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Decentralization: Worth The Wait

Ethan Zuckerman has a piece in Wired that says building decentralization tools is a sucker’s bet. He and his coauthors, Chelsea Barabas and Neha Narula, mention the FreedomBox, which I helped lead, as an example of how difficult this stuff is. They point to a list of things that make decentralized efforts prone to failure and conclude:

Our research—a combination of technical and historical analysis, and dozens of interviews with open web advocates—indicates that there is no straightforward technical solution to the problem of platform monopolies. Moreover, it’s not clear we can solve the nuanced issues of centralization by pushing for “re-decentralization” of publishing online. The reality is that most people do not want to run their own web servers or social network nodes. They want to engage with the web through friendlier platforms, and these platforms will be constrained by the same forces that drive consolidation today.

They point to a “better strategy” of policies aimed at “data portability, interoperability, and alternatives to advertising-based funding models”.

I’m no longer with FreedomBox, and none of what they write is wrong (I was one of the open web advocates they interviewed), but I wanted to chime in because there’s more to decentralization than seeking a “straightforward technical solution” and building a better social networking app. It’s true that we haven’t realized the grand vision of Diaspora and FreedomBox. They’re right that we need enlightened policy. We need the centralized platform monopolies to behave better. Those steps, though, won’t ever give people control over the means of communication. Without that control, we’ll always be at the mercy of Facebook or whatever comes next.

Redecentralizing the web is hard. FreedomBox and other projects I’ve worked with found that delivering exciting, secure, privacy-respecting apps required starting from scratch. Every piece of centralized tech depends on a bunch of other pieces that also tend toward the efficiency of centralization. Most of it is invisible to end users but it’s centralized pieces all the way down. We wanted to build a beautiful fountain but were missing basic plumbing. If you want to fundamentally change the relationships between the visible parts, you can’t just skim the surface. You have to dive deep and you need to invent all the decentralized building blocks that make up a complete web service.

It’s a little like switching cars from gas to electricity. You can’t just aim sunbeams at your fuel tank. You have to change every moving part in the vehicle, rethink gas stations, reinvent batteries, redesign a chunk of the electric grid, adopt new regulations, grow a new supply chain, and maybe fundamentally change the average person’s relationship to their car.

The internal combustion car and all the pieces of our world that relate to it benefited from billions of dollars of investment and a century of development. We’re not going to shift everybody to electric cars overnight. With all the might of the car companies, it will still take decades of small changes, each one ambitious on its own. Likewise, we’re not going to dislodge the Internet monopolies overnight with weekend coders and money begged on Kickstarter.

What we’re going to do instead is start at the bottom and build some boring infrastructure that makes other decentralized things possible. That piece will make new decentralized work possible. Those efforts will also be boring to everybody except privacy geeks. But we’ll keep building and refining. Eventually we’ll have a towering stack of pieces, each providing some crucial bit of decentralized functionality. They’ll add up to something that, finally, some end users want.

And when that thing is built, nobody will notice. Unless you care what’s under the hood, it will be boring, like a Prius. People who use it will like that it works well and respects their privacy, but they will understand decentralization about as well as they get battery chemistry or regenerative braking.

That is what we’re building towards. All of Zuckerman’s points about this being a monumental task are true. We should pursue the policies he identifies. But we should firmly reject any suggestion that we stop building just because it’s hard and will take a while.

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