Centralization isn't the only problem

November 7, 2018 - Reading time: 6 minutes

I was reading a blog post which seems to me to present a straw man argument:

I’ve had many conversations recently with very well meaning people who believe that if we just decentralize everything, it will fix the internet—and perhaps all of society! Decentralize social networks, decentralize money, decentralize the world…if only it was so simple. This is the “magical decentralization fallacy” — the mistaken belief that decentralization on its own can address governance problems.

I don't think there are any such people and if there are I've never encountered them.

Centralization is the biggest problem on the internet today. It's not that the internet was ever highly decentralized, but especially over the last ten years or so it has been becoming much more centralized than ever before, such that a few companies control a lot of what goes on and have really disproportionate influence. You know who they are. It's Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter mainly. The introduction of cloud computing in the late 2000s meant that organizations stopped running their own servers and employing local sysadmins, and a lot of that was taken over by a small number of gigantic data centers who now act like the storage and computing brain of the internet. This degree of centralization has political and economic effects which are now hard to ignore. It's essentially a return to the old Compuserve or AOL model of the mid 1990s, or the even earlier era of mainframes and dumb terminals.

But the blog post is right in as much as that centralization isn't the only problem. There are problems at every level of the protocol stack.

In the "good old days" the web was made out of standards. Those standards were defined by W3C. But when we examine actually existing W3C, as opposed to the rose-tinted view of it in the Silicon Valley histrionics, we find that it's just a corporate club encamped by the usual suspects and that it in no way represents - or even makes any effort to represent - "the people of the internets" at large. The standards produced by W3C represent the interests of its corporate/academic members and nothing more than that. This leads to problems where for example things like browser DRM gets pushed through and the rights of billions of people worldwide are trampled because a couple of companies want to maintain a particular business model.

Beyond web standards you have the proprietary protocols of various chat apps which make the days of W3C dominance look like a picnic.

Then there's encryption. The lamentable state of internet security is so comprehensive that it would be difficult to enumerate all of the problems here, but just as a first pass the name system that we all use most of the time (DNS) remains unencrypted and routinely exploited by governments for censorship. The Certificate Authority system was designed in the mid 1990s at Netscape "in a series of 4am decisions". I've yet to find anyone who genuinely trusts all of the CAs in a typical web browser, which includes entities like the Chinese government and some companies with the lowest ethical standards you can imagine. Also decades after its invention there remains no commonly deployed encryption standard for email. Many fine words have been uttered at tech conferences but not a lot of rollout has happened. This has very real consequences in terms of loss of privacy and ultimately loss of freedom, and again its because business models are taking priority over lives.

And then there's community governance. For me, Twitter is the ultimate example of online community done wrong. There's a lot of interesting news published on that site, but the human interactions there often resemble a bar room brawl in a spaghetti Western. Centralization is part of the problem but advertising, optimizing for "engagement" even if that really means "fights" and lack of meaningful controls over who you interact with or what information you share all contribute to one of the worst social experiences which the internet has invented so far. I'm still on Twitter, but some days I wonder why.

There are many other problems and those listed above are just the preface of what could turn into a substantial tome. The traditional remedy is "digital detox" and although that might be ok for some of the people some of the time it's becoming an ever less viable suggestion as the distinction between online activity and IRL becomes hopelessly entangled.

As an alternative to decentralization, a Facebook constitution could leave Facebook as a monopoly. This does keep “the power of violence” (e.g. online policing) centralized just as it is in the physical world but it can also put structures in place to prevent tyranny.

I think constitutional centralism would be the worst of all worlds. Constitutions don't work in politics and are heavily criticized as being ineffective within online communities in which the "code of conduct" is the closest analogy. Constitutions only really work in small, decentralized, communities of active participants in which every member is able - and more importantly willing - to take direct action to uphold the code.

The worst sort of constitutionalism is the sort of thing that we've seen recently from Tim Berners Lee - the "Contract For The Web". This is guaranteed to be ineffective from the outset and is really just a kind of corporate spin-doctoring to paper over the many problems which the internet has. Just telling companies and governments to "respect privacy" isn't going to work. The problems are a lot more complex than that and need smarter solutions.