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.