want a game with many winners so we don’t end up with just one or two large corporations or publishers controlling what it is we see.”
In her powerful essay “The Sacred Geometry of Respect, Trust and Equity,” Ehmke suggests a new way forward. She challenges us to go beyond a begrudging nod to leveling the playing field. “To effect meaningful change, those whose authority and privilege are sustained by inequity must yield power and distribute agency to those who are most impacted by systemic disparities.”
At the meetup, Coraline discussed what it would mean to build a new decentralized web centered on the values of respect, trust and equity. She explored how centering the values of mutual respect, trust, and equity can help us address the challenges of promoting justice and human rights in the code we create.
Watch Coraline’s talk here:
Lightning Talk Speakers
Jenny Ryan, Project Manager at eQualit.ie for the CENO Browser. enabling you to route around censorship with a peer-to-peer web browser. Jenny is passionate about connecting grassroots communities and global initiatives. She has co-founded and stewarded three Oakland, California nonprofits: Sudo Room, Omni Commons, and Sudo Mesh.
Watch Jenny’s talk here:
Eyal Ron, Co-founder of Esteroids, the search engine for dWebsites. Eyal received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the Free University of Berlin. He was also a co-founder of Almonit (discontinued) and Alpress projects, a former member of the Bisq-core team, and the main author of a couple of DIN (German standard institute) blockchain specs.
Watch Eyal’s talk here:
Savannah Lee, Brand Director of Mysterium, an open-source Web3 project creating a censorship-resistant layer of the internet. She plugged into the Web 3.0 matrix four years ago, now focusing on R&D and strategies to grow P2P communities. Her goal is to help builders and users defend their digital rights and protect access to free information.
Watch Savannah’s talk here:
Suji Yan, Founder of Mask.io which is building a decentralized web on top of the current giant platforms. Mask helps protect users’ privacy on social media by encrypting users’ posts right before sending them out, so users control their data autonomy with their own keys.
Watch Suji’s talk here:
Mauve Signweaver, Creator of HyperGodot, a set of tools for the Godot game engine which enable developers to create local-first peer to peer games based on the protocol handlers in the Agregore browser. Mauve is a Canadian tech enthusiast with a passion for decentralization. Their main project for this is Agregore, a web browser that combines different peer to peer protocols together.
Watch Mauve’s talk here:
Joy Zhang, Founder of Quark. Quark is a Web 3.0 browser x social platform that shows you paths across the internet. Joy is an award-winning designer, engineer, and entrepreneur specializing in human-computer interaction. She has led projects at Apple, IDEO, and four early stage startups, two of which were her own. Joy was featured on Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards for her sustainable online shopping plugin, shADe.
Watch Joy’s talk here:
Bernhard Borges, Ph.D, Research scientist at the Fluence Project. Fluence is a peer-to-peer application platform which allows the creation of applications free of proprietary cloud providers or centralized APIs. His areas of expertise are Web3, IoT, enterprise integration, and privacy. Prior to Fluence, Bernhard was the Chief Scientist.at Dock Systems and an IBM Distinguished Engineer.
Watch Bernhard’s talk here:
You can register to attend the Holiday fair on December 8, 2021 at 10am PT here.Visit GetDWeb.net to learn more about the decentralized web. You can also follow us on Twitter at @GetDWeb for ongoing updates.
The September 2021 DWeb Meetup explored the potential and reality of decentralized storage with two projects leading the way toward storing highly valuable cultural data at scale.
Watch the recording of the event and learn more about the speakers below.
The September 2021 DWeb meetup was held virtually on Tuesday, September 28, 2021 at 10am PT, optimized for American/European time zones. Wendy Hanamura welcomed attendees and kicked off the meetup. Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, set the stage for the discussion by emphasising the need for a more secure and decentralized web. The Meetup also broached the possibility of a DWeb camp in the Fall of 2022.
The discussion explained the differences between the IPFS and Filecoin systems, how they work together and delved into the two projects led by Arkadiy Kukarkin and Jonathan Dotan which are at the cutting edge of storing large scale data of high cultural significance in the Filecoin network. They discussed the challenges, successes, and future opportunities presented by these efforts.
Lastly, attendees welcomed Eseohe “Ese” Ojo, the new DWeb Projects Organizer and said farewell to Mai Ishikawa Sutton as she goes off to grad school in Japan. Mai will continue to stay connected with the DWeb community and can be reached on Twitter @maira. Ese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EseoheOjo. The meetup wrapped up with socializing and networking in Gather.town.
The next DWeb Meetup “DWeb Meetup Nov 2021 – Centering Respect, Trust and Equity in the DWeb” is scheduled for Thursday, November 4, 2021 at 5pm PT, optimized for Asia time zones. At this meetup, we will hear the latest in the DWeb and from our featured speaker Coraline Ada Ehmke on centering respect, trust, and equity in the DWeb. You can read Coraline’s blog post on the DWeb principle of Mutual Respect here.
We’re interested in hearing from DWeb projects about the breakthroughs, challenges, and new roadmaps they might be exploring. For anyone interested in participating in lightning rounds at this meetup, let us know here.
Image of Arkadiy Kukarkin (Twitter: @parkan)
Arkadiy Kukarkin, DWeb engineer for the Internet Archive. Arkadiy explained this nonprofit’s history with decentralization, from BitTorrent to today. He is leading a new project to explore how the Internet Archive could better decentralize its historical archives using Filecoin. He’s starting with End-of-Term data — all US government websites as they appear at the end and beginning of each Presidential Administration — starting with the 2016-2017 transition. At this talk, Arkadiy revealed his roadmap, lessons learned, and future direction.
Image of Jonathan Dotan
Jonathan Dotan, Founder of the Starling Lab, the first major research lab devoted to Web3 technologies. It is affiliated with Stanford and USC. Jonathan returned to the DWeb Meetup to bring us up-to-date on the USC Shoah Foundation Project, which preserves testimony of survivors of genocide on decentralized storage at huge scale. How does the process work and how do we keep these precious artifacts safe.
Visit GetDWeb.net to learn more about the decentralized web. You can also follow us on Twitter at @GetDWeb for ongoing updates.
In his 1976 paper “Communication and Cultural Domination,” sociologist and media critic Herbert Schiller warned of a future in which the cultural lives of individuals around the globe would be shaped and dictated by a small number of private media interests. The domination of US tech corporations in the online world today is the grim fulfillment of that prophecy.
Access to the vast store of collective human knowledge is increasingly predicated on the surrender of our rights of privacy, free association, and digital autonomy to gatekeepers like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, whose entire business models depend on the normalization of surveillance capitalism. And digital colonization — the violent and repressive imposition of Western values and taxonomies — is a fundamental component of their success.
“The internet is implicated in contemporary power structures, its promise tarnished by unaccountable digital corporations, data extractivism, the marketisation of democracy and network capitalism’s connivance with surveillance states.”
(Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami, “Towards a political practice of empowerment in digital times: a feminist commentary from the global South”)
Realizing the potential of the web to democratize the advance of human knowledge while preserving cultural autonomy and promoting universal human rights requires more than a begrudging (and often patronizing) nod to “global perspectives” interpreted through the lens of the Silicon Valley ethos. Achieving just outcomes requires actively prioritizing both equal access and equitable participation across social and cultural boundaries.
And this begins with centering the foundational principles of mutual respect, trust, and equity.
Achieving mutual respect is essential for effective communication and collaboration, and plays an especially critical role in conflict resolution.
It is important to distinguish between respect and tolerance. Tolerance is the privilege of the powerful: it is the granting of permission to deviate from the norms of the majority. And it comes with the unspoken threat that this permission can be revoked at any time. Asking the powerless to accept mere “tolerance” is asking them to endure their oppression for the comfort or convenience of their oppressors.
“That is the problem with toleration: others determine if they tolerate you, which rules and norms you need to meet in order to be allowed to participate.”
(Petra De Sutter and Bruno De Lille, “Wij willen niet getolereerd worden, wij willen respect”)
Honoring and respecting personal, social, and cultural differences in our digital communities starts with defining clear and consensual social contracts that establish the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of participation.
Codes of conduct are important in creating and sustaining an environment of mutual respect, but in order to be effective they must be enforced consistently and fairly. This requires the additional layer of clear and transparent governance. Fostering a culture of mutual respect starts with making social contracts explicit, continually reassessing their impact, and evolving their conditions to address changes both within a community and in the world at large.
Sustaining a culture that respects our differences, rather than simply tolerating them, creates opportunities to leverage the richness and diversity of our communities for the greater good.
Building trust begins with an expectation of positive intent, and develops over time through mutual accountability. Trust is earned and sustained by accepting responsibility for our actions and their outcomes.
“Without trust, conflict is politics. With trust, conflict is the pursuit of truth.”
(Patrick Lencioni, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”)
Social scientists recognize two main forms of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust.
Cognitive trust is valued predominantly in Western cultures and is based on confidence in someone else’s skills and reliability. It is fostered by a continual display of competence and reliability, and is essentially transactional.
Affective trust is more prevalent in the Global South and Asia. This form of trust develops from a sense of emotional closeness, demonstrations of empathy, or even feelings of friendship. It is relational rather than transactional.
As with respect, trust must be considered within the context of power dynamics. Distrust toward those with power often has little or no real consequence to them, but withholding trust from the disadvantaged or disenfranchised only magnifies the impact of systemic inequalities. This is why it’s essential that those with power earn and sustain trust through what they do, while, in turn, extending trust to others by accepting and recognizing them for who they are.
Trust in a global context requires acknowledging, valuing, and developing both kinds of trust in our communities.
Equity is difficult to define, because there are so few examples of true equity in our world to draw from. One way of thinking about equity is a lack of disparity in agency across racial, ethnic, gendered, and other dimensions. The meaningful pursuit of equity requires interrupting the societal, institutional, and interpersonal injustices that sustain these disparities.
“New manifestations of racism and other forms of oppression continue to emerge and outpace our mechanisms and capacities to solve them… To be achieved and sustained, equity needs to be thought of as a structural and systemic concept.”
(Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide, Annie E. Casey Foundation)
Equity is not synonymous with equality. Equality assumes that everyone has the same needs and can succeed given the same opportunities. Meritocracy, widely heralded in the online world as a force for equality, is founded on the idea that our differences are irrelevant to success, rather than a contributor to success. This dangerously flawed premise, combined with an unwillingness to acknowledge intrinsic power imbalances, has only served to compound the impact of deeply-rooted disparities in the digital world.
Inequity is not a problem that can be solved from first principles. Those with power cannot define what is or is not equitable. Deciding what’s best for the marginalized, rather than meaningfully empowering them to make these determinations for themselves, is itself a manifestation of inequity. Racism and other forms of oppression are self-perpetuating and constantly evolve in response to efforts to mitigate them, so strategies for addressing these issues must also evolve and adapt. Focusing exclusively on “quick fixes,” for example, outreach without corresponding investments in cultural and structural change, often do more harm than good.
Injustice cannot be cured by mere consultation, engagement, or representation. To effect meaningful change, those whose authority and privilege are sustained by inequity must yield power and distribute agency to those who are most impacted by systemic disparities.
Closing the Circle
The values of respect, trust, and equity are interconnected and inseparable. Putting them into practice means continually reassessing and re-imagining what a just world might look like. It means acknowledging that the same technologies we create and use with the intent of realizing these ideals, can (and will) be abused to instead sustain and magnify systemic injustice — at an otherwise unimaginable scale.
Values that are expressed but that do not guide our actions are merely performative. Real progress can only come about when we go beyond our good intentions, and take responsibility for impact and outcomes. Ultimately, we are accountable not only to our collaborators and our users, but also to our broader global society.
Even amidst the COVID lock down, builders of the Decentralized Web have hit new milestones with their projects this year. At our last DWeb Meetup of 2020, we heard from a dozen projects about their breakthroughs, challenges, and roadmaps for the coming year.
As with all of our DWeb Meetups, these lightning talks provided an opportunity for us to learn from others and explore potential partnerships and collaboration. We had rounds of 5 minute talks with 2 minutes of Q&A in Zoom.
Here were the speakers (and the times when they appear in the video):
Maria Bustillos, Co-Founder, Brick House Co-operative (1:00:40)
Mauve Signweaver, Agregore (1:10:12)
Tom Trowbridge, Co-founder, Fluence Labs (1:17:42)
Travis Vachon, ItMe.company (1:27:01)
Brandon Wallace, Plan Systems.org (1:35:03)
Michael Toomim, Braid (1:44:35)
Descriptions of Speakers and Their Lightning Talks
1. Dietrich Ayala, Ecosystem Lead, IPFS
Big is Small is Big: IPFS Usage, Users and Use-cases in 2020
As adoption and availability of IPFS grew in 2020, we saw it used across a broad spectrum of applications, varying widely in industry category, use-case, architecture and more. IPFS ecosystem lead Dietrich Ayala will speedrun through a sampling of these, sharing what was learned and how our users are guiding the IPFS project into 2021
It’s hard to get started building a decentralized application. Even if you’ve been building them for years, it’s hard to get them adopted. Decentralized applications operate differently than centralized ones — and we need new tools that developers and designers can use to understand how to build applications. Simply Secure is now producing a library of resources, assets, and patterns to support the design and development of better user-facing applications that are backed by decentralized architecture.
Founded in 2014, GUN is an open source cybersecurity protocol for synchronizing graph data in decentralized mesh networks. It is as easy as Firebase yet supports end-to-end encryption and uses “CRDT” algorithms instead of a Blockchain.
In 2020, GUN hit 200M+ downloads with 30M monthly active users. The project is powered by 2 full time staff, 10 part-time volunteers, and 100+ contributors.
“At the DWeb Camp in 2019 I led a brainstorming session on how we can build a cloud providing the same openness and freedoms to users and developers as open source. One year and a pandemic later, I’m excited to finally release the first step in pursuit of that vision: “ensembles”, git repositories that package open cloud services.
They are designed to be the building blocks of an open and decentralized cloud infrastructure: reproducible, relocatable and shareable. Decentralization is obtained via a notion of a persistent identity that is defined not by a network location but rather a reproducible state.”
6. Paul Frazee, Founder, Breaker Browser
Beaker Browser 1.0: Share P2P Websites
“Unless there was a disaster between my talk-submission and Thursday, then Beaker Browser 1.0 is now available! Join us for a quick overview of building and sharing peer-to-peer Websites with this newest release.”
7. Maria Bustillos, Co-Founder, Brick House Co-operative
Decorporatizing the Public Sphere
Megaplatforms from Amazon to Facebook to Penguin Random House have flattened and centralized the human imagination. Netizens know that something is draining out of our world, that there’s less variety, less brilliance, and fewer surprises, in our movies, music, and writing. But it’s not clear to most that this cultural deterioration is the result of a breakneck form of capitalism enabled by technology.
The Brick House Cooperative, launching December 8th, is addressing this problem as writers and artists, ‘from the other side’. They’re looking to join forces with technologists and others interested in decorporatizing media. Maria will also share how her previous experience with Civil, a blockchain-based media platform that aimed to fund journalism, will inform her work with The Brick House.
Agregore is a local-first web browser which aims to simplify application development across different peer-to-peer protocols while staying as minimal and customizable as possible. Through Agregore, Mauve is trying to address the issue of web browsers not having access to full peer-to-peer protocols. They want to make creating local-first apps easier by simplifying the programming interface and app distribution method.
Fluence Labs was established in 2017 by 3 founders, Dmitry Kurinskiy, Tom Trowbridge and Evgeny Ponomarev. They started in 2017 and spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with decentralized computing. Just recently, in November 2020 they launched Phase 1 of Fluence: the decentralized computing protocol that allows applications to build on each other, share data and users. They call it an open application platform.
The goal of Fluence is to enable the next wave of internet innovation by turning the competition into collaboration. Fluence creates an open alternative to proprietary platforms, enabling developers to build with confidence and be fairly compensated for usage.
Self Determination for our Digital Bodies with Solid
Centralized tech monopolies and other large corporations capture the vast majority of the value of the world’s data in 2020. In order to create the conditions necessary to return this value to the world’s users, we need new politico-technical-social institutions that give users the ability to provide and retract informed consent over the ways their data is used. itme is building the world’s first cooperatively owned and operated data union built on Tim Berners-Lee’s new Solid web standard to let users reassemble their digital bodies and capture the value of the data they create.
PLAN Systems is a technology 501(c)(3) founded in 2018 by two U.S. veterans in Austin TX., including Drew O’Meara, inventor of G-Force realtime audio reactive music visualizations. Their development effort centers on building a framework of open protocols and universally accessible interfaces designed for privacy, real time collaboration, data visualization, and secure data storage & portability. November was a critical milestone, demonstrating PLAN (pre-alpha) running on 4 major platforms across desktop and mobile devices.
Email them at info [at] plan-systems.org to learn more and get involved.
“At 2019’s Dwebcamp, a group of us found a back room and spontaneously designed a shared protocol for distributed synchronization. Tim Berners-Lee walked by, and thought it would be a great addition to the web.
We will report on what’s happened since!
We presented the protocol to the IETF’s HTTP Working Group in Montreal, and received a surprisingly enthusiastic reception. We are now building software on the protocol, to show how HTTP can be extended into a distributed shared fabric for local-first applications, users, and systems, with great debugging and tooling.”
Many of us know that the Internet is broken, so how do we build something better? On September 22, DWeb San Francisco invited a panel of experts to share their views on the most viable paths forward. The panelists included author & EFF advisor Cory Doctorow, Matrix.org co-founder Amandine Le Pape, decentralized social media researcher Jay Graber, and TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. They covered a range of approaches — including technical, regulatory, and organizational — that could bring us towards a future where our networks are more resilient, participatory, and decentralized.
Developer, and founder of Happening, Jay Graber, shared her insights on what she found hopeful about the decentralized web ecosystem, and some of the challenges that some of these protocols still need to grapple with moving forward.
Chief Operating Officer of Element and Co-founder of the Matrix.org Foundation, Amandine Le Pape, shared what she learned as Matrix built a new open standard for real-time communication from the ground up, as well as her ideas on how to counter the information silos of the big centralized platforms.
Journalist and co-founder of Techdirt, Mike Masnick, shared about the way people were realizing the need for change, and also some of his skepticism about how some proposed regulations to enforce interoperability may harm start-ups and other less-resourced projects. Masnick’s 2019 white paper, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech” has been an influential call to arms for the decentralized tech community.
As Mike Masnick writes:
At a time when so many proposals for how to deal with the big internet companies seem focused on spite and anger at those companies, rather than thoughtful discussions of how we get to what’s coming next, at the very least I’m hopeful that others can be inspired…to come up with their own ideas for a better, more proactive approach to a future internet.
Ultimately, that vision—building a better Internet and Web—is the North Star that the DWeb community aims for.
People’s access to accurate, reliable information is always essential. Of course, it becomes ever more critical during a global pandemic like COVID.
But giving people “internet access” alone is not enough. For information to be useful to people, the means of access cannot be a one-way street. Information is social. Information must be contextualized. What are the spoken languages, levels of reading literacy, ways of life, and the legacies of systemic oppression? Community networks take a holistic approach to information and communication technology. Instead of seeing people as passive users, people are active participants, co-creating media through collaborative processes, thereby making it more inherently more accessible than content produced elsewhere.
These are some of the main takeaways from the DWeb Meetup on July 29, 2020. Four DWeb Camp 2019 Global Fellows shared how their community networks in South Africa, Brazil and India are adapting to COVID. Though they can connect to the World Wide Web, the fact that these networks maintain steady connectivity between local nodes with locally-hosted content is in many ways more valuable than their internet access.
So how do their community networks steward connectivity and information in this way? How do they work with their communities to produce local knowledge that feeds their networks?
Community Networks Contextualize Information
Sol Luca de Tena, director of Zenzeleni Networks Non-Profit Corporation (NPC), spoke with us from Cape Town, South Africa. Zenzeleni Networks supports and seeds cooperatively-owned community networks. There are currently two community networks, Zenzeleni Mankosi Cooperative and Zenzeleni Zithulele Cooperative. Together they cover 19 villages and are the first legally-recognized community networks that are owned and governed by their members in South Africa.
She described how the problem in rural South Africa went beyond having access to reliable information. The public health information regarding COVID was not even useful given the realities of people, especially given that it was not even available in their languages:
“So imagine in your [urban] setting, all the [COVID safety] guidelines that are being published by the government and by doctors, are about how to stay safe when using a communal tap. How to stay safe when taking your cattle out, or tending for your crops. Amidst the anxiety of knowing what to do, what’s real, what’s not. When the information is not contextual, and it’s not even in your first, or second, or third language, imagine the strain that creates.”
The Zenzeleni community networks serve areas where, over the last decade, its network was largely built alongside its energy infrastructure. Its lack of public services and infrastructure was a direct legacy of underdevelopment due to the Apartheid regime. When national and international health guidelines on COVID assume access to running water and other amenities, it just was not helpful or relevant.
“Our Stories, Our Internet”
Two of Zenzeleni’s initiatives were started to address this. The first was the Digital Community Notice Board. Though they had already zero-rated many websites for health and educational resources, they were finding that it was difficult to filter and make sense of it. The Notice Board curates information from credible sources, carries videos in local languages, and empowers people to filter information that is relevant to them.
The second project Sol shared with us was Amabali Wethu, Intanethi Yethu (“Our Stories, Our Internet”) Challenge. It came out of the need for more content that is locally-created by indigenous black community members. The challenge calls for content in audio and visual formats and makes the content freely available on the networks across 65 hotspots. Those who create the works can win cash prizes to incentivize people to contribute and help people financially.
Sol emphasized that we need to think about tech as being not separate from people’s lives. The internet is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Our networks ought to come out of our communities, and be designed according to actual felt needs.
Nodes that Bond
Marcela Guerra joined us from Monteiro Lobato, in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo. She helps with her neighborhood association, Portal Sem Porteiras, whose main project is operating a local community mesh network. The network uses Altermundi’s Libre Routers for its 18 nodes and has over 200+ devices connected. They use Pirania, a captive portal system also built by Altermundi, to moderate the use of the network and gather micropayments to help pay for the ISP connection.
Marcela discussed the organizational hurdles of maintaining the network. With more than 12 people volunteering to maintain it, they made big changes to the way they organized themselves and have made its management more decentralized. They split themselves into five territories, where each group of volunteers is responsible for the connectivity issue of each area’s network.
But as a community network, she said, the work can get very personal. Marcela said that neighbors often knock on the doors of network maintainers when they need internet connection. So they created a virtual channel with a made-up character to help answer those queries. A person is actually answering them behind the scenes, but the character helps to prevent people from getting attached to specific people.
Of course, since all the volunteers are members of the communities themselves, it can be difficult to manage their time and priorities when you live there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Marcela said that they’re trying to get more involved and are working on better governance so they can consider all their members’ perspectives and adapt as best they can.
In the meantime, they are opening a new physical location, a hub, for their community network. It’s a well-ventilated house where people can exchange knowledge and take care of personal business — to pay their bills, use a printer, and other tasks people need specialized devices to do.
The other project Marcela coordinates is called Nodes that Bond, which works to shift women’s relationships with technology. They used to have in-person monthly women’s circles to build trust and connection with each other, which was important as they shared personal stories and shaped what they wanted to be able to do with their community network.
Since the pandemic began however, they replaced the women’s circles with a podcast that collects testimonials on various subjects. Some of the episodes help women navigate tech documentation, and others help them as they go through a digital security orientation. She is now working with her team on an audio novella based on research from 2019 about local women’s stories of domestic violence. In order to anonymize the women’s identities, the novella will weave those into one story of a fictional woman.
Marcela combines creativity and practical approaches to ensure her local network is both sustainable and accessible to the women and underserved in her community.
Scrap Laptops + Raspberry Pis + Kolibri
Hiure Queiroz, tech lead of Coolab, supports the creation and maintenance of community networks in his local area. Like most places in the world, education in his community has been hugely impacted by COVID. He talked about how he is using the local mesh (which Marcela mentioned runs on Libre Routers) to provide educational resources to students.
Hiure is relying on Kolibri, an offline educational application built by Learning Equality, which he said was the best app he found for peer-to-peer networks. He is equipping scrapped laptops with Raspberry Pis to wirelessly mesh the devices to build the peer-to-peer network. He named these devices “Frankenberries”. Students and teachers can then use the Frankenberriess to access the educational materials on Kolibri.
Previously, students had to read and access educational materials on their parents’ mobile phones. With the Frankenberry laptops, students can more easily read and interact with the materials. Hiure is holding study groups with students and teachers to train them in using this system.
In order to meet the urgent educational needs of his community under COVID, Hiure is building devices and fashioning them with the materials teachers require to teach their students. Just as important to this is the training he is holding to onboard them.
Building Local Knowledge with Hypermedia and Mesh Mash Networks
Last but not least was TB Dinesh, who presented his work with Janastu, and Servelots. He is building free and open source technologies to address the needs of populations in the Global South, particularly indigenous communities and those experiencing systemic inequity and prejudice. Dinesh’s passion is building the tools for a truly inclusive Web, one that takes into account that still a large population of the world have low reading literacy.
Dinesh is based in a village that lies on top of a hill next to a valley, about one hour from the city of Bangalore in India. A mesh network connects his village to other villages across the valley.
Janastu has built a radio storytelling platform atop that mesh network, enabling people to share their stories and knowledge using audio and visual media. They converted old phone booths into nodes for the radio, called Namdu1Radio. They are equipped with Raspberry Pis that allow people to walk up to listen to other people’s recordings or record their own with a push of a button. Dinesh noted that making the technology approachable this way is crucial. By making use of familiar infrastructure, like a phone booth, you can more easily embed new technology.
But archiving this material in ways that low literacy people can contribute, was another challenge they wanted to address. Dinesh and his team have created hypermedia archives, using image-based web annotation technology to connect audio to other audio. Like hypertext, where text documents are interconnected with other text documents through links, hypermedia does the same using media. The archive tool allows people to drag-and-drop images to associate them to audio files.
Their hypermedia project has been underway for several years. What have they had to change since the COVID lockdowns? This year, Janastu was planning to go to another village and build out their mesh network, radio, and hypermedia archive in an area 2000km away. The pandemic forced them to indefinitely postpone that project.
Now Dinesh and his team are building what he calls a “mesh mash” — a mesh network with an overlay or logical network. Since building out the physical mesh network is difficult under the lockdown, they are enabling other devices, such as laptops or tablets connected through mobile cell service, to be part of the mesh.
They use IPv6 identifiers to allow those devices to connect and access the other nodes on the network. The mesh mash uses Syncthing to keep files synchronized and up-to-date across the mesh network. They use Yggdrasil to configure log-ins and host video streamed workshops that are broadcast across the network.
Dinesh is currently building out Papad, the audio annotation tool. Like the hypermedia archives, the images can be dragged and dropped to related audio files. People can also add text tags to add another layer of annotation. For example, if an audio recording is about a math lesson, someone could find an image of numbers and arithmetic operators and add that to the audio file. This is all updated and available across the mesh network.
This allows people to not only contribute their knowledge and stories to the mesh network. It empowers people to organize and archive this shared knowledge so it’s discoverable, all without needing to be able to read or write. This shared hypermedia archive enables people to connect across similar interests, share recipes, and even offer gig services across the villages.
Dinesh’s projects emerge out of a passion for creating technology that is community maintained and developed. He believes in the potential of technology, combined with locally-available resources and knowledge, to bring about local futures that are more equitable and self-determining.
As COVID spread throughout the world, even those in the most internet-connected, developed cities were susceptible to misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news. Here in the United States, COVID has exposed deep deficiencies in how we access accurate, reliable information, especially about what we each must do to mitigate this crisis in our communities.
The Global Fellows showed us how their communities are taking control of their network infrastructure, to make the information that is shared on their networks more relevant, accessible, and valuable for themselves. It’s easy to become disillusioned with the centralized, top-down, and profit-based systems that those of us in urban and developed areas have come to rely on for our news and information. Seeing how the Global Fellows are innovating to create homegrown technologies to address immediate information and education challenges is truly awe-inspiring.
What they are showing us is that “decentralization” is not only a matter of developing technology that is not centrally managed. It’s about building community, meeting people where they are, and approaching technology not as an end unto itself, but a means to address the real challenges that people face.