The Decentralized Web

The Web is a key space for civic debate and the current battleground for protecting freedom of expression. However, since its development, the Web has steadily evolved into an ecosystem of large, corporate-controlled mega-platforms which intermediate speech online. In many ways this has been a positive development; these platforms improved usability and enabled billions of people to publish and discover content without having to become experts on the Web’s intricate protocols.But in other ways this development is alarming. Just a few large platforms drive most traffic to online news sources in the U.S., and thus have enormous influence over what sources of information the public consumes on a daily basis. The existence of these consolidated points of control is troubling for many reasons. A small number of stakeholders end up having outsized influence over the content the public can create and consume. This leads to problems ranging from censorship at the behest of national governments to more subtle, perhaps even unintentional, bias in the curation of content users see based on opaque, unaudited curation algorithms. The platforms that host our networked public sphere and inform us about the world are unelected, unaccountable, and often impossible to audit or oversee.

At the same time, there is growing excitement around the area of decentralized systems, which have grown in prominence over the past decade thanks to the popularity of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a payment system that has no central points of control, and uses a novel peer-to-peer network protocol to agree on a distributed ledger of transactions, the blockchain. Bitcoin paints a picture of a world where untrusted networks of computers can coordinate to provide important infrastructure, like verifiable identity and distributed storage. Advocates of these decentralized systems propose related technology as the way forward to “re-decentralize” the Web, by shifting publishing and discovery out of the hands of a few corporations, and back into the hands of users. These types of code-based, structural interventions are appealing because in theory, they are less corruptible and resistant to corporate or political regulation. Surprisingly, low-level, decentralized systems don’t necessarily translate into decreased market consolidation around user-facing mega-platforms.In this report, we explore two important ways structurally decentralized systems could help address the risks of mega-platform consolidation: First, these systems can help users directly publish and discover content directly, without intermediaries, and thus without censorship. All of the systems we evaluate advertise censorship-resistance as a major benefit. Second, these systems could indirectly enable greater competition and user choice, by lowering the barrier to entry for new platforms. As it stands, it is difficult for users to switch between platforms (they must recreate all their data when moving to a new service) and most mega-platforms do not interoperate, so switching means leaving behind your social network. Some systems we evaluate directly address the issues of data portability and interoperability in an effort to support greater competition.We offer case studies of the following decentralized publishing projects:Freedom Box, a system for personal publishingDiaspora, a federated social networkMastodon, a federated Twitter-like serviceBlockstack, a distributed system for online identity servicesIPFS (Interplanetary File System), a distributed storage service with a proposed mechanism to incentivize resource sharingSolid (Social Linked Data), a linked-data protocol that could act as a back-end for data sharing between social media networksAppcoins, a digital currency framework that enables users to financially participate in ownership of platforms and protocolsSteemit, an online community that uses an appcoin to incentivize development and community participation in a social networkConsidering these projects as a whole, we found a robust and fertile community of experimenters developing promising software. Many of the projects in this report are working on deeply exciting new ideas. Easy to use, peer-to-peer distributed storage systems change the landscape for content censorship and archiving. Appcoins may transform how new projects are launched online, making it possible to fund open-source development teams focused on developing shared protocols instead of independent companies. There is also a renewed interest in creating interoperable standards and protocols that can cross platforms.However, we have reason to doubt that these decentralized systems alone will address the problems of exclusion and bias caused by today’s mega-platforms. For example, distributed, censorship-resistant storage does not help address problems related to bias in curation algorithms – content that doesn’t appear at the top of your feed might as well be invisible, even if it’s technically

Source: The Decentralized Web