Why Decentralize?

John Patrick Ryan
Sep 30, 2019 · 11 min read
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Why have a Decentralized Web?

John Patrick Ryan

Sep 27 · 11 min read

There’s a rising tide of interest in re-thinking the World Wide Web, toward a decentralized model. This piece — but of course — does not attempt to create a definitive, centralized answer. Instead, this note offers a frame for considering the types of answers, and looks at some really good examples. The goal here: discuss. Take to conference or party, refine, revise, rinse, repeat.

(This piece was created , collaboratively, as a decentralized project. I collected and curated, with particular support from Ana Jamborcic — @anajamborcic — and with great input from dozens of others: to participate in the dialog, please see the notes after this document. The superscript numbers, like this³¹, refer to sources and are set out at the end. Medium doesn’t actively link footnotes.)

The web, as it currently exists, has astounding reach and it has greatly enhanced the connectivity of the world and created economic and political and social empowerment in many places. It also has opened up the world’s population to endless and effectively unlimited oversight, “Surveillance Capitalism” as Shoshana Zuboff terms it¹. But computer power increases relentlessly, human inventiveness knows no bounds, and the prospect to reinvent the web, one of the most important tools humanity has yet created, that prospect remains alive. Let’s do it again!

There are three parts of the “vision” for a project, in this case this a decentralized web:

  • The Problem (The What)

The problem to solve

Some early visionaries of the internet hoped to foster or to design a decentralized World Wide Web with web sites that were loosely connected across networks of protocols. That’s not what we have.

Many of the ideals of the original web started from the belief that agency, autonomy, and information rights should remain within the power of users — NOT taken from them and centralized in powerful corporations or government agencies, hidden behind incomprehensible EULAs² or impenetrable walls of statute. However, over time this vision became diluted by the commercial value of information concentration, media conglomeration, user benefit, and the need to ensure existing cultural and social structures remained stable (not devolve into tyranny).

We start our review of visions for the decentralized web by noting the problems we want to solve. In general, these ideas represent the swampland of low and leeching outcomes we wish to escape. These approaches list these and say: NOT THAT. To be clear, there are lots of things a decentralized web would avoid: NOT Facebook; NOT government-controlled; and particularly, NOT this:

We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them³

Or, from the Decentralized Web summit, 2018⁴:

Today, the web we use is not private, secure, reliable or free from censorship. It lacks a memory, a way to preserve our digital record through time.

Ana Jamborcic⁵:

trying to recapture some of the lost sovereignty that gave way to the benefits of centralization

Vitalik Buterin, leader of Ethereum, argues that the reasons to move to a decentralized web are: fault tolerance, resistance to attacks, and resistance to collusion, but that each of these has different architectural consequences⁶

Fault tolerance — decentralized systems are less likely to fail accidentally because they rely on many separate components that are not likely (to fail simultaneously).

Attack resistance — decentralized systems are more expensive to attack and destroy or manipulate because they lack sensitive central points that can be attacked at much lower cost than the economic size of the surrounding system.

Collusion resistance — it is much harder for participants in decentralized systems to collude to act in ways that benefit them at the expense of other participants, whereas the leaderships of corporations and governments collude in ways that benefit themselves but harm less well-coordinated citizens, customers, employees and the general public all the time.

From Redecentralize⁷

We’ve had enough of digital monopolies and surveillance capitalism.

The internet, once hailed as a force for democracy, has allowed a handful of monoliths to amass more power than most nation states. Social media have become surveillance machines, making our interactions with technology feel exploitative.

David Rosenthal’s thorough parsing of the problem⁸

“What is the centralization that decentralized web advocates are reacting against? Clearly, it is the domination of the web by the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) and a few other large companies such as the cable oligopoly.

“These companies came to dominate the web for economic not technological reasons. The web, like other technology markets, has very large increasing returns to scale (network effects, duh!). These companies build centralized systems using technology that isn’t inherently centralized but which has increasing returns to scale. It is the increasing returns to scale that drive the centralization.

“Unless decentralized technologies specifically address the issue of how to avoid increasing returns to scale they will not, of themselves, fix this economic problem. Their increasing returns to scale will drive layering centralized businesses on top of decentralized infrastructure, replicating the problem we face now, just on different infrastructure.”

Cory Doctorow’s starting point similarly is rooted in dismay at how a few giant corporations use their size to their own benefits⁹

Big Tech is a problem, but the problem isn’t “Tech,” it’s “BIG.” Giants get to bend policy to suit their ends, they get to strangle potential competitors in their infancy, they are the only game in town, so they can put the squeeze on users and suppliers alike.

Roger McNamee’s list of changes we’d need to see in Facebook is instructive¹⁰:

Ban bots.

Block further acquisitions.

“be transparent about who is behind political and issues-based communication”

“be more transparent about their algorithms”

“have a more equitable contractual relationship with users”

Impose “a limit on the commercial exploitation of consumer data by internet platforms”

“consumers, not the platforms, should own their own data”

Lawrence Wilkinson, a founder of the Global Business Network, and collaborator with the Internet Archive etc. on strategy¹¹

Many of the moving parts of the current not-so-decentralized web started out as utilities/platforms. But the pressures of opportunity/growth turned them into “environments”, where convenience and/or efficiency led to structural “improvements” that advantaged some over others and that allowed/invited third-parties into “private” communications/transactions, and increasingly into walled gardens (where the environment actively impedes [at least some kinds of] communication/commerce with other environments, and where everything is surveilled). This seems true in resonant ways in both capitalist and statist settings: the big, open territory on which we originally imagined we could enjoy free-floating and dynamic interaction, settled into communities, then “fortified towns”, and now threatens to to hive up into discrete and defended domains. Our “landscape of opportunity” is becoming an archipelago…

2. The inspiring vision

The second, and perhaps most important way to frame the DWeb vision is to describe the shining outcome to which we aspire — the goodness we will have accomplished in a DWeb. Here are some versions of a vision for a decentralized web¹²:

Respect all / connect all / empower all: The DWeb is to be a next-generation web that connects, respects and empowers all its users.

Connects all: available to all, without extraordinary technical or financial or logistical demands

Respects all: enshrines the privacy and agency of users regarding their data and behaviors

Empowers all: assures secure participation in critical functions (like voting) and access to opportunities and to communications

Does these without the intervention of unwarranted third parties

From Brewster Kahle, in 2015¹³:

We could now build a new web on top of the existing web that secures what we want most out of an expressive communication tool without giving up its inclusiveness. I believe we can do something quite counter-intuitive: We can lock the web open.

From Decentralized Web summit, 2018¹⁴:

… empowering users around the globe to control and protect their own personal data better than before

From Solid¹⁵:

… empowers users and organizations to separate their data from the applications that use it. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time. It opens brand new avenues for creativity, problem-solving, and commerce.

From Electronicbeats¹⁶:

“A loose grouping of services and protocols, its aim is to redistribute online power to users and provide the possibility for collectivized ownership and censorship resistance”

“… you can publish and put things on the network, even quicker than you would be able on a Medium page or Tumblr, but you have full control over it. And you’re distributing that website directly to other users. So you have full autonomy on the network. Which is the way that the power dynamic of the internet should work”.

From Redecentralize¹⁷:

We want an alternative world that works for everyone, just like the original intention of the web and net.

We seek a world of open platforms and protocols with real choices of applications and services for people. We care about privacy, transparency and autonomy.

A web built for everyone requires us all to get involved.

From Lawrence Wilkinson¹⁸:

a platform on which activity — personal, commercial, political — can take place in a way one to all and unimpeded in any unnatural way

a design principle for a decentralized web is (analogously to the “rules” of open source) that the web — that collection of hardware, software, protocol agreements, and regulatory protections that define and rule the “mechanism” we use as a “web” — must be (to use Brewster’s phrase) “locked open” as a utility, with “free” ingress/egress and protection from surveillance/invasions of privacy.

Ted Nelson’s Xanadu vision¹⁹:

a world-wide system of electronic publishing, anarchic and populist, where anyone could publish anything and anyone could read it. … (an) approach about literary depth — including side-by-side intercomparison, annotation, and a different approach to copyright.

Are these visions sufficient? Co-creator of the original Internet Vint Cerf cautions²⁰:

the economics of data centers drives economy of scale

user control can be achieved in either centralized or decentralized scenarios

users are unlikely to be able to underwrite the cost of resilience and security — so shared platforms with a business model that supports them may be inescapable.

And, how big do we want or need the DWeb to become? We can say it’s a new web for everyone, but will our mission be accomplished if the reach is smaller? A lot smaller? Or only if it overtakes the current, centralized web / walled-garden Internet model? Have we achieved success if it reaches the 1% penetration level (thus, perhaps 20 million active users versus Facebook’s 2 billion)? Do we want to see vast, financially powerful entities built from this? Or are we content if it emerges as a longer-term framework that takes decades to flourish?

3. How we get the web we want

The third way to think about the vision is in terms of the key technical (and operational) ingredients, which may include some or all of the following (this website aims to separately create a place for seeking what approaches are coming together to build a decentralized web):

  • peer-to-peer architectures,

Technology-centric definitions fall short in that they can conflate means with outcomes. For example,we can use decentralized tools to achieve a centralized end, as well as use centralized tools to achieve a centralized end. Technologies alone cannot define: Facebook’s Libra / Calibra currency efforts seem to build a project with centralized outcomes using mostly-decentralized technologies. Conversely, it may be possible to achieve a decentralized outcome using technologies that draw on older, centralized platforms — e.g. an approach to build a decentralized social network using SMTP²².

And, projects with entirely decentralized technologies and business models may end up with centralized challenges. Among cryptocurrencies:

  • Bitcoin’s technology and governance seem fully decentralized, but the concentration of miners (and markets) makes them vulnerable to 51% attacks (and perhaps even to explicit Chinese overrides)²³

Architectural (de)centralization — how many physical computers is a system made up of? How many of those computers can it tolerate breaking down at any single time?

Political (de)centralization — how many individuals or organizationsultimately control the computers that the system is made up of?

Logical (de)centralization — does the interface and data structures that the system presents and maintains look more like a single monolithic object, or an amorphous swarm? One simple heuristic is: if you cut the system in half, including both providers and users, will both halves continue to fully operate as independent units?

Here are some technology-centric statements of a DWeb vision²⁵:

By distributing data, processing and hosting across millions of computers worldwide with no centralized control, a new Decentralized Web has the potential to be open, …

Solid’s approach sets aside reliance on blockchain-type technologies to achieve a decentralized outcome. In David Rosenthal’s summary²⁶:

The basic idea of Solid is that each person would own a web domain, the “host” part of a set of URLs that they control. These URLs would be served by a “pod”, a web server controlled by the user that implemented a whole set of web API standards, including authentication and authorization. Browser-side apps would interact with these pods, allowing the user to:

Export a machine-readable profile describing the pod and its capabilities.

Write content for the pod.

Control others access to the content of the pod.

From Infocentral²⁷:

“Decentralized information is the platform — a neutral foundation that software and networks can evolve around. This avoids the adoption pitfalls of systems-first approaches, such as particular network designs or programming platforms. These often require a high investment from early adopters, with a risk of total loss if a design does not succeed. Instead, supporting systems will evolve through open collaboration and market forces, to meet the needs of decentralized information.”

From Redecentralize once more:

an alternative ecosystem made up of interoperable products and services built on public infrastructures. Products, moreover, that do not surveill their users, but instead protect their right to privacy.

To join the dialog:

Post comments here or HERE or go to the Google docs version of the same document and attach comments to the specific text you want to annotate. LINK HERE.

Or send a direct email to John Ryan, the curator of this document: john dot conor dot ryan @ gmail dot com

Citations and notes

Note: quotations used in text here have only been modified to achieve a standardized format (e.g. “web” is not capitalized) or, in two cases, to clarify an incomplete original. Vitalik Buterin’s first quote, number 6 below, was modified, adding the words “to fail simultaneously” to his original text.

  1. https://shoshanazuboff.com/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveillance_capitalism

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