On the decentralized web

September 9, 2018 - Reading time: 4 minutes

Decentralization is maybe on the way to being a buzzword. I was reading a Guardian article about it recently, and the article was sufficiently awful that I thought I'd do a deconstruction of it here.

The proponents of the so-called decentralised web...

"So-called"

Isn't the so-called decentralized web really just the web?

With the current web, all that user data concentrated in the hands of a few creates risk that our data will be hacked. It also makes it easier for governments to conduct surveillance and impose censorship. And if any of these centralised entities shuts down, your data and connections are lost. Then there are privacy concerns...

This is all true, but it's not the primary reason why decentralization is desirable. If you're running your own decentralized web server there's also a risk that will be hacked too.

The main reason why we want decentralization is that centralized governance doesn't work. Also silo companies which are practicing governance (badly) but claiming that they were mere neutral carriers of information are hypocrites.

Not only does centralized governance in silo systems not work, it produces bizarre and unjust outcomes. See some of the articles written about Facebook's censorship rules and how they're applied. Also see Twitter's defense of far right thugs. Attempting to do governance by AI will be even worse, and I think we're just at the beginning of seeing the consequences of that.

The services are kind of creepy in how much they know about you

Well, yes, but if it was merely about creepyness I could almost live with that. The problem is that the current situation with silo systems goes far beyond creepyness into the territory of doing actual damage to the lives of their users. Not caring about people getting harrassed or dogpiled is part of that problem. Technology is supposed to be an enabler improving life, not something which disempowers and which you may fear using.

The same tech that can protect users in the DWeb from central surveillance might also offer a shield to criminals

See, there are plenty of criminals on Twitter. Not only are they on Twitter but they're being shielded by it. Occasionally Twitter has purges in which some bad people are kicked out, but most remain and often there's a lot of collateral damage of innocent bystanders. There have been dubious bots creating a murky economy of selling followers for the best part of a decade, and they mostly ignored it.

How will my everyday experience of using the web change? If it is done right, say enthusiasts, either you won’t notice or it will be better

"Enthusiasts" is a curious word to use here. Not "experts" or "people who built the internet"?

Trying to market the "DWeb" are merely "better" also misses the point. What we're trying to find a solution to here is nothing less than how to practice good governance in the 21st century. A dictatorship of Facebook and Twitter isn't working out real well with regard to that question.

For the internet, and therefore the rest of life, to be well governed it needs to be run by and for the people who are using it. People need to have a stake in the game. Not just "Zuckerberg calls the shots and the rest of the world falls into line". This isn't about whether apps are convenient to use or not. It's fundamentally about what kind of life you want to live, and whether you want to be a contender or merely someone being "nudged" by an algorithm.

One thing that is likely to change is that you will pay for more stuff directly – think micropayments based on cryptocurrency

One of the biggest problems at the DWeb summit which this article mentions is the conflation between decentralization and blockchain technology. Cryptocurrencies which currently exist - especially Bitcoin - aren't really decentralized. Yes, anyone can run a node, but who generates the new currency and who is getting the most value out of it? Not just theoretically, but practically, in reality. So far that's always been a very exclusive club of beneficiaries, who are mostly the usual suspects. This isn't true decentralization. It's more like a pyramid scheme with cryptography.

At present I'm not convinced that blockchains have much of a role to play in decentralization, but append-only lists might.