There are so many people today focused on “re-decentralizing the web.” They have a popular belief that when the web was invented it was a wonderfully optimistic vision of decentralization, governed by democratic principles and full of free information available through open access that all of humanity benefited from. They assume that originally all users of the web were well behaved and companies only wanted to help make the world better. …

All networks begin as only one thing; one neuron, one cell, one chip, one computer, or one user. One entity alone is not a network, but it is the starting point for understanding the unified theory of decentralization. One entity is fully sovereign, it has no connections to anything else that might influence or control it. One entity in isolation is empowered to act however it wants to strive for whatever results it seeks.

When one entity connects to another however, then the behavior of one affects the other. Some form of agreement must be struck between them that dictates what is allowed and what isn’t. In computer networks these agreements go by lots of different names: access control lists, community standards, etc. It is these operating agreements that users follow, or submit to, that have a profound effect on the value, utility, and autonomy of the overall system. To better understand decentralization you must first think of operating agreements as either coming from the top down or the bottom up. …

“Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.”

John Perry Barlow

The first time I heard the phrase “user sovereignty” was while working at Mozilla on the Firefox web browser. Firefox ostensibly follows user sovereign design principles and respects its users. Mozilla has even baked it into their list of design principles on page 5 of the Firefox Design Values Booklet. But what does “user sovereignty” actually mean and what are the principles that define user-sovereign design? …

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