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[liberationtech] Decentralization/Federation

carlo von lynX lynX at
Fri Oct 6 05:45:07 PDT 2017

TL;DR: Distributed systems have the potential of providing
the sort of Internet that we really need, but they cannot
come about and win over cheap cloud services if we don't 
embrace policy that will make the old surveillance economy 
model illegal within a reasonable time frame.

On Tue, Oct 03, 2017 at 07:29:03PM +0200, Alberto Cammozzo wrote:
> I think this technical analysis should open a more wide debate before
> jumping to "will work/ will not work" conclusions: issues of such
> complexity could not have a purely technical solution.

Full ack.

> Economic, social, juridical, political issues should also be taken into
> account.

Yes please. We know that distributed tech can work, but the
market is so borked, we can only establish the right thing
by acknowledging how much the status quo is against human and
civil rights and needs to be forbidden by policy. Only then
industry would have to pick up what scientists and enthusiasts
have been working on in the past decades, and turn it into a
product. Turn it into the Next Generation Internet protocol
stack that is shipped with your new phone.

Back in 2011 we published papers and even cartoons to
explain how federation would not work out, but -alas-
big players like W3C were too immersed into promoting
the legend of the federated social web that there just
was no way to get through. Here's some stuff, tell me
if there's anything wrong about what we said back then:


We even predicted how servers would not be trustworthy
to maintain our data, which is now confirmed by all the
rage about "hardware trojans". So can we now finally
contribute our knowledge to tech and policy-making after
five years of distraction?

> Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future?
>  <>
>  <>

Citing its conclusion:
    "The challenge is not just building decentralized software or creating alternative platforms, but creating options for users that are financially sustainable, usable and compelling."

And here the simple lesson to learn is that you cannot
compete with players that offer a better service by
monetizing on everybody's civil and human rights.
As soon as this is no longer legal, several alternatives
become financially sustainable and compelling.

The thing that remains to find out is whether federated 
technologies can ever become usable enough to compete
with distributed ones, and whether the fact they depend
on large corruptible servers makes them just as non-
compliant to strict civic data protection as the silo

Whereas for distributed systems, they are damn hard to
develop, but once they work they are super-easy to use
and do not need to put civic data into any wrong places.

    "Today’s advocates of decentralization tend to view any third party intermediary as a threat, a choke point that could be used to censor speech. For them, the ideal web landscape is one of self-publishers, who can directly reach their online audiences without the need for a third party service to host and curate their content."

And that is exactly what you can achieve with distributed
technology, not federated.

    "But as our case studies illustrate, values of individual empowerment and autonomy need to be balanced by a recognition that most people are going to experience the web through a set of trusted third party services."

Whoops, dear authors, here's your mistake: you are falling
for the market fallacy: assuming things will remain how they
are because that's how it has always been. You are not taking 
into account that legislation policy can eliminate such third
parties as there is no way they can be entrusted with the power
to manipulate individuals, groups and entire populations. Once
those are gone you still have companies that want to sell
devices to you - and they can sell them to you equipped with
a Next Generation Internet that does not need trusted third
parties. The precondition for seeing that happen is to impede
the easy and cheap solution which is threatening the future
of democracy, by law.

    "Rather than striving for censorship-proof technology, a better goal would be to pursue strategic structural, legal and normative shifts that support greater experimentation and user choice in the way platforms curate content and govern community interactions."

Don't know what's wrong about censorship-proof tech, but
it certainly isn't the biggest issue at stake.

    "We recommend two umbrella strategies for achieving this goal: 1) developing a robust set of tools and legal frameworks for establishing consumer rights over the content and data users generate on platforms and 2) increasing transparency and experimentation around methods of content curation and community governance on social media sites."

Not sure, but it sounds a lot like the legislation proposal
we've been developing and the distributed technology suited
to be shipped with every new smartphone and laptop, ensuring
that all the basic Internet needs are already on your device
rather than depending on a set of corporations to offer you
free of charge service in exchange for your civil integrity
and intimacy.

    "If users can switch between services in a frictionless way, then it’s possible for them to exert some influence over contentious or problematic policies that they wish to see changed."

Better even, if the services exist in form of apps that the
users choose to buy and install, which then operate on the
data locally on the device and have limited, heavily control-
led or no access to cloud systems at all.

    "[...] Without a serious revision of these types of laws, users will have a hard time pressuring mega-platforms to modify policies by “voting with their feet.”"

Mega-platforms make no sense and aren't necessary. All
functions of the Internet including search, business and
shopping can be implemented in a way that respects civil
and human rights. No need to maintain the historically
grown cancers we are dealing with today. In a future
Internet, people simply start using the free communication
tools that come with their devices and only access Facebook
for a period of migration.

    "As awareness of the role that algorithms plays in curation and governance becomes more widespread, the concept of “algorithmic transparency” has been offered as a solution to some of our concerns."

There are other ways to describe "algorithmic transparency".
You can call them GPL, FLOSS, free and open source software.
Not exactly a new concept and according to our proposal you
can either publish your algorithms as free software so the
community can choose to ship it with the new smartphones or
you can sell a proprietary app that will run in a sandbox -
this way keeping the algorithm "secret" but in exchange not
being able to monetize on people's private data, because
the sandbox has no direct access to the Internet. Anything
that tries to have both the cake and eat it would become
illegal by new normative intervention.

> For instance the report does not consider the innovations introduced in
> a global data market by the EU GDPR.

Yes, let alone consider normative measures that would
actually protect civil and social rights and preconditions
for a healthy democracy. But those are the ones we need to
advocate for, if we don't want more and more democracies on
the planet have strange and irresponsible election outcomes.

    "At the same time, if one were to distill these immense code bases down to a few comprehensible rules for how content is prioritized, then we open up platforms to the vulnerability of massive manipulation by users who want to ensure their content reaches as many eyeballs as possible."

No, because the hardest challenge is to get users to
subscribe to your advertisement channel. Until they have
"liked" it, in a future Internet of decency there is no 
way you can spam them. The attention economy only exists
among the people each user has chosen to subscribe to.

    "This situation could get worse if we were to increase the transparency around the algorithms used to prioritize content on these sites."

Sure, if you insist on allowing such centralistic sites
to exist. The paper continues dealing with symptoms
rather than the causes.

    "Research has shown that we tend to self-segregate along ideological lines on social media, driven in large part by users’ preferences for seeing content that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs and worldviews."

But if the algorithms are public and installed on our
phone, we can, either individually or collectively, through
the exercise of a collective software consortium (using
liquid feedback + git for example), define its logic.
Of course you are free to unsubscribe people in your social
neighborhood that you don't agree with, just like you're
not going to buy a nazi newspaper, right? Again, the whole
problem only exists because we let some cloud services
decide what happens on our devices. Why did we ever allow
that to happen? How can anyone think that makes sense to do?

    "Developing effective ways to moderate content is not always a straightforward task. In light of these challenges, there are a growing number of researchers who are developing tools and methods to support online communities in running their own experiments on the effects of novel moderation practices."

Yes, indeed, we're also in that business. If communication
spaces aren't "neutral" aka owned by some cloud corporation
but rather run by individuals that host these spaces, just
like in real-life most spaces are owned or run by someone,
then these individuals can define rules of behaviour and the
technology can be designed to support civil free speech.
Even better if the tech allows for collective governance
like what some of us explored with liquid democracy.

    "We wish the problem of platform centralization and the power dynamics associated with it were as simple as the thorny technical problems the projects discussed here are wrestling with. Instead, we believe that protecting the future of speech online involves not only these ambitious experiments in decentralization, but the cultivation of an ecosystem of competing publishing platforms, diverse in governance strategies, interoperable and connected by a diversity of federated clients. We hope that those most concerned with the potential of the network public sphere will support not only experiments with decentralization, but the legal, normative and technical work necessary for these types of projects to thrive."

There it is again, the broken myth of federation. Other than
that I can agree with the authors here, just assume advanced
distributed technologies instead of federated ones - not just
IPFS and blockchain, but in a way like there never has been
before - and all of that is possible and actually not as hard
as it sounds (unfortunately only few people are in the know of
the potential of true distributed systems) once the madness of
a surveillance economy is stopped by legislational intervention
and all attention is focused on the right kinds of technologies.

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