Towards the Vision of The Decentralized Web!

Let’s be realistic. I actually run a tiny internet company that deals with billions of tiny pieces of information so I have some real experience.

With information tech, centralization usually works much better than decentralization. It’s simply too hard to manage all this ** information! Databases are complicated, and managing data quality is even harder. A decentralized web search engine would never be able to come even close to the quality of Google. A decentralized social network would probably have all of its “independant” hubs secretly run by the world’s powerful governments, waiting on the opportune moment to unleash them for hybrid warfare or to influence an election. Though I’m sure there are a few possibilities for decentralized internet and I hope very much they do succeed, but let’s think of some things which can actually compete head-on with the monopolies in terms of quality.

I think the more likely scenario is that we’ll soon (hopefully) see more choice in the future, caused by the big monopolies competing against each other and against new rivals. This will happen as tech industry “matures” and becomes more like a normal industry. The big tech companies are starting to compete more in each other’s product “territories”, and more of the developing world’s tech products are going to go head-to-head with Western products. Actually all of this is already happening or is already in development if you watch the product development pipeline. So instead of decentralization we’ll see more options to choose from different centralized networks, and this competition and “maturing” will drastically change “business as usual” and that will be for the better.

Yes @anon76657042, you make lots of valid points, and for sure some fields of IT - like search - will be very hard to decentralize. Also decentralized systems tend to become more centralized over time, like the often mentioned example of email. While email is inherently decentralized, people have flocked en masse to using Gmail, because of its spam protection or just convenience, and effectively centralizing it.

The core protocols of the internet like TCP/IP and DNS are decentralized, the centralization happens in the upper layers of the technology stack. Here the monopolists drag you into their walled gardens - vendor lock-in results - making it really hard and costly to ever leave once you are invested. And you are subjected to the rules of the provider, which may change at any time (like e.g. FB news feed algorithm recently). They may even decide to shut down your business on a whim if they so decide, block you from their network… which occasionally occurs.

For decentralization to be successful there is a need for more decentralized, federated protocols to become standardized and widely adopted. While this is against the interests of the monopolists, it would open up the markets giving more chances for smaller players to actually succeed. Currently you have innovative startups that are just targeting to be gobbled up by the big players for a couple hundred million dollars, after which the founders either take a position in that company or move on to a new startup venture.
There have been interesting discussions on Hacker News that companies like e.g. Google are not all that innovative anymore (except in some specific areas, like AI) and just buy up the competition. Thereby stifling overall innovation.

Even the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal may eventually be to the benefit of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has apologized and said FB is open for more government regulation. This regulation - when it comes - will not be targeted to a single company however, but all across the board. FB - as large as it is - can easily afford dealing with this, while small startups will have a much larger struggle to comply (see: TechCrunch: Regulation could protect Facebook, not punish it and techdirt: How ‘Regulating Facebook’ Could Make Everyone’s Concerns Worse, Not Better).

Like you, I hope there will be more competition amongst centralized IT competitors as well, with preferably different business models, like subscription-based rather than ad-based models. Have users become the customer again and good privacy policies and ensurances in place. Its just that current monopolists are so incredibly entrenched, having revenues larger than many individual countries and just growing ever larger, which will make this harder and harder.

Now, decentralization based on good standardized protocols give you choice and interopability, avoiding walled gardens. As an example: The W3C last January made ActivityPub a recommendation - a decentralized social networking protocol. Already a number of open-source projects are creating new social networking apps based on it, or are rewriting their stack to support it.

A notable example here is Mastodon (“Social networking, back in your hands”) - a decentralized microblogging network comparable to Twitter. With Mastodon anyone can spin up a server and attract users to it. These micro communities are self-contained, but users can decide to follow users on other servers, thus creating a larger interconnected network structure. Unlike Twitter - where you have a single moderation policy - on Mastodon every server can set their own rules, topics and guidelines and you are free to choose based on your preferences.
Note that Mastodon - based as it is on ActivityPub - interoperates with other software products, something you won’t find e.g. between Twitter and Facebook.
Setting up a server - while requiring some knowledge - is not all that hard and does not require you to have intricate knowledge of database management and such. This is all managed by the application, which is open-source and has more than 450 contributors as of now and many more people watching and reviewing the code.

I think the argument of “all hubs” being compromised by governments or otherwise foul actors doesn’t hold much sway (in fact this argument is often used in scare-mongering tactics against The Decentralized Web). Sure, a server can be compromised, but so can the servers of a centralized application provider. I believe American companies (and any company doing business or hosting server in the USA) are already required by law to provide backdoor access to their information to government agents, like the NSA, or at least there is regulation like this in the works (there are even conspiracy theorists that claim that FB was founded by the CIA - which I don’t believe, but it is not impossible).
Large social networks may be just as vulnerable to attacks, riddled with zero-day exploits in closed-source services, and big companies like Yahoo and LinkedIn have been hacked already leading to millions of accounts to be stolen. This has arguably a much larger impact than having to hack each individual decentralized server or even individual user accounts (depending on how encryption policies are applied).

Note that there is a form of decentralization that goes even deeper than a federated system (like Mastodon) that needs servers (or ‘hubs’), and that is a fully distributed, peer-to-peer system where every device is both the client and the server. Our laptops - and even our smartphones - have become very powerful computing platforms that are up to this job. Example implementations (earlier mentioned by me in this thread) include Dat Project, IPFS and Beaker Browser (based on Dat Project). Beaker allows you to host your own decentralized website, and as people visit your site, it will get more peers hosting it, thereby increasing performance and availability. Very interesting.

ActivityPub and other decentralized protocols offer new opportunities to companies, new business models. Like any commercial entity they can ensure they operate with integraty, good ethics, and have good compliance regulation in place, certifications, thereby gaining the trust of their user base. There is huge innovation in encryption technologies, not just in encryption of data, but also in having strong authentication and digital identities (see for instance Rebooting The Web of Trust, here and here).

In short, I think, The Decentralized Web has the potential to become the web of the people again, rather than the playground and cash cow of the few :slight_smile:

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There is already a project in the works to use open standards for chat. This would use existing email servers. I hope this works!

Meet the open sorcerers who have vowed to make Facebook history

Note the title is a bit misleading (sensationalised / fake news) as they are actually taking on chat (Messenger, Whatsapp) and not the Facebook social network itself.

As you can see from the article, the biggest hope is in replacing simple things like chat. I think it can be done! But then there is the problem of no money, app developers being unpaid or themselves having to resort to ads. I imagine most people will still be drawn to the kinds of shiny features (such as Apple’s unicorns with rainbow horns) offered by the big monopolies.

I would love to see the open web, a dream of mine for years. But what is theoretically possible differs from what is practically possible given technology and business models. The best approach I can think of is a foundation, a charity. There, people would donate tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and that would be used to create a perhaps centralized but open and democratic alternative to Facebook or Google. However that has been tried before and failed:


Interesting article. Some new bookmarks at least :wink:

Not sure what the FB replacement product of OX is. Do you follow it?

On the other example: I didn’t quickly find how was decentralized, but a decentralized identifier is in the works at W3C:

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While not involved with cryptocurrencies myself (watching from the sidelines where it goes with blockchain technologies) I am quite interested in OpenBazaar because of its concepts - its an open-source, blockchain-based, distributed marketplace/ecommerce protocol and framework based on IPFS - and they have now reached 2.0 status (note: site may be down as they are trending on Hacker News at the moment):

@anon76657042 the discussion on HN is quite interesting as it highlights the many pittfals of such technology with regards to illegal activities and judicial issues, a legal minefield actually (especially with recent SOSTA/FOSTA bill in U.S.A. See:… actually the founder of the company behind OB may be in legal hot water because of a statement he added to the discussion:

There has been some discussion in other topics on monopolisation by big tech, and whether why most recent criticism is addressed to FB while e.g. Google is so far kept out of the storm…

Through LI contact Abhay Johoray I found this HBR article addressing the negative impact of these monopolies… Monopolies that can be fought by decentralization where no one party controls the conversation. Here’s the article:

Facebook, Google, Amazon, and similar companies are “data-opolies.” By that I mean companies that control a key platform which, like a coral reef, attracts to its ecosystem users, sellers, advertisers, software developers, apps, and accessory makers.

Through their leading platforms, a significant volume and variety of personal data flows. The velocity in acquiring and exploiting this personal data can help these companies obtain significant market power.

Ordinarily the harm from monopolies are higher prices, less output, or reduced quality. It superficially appears that data-opolies pose little, if any risk, of these harms. Unlike some pharmaceuticals, data-opolies do not charge consumers exorbitant prices. Most of Google’s and Facebook’s consumer products are ostensibly “free.”

Upon closer examination, data-opolies can pose at least eight potential harms:

  • Lower-quality products with less privacy.
  • Surveillance and security risks.
  • Wealth transfer to data-opolies.
  • Loss of trust.
  • Significant costs on third parties.
  • Less innovation in markets dominated
  • Social and moral concerns.
  • Political concerns.

I’m not sure if I understand, but how about picking up the phone to call a friend or family instead of looking to a screen?

Sure you can, @healthyswimmer! Sure you can, if that is your personal preference. Its all about freedom, freedom of choice :slight_smile:

But this freedom is slowly being restrained all around the world, or never even existed.
You might be in an area where a single telecom provider holds a local monopoly and overcharges you. This is a reason many people started using Whatsapp because its free if you have an internet connection (and many became addicted chatters in the process, joining chat groups, sending funny pics, etc.).

Or you have friends and family living abroad and you want to actually see them, so you use e.g. Whatsapp or Skype video calls. If you have a distributed team of co-workers or remote business relations, seeing peoples expressions and gestures becomes important, so you use video conferencing, maybe with Google Hangouts. Some people want Facebook-like functionality to catch up on their friends’ activities in their own time.

Even your simple telephone example may already use the internet (using voice-over-IP, or VoIP, via your all-in-one internet package).

So then, given your choices, all of the above discussed issues may be at play. Monopolies, personal data collection, non-existing privacy, etc.

The freedom of the internet is under threat. Not only by large corporations, but increasingly by governments, who like it to be fully regulated and under their control. This is not only the case in China and autocracies, even the USA - supposedly the Land of Freedom and Democracy - plays a big role in this, this year alone ditching net neutrality and adopting cleverly disguised restrictive bills like SOSTA/FOSTA (under the guise of protecting sex trafficking, the unclear wording of the bill makes providers responsible for the (mis)behaviour of their users, creating a huge legal minefield).

Decentralization is one of the tools to fight this :slight_smile:

I see there is much I didn’t understand so thx for explaining. Your dynamic understanding of technology is valuable.

At this time WebSonar requires macOS but we will soon be open sourcing it. We are now beginning the process of seeding the first 2000 schools.

WebSonar delivers on five of Ted Nelson’s original 1979 concepts of Xanadu with the added function of being able to add searchable notes to any page of a document.

  1. Every Xanadu server is uniquely and securely identified.
  2. Every Xanadu server can be operated independently or in a network.
  3. Every user is uniquely and securely identified.
  4. Every user can search, retrieve, create and store documents.
  5. Every document can consist of any number of parts each of which may be of any data type.

View School Libraries Network

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There was a big discussion on Hacker News today on the article below which introduces the decentralized, open-source Scuttlebutt as an alternative to Facebook (privacy-respecting, no ads, no 3rd party data collection, etc.)

And the HN discussion:

There are still a number of issues:

  • The selected encryption method makes handling some edge cases difficult
  • Android support is being worked on, but not production-ready (and based on NodeJS probably a battery hog. Note: I’ve worked on this as well, trying to run NodeJS on Android)
  • iOS smartphone support is in very early investigative stages
  • The project was progressing slowly (but seems to get way more attention of late, after the FB/CA scandals)
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The Renaissance of RSS

Do your still remember this icon?

RSS feed icon

Just a couple of years ago every website, blog, newspaper and magazine on the web used to provide RSS web feeds to which you could subscribe to get new content automatically transferred to your feed reader of choice. RSS stands for ‘Rich Site Summary’ or ‘Really Simple Syndication’ and is a simple standard for broadcasting changes to the content on your site to public subscribers.

The users (we :slight_smile: ) would just click the icon whenever we encountered interesting stuff and have all the good information come to use in aggregated form.

The RSS icon is now nowhere to be found (though there are still a lot of feeds around). Why is this?

Well, this is because we have seen a massive centralization on the internet. People have flocked to Facebook and Twitter and just came to rely on the feeds that were offered there. Feeds that are increasingly less open, as these companies want to keep you inside their walled gardens.

Feeds also, that are constructed by algorithms and AI that work from the personal data that was harvested from you. They don’t truly reflect your interests. They are often forming echo chambers, and serve to bring ads to you more effectively, and to keep you online for longer times.

But, due to the many scandals and breaches of trust and privacy of Facebook, and increasing focus on Google practices (see: WSJ - The many ways Google harvests your data and the HN discussion) things are changing. RSS is on the rise again. People are longing for the freedom it offers and to determine their interests themselves again.

“Less than twenty years ago, the internet was decentralized, when the human cycle of individualism versus collectivism was perfectly aligned with divergent expression. We’ve now spent the past decade attempting to build the perfect centralized web, only to realize its many faults. The cycle continues.”

(source: Now Is The Perfect Time For An RSS Renaissance + HN discussion)

Read more about RSS in this Wired article (and its HN discussion):

A post was merged into an existing topic: Humane Technology reading lists

For the techies among us, I would like to point to an interesting discussion on the Beaker Github repository about supporting the JSON-LD standard in their product.

The product founder was intenting to fork the technology and create JSON Lazy (JSON-LZ) as a simplified version to offer to developers working with the Beaker ecosystem. IMHO opinion this would be a very bad thing, as there is already so much fragmentation in decentralized technology and standards, and this would be a very bad thing.

The JSON-LD team and Solid developers try very hard to convince Beaker no to continue with JSON-LZ. Maybe you can support that choice by giving a couple of thumbsup and hearts to their comments in this GH issue:

But the web is decentralised, it’s the market operating on the web that is concentrated, and I would argue, contrry to the claim in the link, we are as subject to concentrated power now as we were in the last and previous centuries. The problem is not how to decentralise the web but how to regulate cyberspace to prevent concentrations and abuses of power that come from operating in a semiphysical, semi-computational space? This is the promise of blockchain/distributed ledger, but I wonder whether these tech take us back in institutional terms to commune ways of living, which is great for forms of equality, but not necessarily fairness or generating scale for investment that can build modern infrastructure… just some thoughts.

Hi Adam, welcome to the CHT community! Nice to have you here :slight_smile:

I agree that from a technological perspective the web is decentralized (in its core technologies). The centralization takes place in the ‘higher layers’, as you rightfully say. But I am thinking of the web as the concept that an everyday user of the internet experience, and the vision of Tim Berners-Lee wrt the web as a medium of freedom. So this expression accurately describes it, I think:

" A Decentralized Web is a network of resources in which no one player can control the conversation or spin it to [his or her] exclusive advantage. "
Simon St. Laurent, O’Reilly Media

And this is less and less the case with big tech monopolies and walled gardens, etc.

I am very skeptical of blockchain at the moment, though it could still grow into something useful. I have posted about my perspective, here and here.

Do you mean with ‘commune ways of living’ that decentralization creates a fragmentation into separate small(er) communities? I think this may be the case, but not necessarily a bad thing, especially when having them interlinked in a ‘web of co-op’ and based on open standards. Also don’t know if that would necessarily hamper investment.

Maybe change investment models… interesting subject, maybe create a separate topic around it. We already have Who will invest in humane tech? , Business model innovation and Are humane-tech apps non-starters?

A post was split to a new topic: Sociocybernetics and the need to identify the boundaries of cyberspace and bring them into law

Great thread. A bit late to this, and seeing the launch of Solid PODs. I wrote about unionizing Facebook Users a few years ago, maybe the time has come.

Yes @wmaceyka , Solid has finally launched more publicly. Let’s hope it takes flight. Interesting project.
And another thing I wanted to post…

I just added the following to awesome-humane-tech:

Osada - Decentralized social network

It is based on the ActivityPub protocol (for creating federated social networks), and Zot/6 protocol (invented by the author, but not really well specified, AFAIK).

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Very excited to learn that Solid has launched! I wish there were more direction on practical uses as so far there are still no apps.

I hope this will be a paradigm shift with the potential to transfer power back from the big tech oligarchies to the people.

I wonder if in practise, will the decentralised web have a different kind of impact compared to what we already have which is open source and open data? At the moment the tech oligarchs take all because they’re able to use their billions in cash to create the best and most addictive apps and develop the best data and services. However with the decentralised web we should see a more perfect competition resulting in smaller profits. Will those smaller profits be enough to compete with the killer apps and free services of the big tech monsters? Or will the users view the advantages of being decentralised and private as “better” than having the most expensive-to-develop services of the sort currently offered by the big tech oligarchies?