Decentralization

How To Fight Deplatforming: Decentralize

Meet the visionaries building a new, un-censorable, peer-to-peer web using the tools of encryption and cryptocurrency.

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Does America need a Reality Czar? That was New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose's suggestion for how the Biden administration could help solve the so-called "reality crisis" facing the country. 

The chaotic events of the January 6 Capitol riots marked the beginning of a new era of online content moderation. Not only did every major social media company kick Trump off their platforms, but Amazon Web Services, which owns about a third of the global cloud storage market, evicted the Twitter competitor Parler, and Apple and Google removed it from their app stores. Parler, which had signed on more than 13 million users, announced its relaunch on February 16.

Both Democrats and Republicans want Washington to have more influence over how big tech companies operate. There is a bipartisan push to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, known as the internet's First Amendment. Repealing Section 230 would give the government more power to hold social media companies liable for the content that appears on their platforms. 

President Biden has said he supports repealing Section 230. During an interview with then-candidate Biden, The New York Times' editorial board called the regulation foundational to the modern internet. Biden responded, "That's right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked."

But the great deplatforming of 2021 has also energized the movement to build a new, radically decentralized internet that would allow users to escape whatever form the Reality Czar takes. Many of the projects in this space are trying different approaches to solving the same set of problems, such as how to give individuals control over their own digital identities, and how to store data in the cloud so that it can't be controlled or accessed by a large company subject to political pressure from the state.

Muneeb Ali is the founder of Stacks, which has garnered some major backing for its effort to build a new computing platform that could become the foundation for a new decentralized internet. 

"Regardless of which side of the debate you're on with certain political figures getting banned on social media platforms, that is not the point," said Ali. "The point is no one should have that type of power."

Stacks is one of several startups that have devised a way for internet users to own their own digital identities. Today, Twitter, Facebook, and Google own and control user accounts on their platforms, which, as the tech giants have demonstrated, they can suspend or revoke at any time. With Stacks, Ali and his team are hoping to make it possible for users to take control of their own identities by storing them, not on the proprietary computing platforms of big tech, but on a public database that's shared and maintained by people all over the world—the same one that's used by the cryptocurrency bitcoin, known as the blockchain. The idea grew out of Ali's computer science dissertation at Princeton University. 

Just as no central entity can stop a bitcoin transaction, no central entity can revoke a participant's account, or change the rules of the game if it is stored on the bitcoin blockchain.

"People feel really frustrated when Facebook changes the privacy terms on them," said Ali. "We saw how Robin hood halted trading for certain stocks, right? It's the same problem. It's just manifesting in different ways…It's really a battle for making sure that the rules are the same for everyone. And they cannot be changed by a handful of people."

Google's motto was once "Don't Be Evil," which it later dropped. Ali said that the idea behind Stacks is to make it so that we don't have to trust the good intentions of fallible humans. Instead, we can trust the same mathematical tools that undergird bitcoin. In other words, according to Ali, Stacks can't be evil. 

"What we mean by 'Can't Be Evil' is no one should have that kind of power…  And instead, you can replace that with mathematics and mathematical guarantees on certain things."

Google and Facebook earn most of their revenue through advertising, which is so lucrative, in part, because they collect personal data about their users, allowing for direct targeting. A key component of the decentralized internet is replacing advertising and data harvesting with a new set of monetary incentives. 

Participants in the Stacks network stand to earn bitcoin. Other decentralized web projects are taking a similar approach but using different cryptocurrencies, including Ethereum. Lokinet users earn a cryptocurrency called Oxen by running nodes on a private network to make all web activity anonymous, a kind of decentralized VPN.

Another problem that Stacks and other decentralized internet projects are trying to solve is to give internet users a place to store their websites, documents, photos, videos, and more—the type of information that currently lives in the giant data centers owned and operated by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others.

A project called Filecoin is building a decentralized cloud storage system that allows computers all over the world to contribute space on their hard drives, which can be accessed through the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), an alternative protocol to the "http" that underpins today's web. In exchange, they get paid with a digital token. If Parler ran on IPFS and Filecoin, it would be difficult for a government or any third-party actor, like Amazon, to shut down their service. 

"In a world in which you can truly take your data with you and take the app with you and everything, you have so much more control," said Molly Mackinlay, a project lead for IPFS.

"This is a much better model that's gonna reduce a lot of the problems we've seen with centralized and, like, monetized and manipulated social networking," Mackinlay said. 

"We just address the problem at its root. It's like, all right, well, may as well just rewrite it," said Gaken Wolfe-Pauly, co-founder of Urbit.

Urbit is an entirely new operating system that Wolfe-Pauly envisions becoming as all-purpose as WeChat is in China. WeChat allows users to make social media posts, send direct messages, make calls, play games, hail taxis, and pay bills online and in-person. Except with Urbit, the user owns all the data, as opposed to a Chinese company that shares it with the government to monitor the activities of its citizens.

"WeChat is this sort of like single unified interface where I can do all the things that in the West we do with all these different apps," Wolfe-Pauly said. "I think we can go much further…and what you really need for that is you have to address this industrial-scale software stack and get…a human-scale software stack, where they can actually control their computing again."

Users purchase an identity, called a Planet in Urbit's cosmic nomenclature, which is issued by a Star (a more expensive ID), usually owned by a developer, which are in turn issued by galaxies, the top of the identity hierarchy. 

Although Urbit would be competing with tech giants like Apples and Google, Wolfe-Pauly is confident that users will eventually switch over to this new kind of experimental software stack.

"I find using centralized communication tools to just generally not feel good. It's very clear where you are being manipulated," said Wolfe-Pauly. "The feeling of using something you own and control and can do whatever you want with is a wonderful feeling that far outstrips anything that a sort of centralized and ad-funded provider can give to you."

Decentralization projects face daunting challenges. They're going up against the world's wealthiest companies. The engineering challenges of building a decentralized platform are far greater than building a centralized one. And consumers almost always choose the most convenient option, even if it means handing control of their data and identities over to a third party. 

The great deplatforming of 2021 may be waking some Americans up to the risk of trusting big tech with their digital property and identities. Signal and Telegram, which have ironclad end-to-end encryption, became two of the world's most downloaded apps in early January, with encouragement from Tesla's Elon Musk.

Wolfe-Pauly believes that although decentralized systems are difficult to build, history shows that most systems trend towards decentralization. 

"The sort of arc of history just generally bends towards decentralization. People sort of want to be free. They want to be in control of their environments, their communities," said Wolfe-Pauly. "The centralization of the internet is just not, it's just totally unnatural. It's not going to last."

Kevin Roose, the New York Times reporter who suggested the need for a "reality czar," fears that encrypted apps could become "huge shadow social networks," unable to be monitored for misinformation and dangerous speech. 

Urbit, for instance, was created by the programmer Curtis Yarvin, a controversial thinker whose ideas largely formed the basis of the right-wing philosophy known as neo-reaction. Yarvin, who is no longer affiliated with the project, is just the type of thinker researchers and journalists point to when arguing for stronger social media regulation. 

Wolfe-Pauly rejects the notion that it is good to have corporate gatekeepers in order to police online hate speech and radicalization.

"The benefits of basically people having control over their tools just far outweighs the risks of somehow having to figure out how to moderate or enforce a singular rule set," Wolfe-Pauly said. "The cat's out of the bag. The world has been networked, the internet is kind of its own state in some ways. You kind of have this one world, which is the very managed centralized world, or you give people their own tools and let them run the network. I'll definitely take the latter."

"Do we want to live under almost like a 'dictatorship,' where 1 percent has a lot of control and power?" Ali asks. "Or, do you want to live in a place where society is able to self-govern and they have more of a say of what is okay, and what is not okay?" The second choice, says Ali, "is what free society is about."

CORRECTION: The video and original version of this article described Muneeb Ali as the CEO of Stacks. Ali is the founder of Stacks, a decentralized network that has no CEO. He is the CEO of Hiro Systems, which builds developer tools for working with Stacks.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Opening graphics by Lex Villena. Additional graphics by Meredith Bragg. Capitol riot footage shot by Ford Fischer. Additional b-roll by Jim Epstein. 

Photo credits: Imagine China/Newscom; Abaca Press/Douliery Olivier/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; Bryan Smith/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Bryan Smith/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Kyodo/Newscom; Photo 207259109 © G0d4ather | Dreamstime.com; Photo 91948094 © Waihs | Dreamstime.com; CNP/AdMedia/SIPA/Newscom; Chip Somodevilla - Pool via CNP / MEGA / Newscom; CNP/AdMedia/SIPA/Newscom; @peterdukephoto ©2021 All Rights Reserved; Rafael Henrique/ZUMA Press/Newscom

 

 

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  1. Google’s motto was once “Don’t Be Evil,” which it later dropped.

    And Robert Mugabe probably thought he was a great guy.

    1. If you really wanted to be evil, wouldn’t you tell everyone you weren’t going to be evil and then go and be evil? That’d be the evilest way to do it.

      1. “If you really wanted to be evil, wouldn’t you tell everyone you weren’t going to be evil and then go and be evil? That’d be the evilest way to do it.”

        I always viewed the “Don’t be evil” as a Yes, we are a super villain / evil corporation, but we have a sense of humor!

        1. Worsethan that. By saying “Don’t Be Evil,” Google is saying “Don’t do the things we’re doing oursslves.”

          Instead of Google, they should have called themselves:
          LadiesDothProtestingTooMuchMethinks.com

      2. “To serve man” would have been better.

        1. “It rubs the data on its skin,
          or else it gets doxxed again!”

    2. > Google’s motto was once “Don’t Be Evil,” which it later dropped.

      Hey, they kept the last two thirds of it!

    3. That’s just it, Mugabe probably never felt the need to express that he wasn’t evil while Google did. In one sense “Don’t be evil” is like someone putting “I won’t beat my spouse” in their wedding vows – it’s a particularly odd thing to say and in some way indicates that they’ve actually put some thought into a really bad scenario which should have everyone present thinking – “WTFO”.

  2. How To Fight Deplatforming: Decentralize

    A large network of remote concentration camps is a form of decentralization.

    1. Not if they are centrally managed, with a single authority deciding who gets to sent to them and why

      1. Fully autonomous political concentration camps would be the libertarian thing to do.

        1. No, Defiance, Escape From Sobibor, Schindler’s List, and Uprising would be a libertarian thing to do, followed by Judgement In Nuremberg, and God On Trial.

        2. Yeah, a regionally managed network of concentration camps where people are sent on a whimsically decentralized set of rules would be OK.

          As long as the decisions are being made by a decentralized network of computer (programmers), what could go wrong?

        3. There’s an old joke that no software engineer would, in good conscience, write a ‘destroyBaghdad()’ function. They’d write a ‘destroyCity()’ function and pass Baghdad as an argument.

          Imagine seeing Hitler herd all the Jews into concentration camps and thinking “Centralization is the problem, they really should’ve killed all the Jews in their homes.”

          And then hearing someone else say, “No, the centralization of power within the Nazi party, around Hitler, was the problem. Really they should’ve all been executed in their homes by Rohm, Goebbels, Rommel, etc., etc., etc.”

          And then someone else saying, “No, no. They should’ve decentralized the authority for killing Jews to the German people.”

          I don’t doubt that decentralization solves some problems, but to act like it’s *the* solution is exceedingly naive and rather overtly missing the point.

          1. Yeah, decentralization/local control is more a rule of thumb than a real principle. Local tyranny is still tyranny. And voting with your feet isn’t always a good option.

            1. Mad and Zeb, see my list of movies above. They need to be put in a DVD boxed set called “Nice Little Jewish Boys and Friends Fight Back!”

        4. Good one, Liar!

    2. Speaking of, I wonder if the Dems will get our new deprogramming centers ready in time for the 80th anniversary of the last time they sent American citizens to internment camps.

  3. Stacks is one of several startups that have devised a way for internet users to own their own digital identities.

    And its a great idea. And one that can go way beyond some silly hipster limitation to ‘digital’ identities on social media. Decentralized verification of identity – outside the control of governments – is at the core of a ton of problems. From restoring refugees to the life/people they previously knew before they became refugees – to allowing ownership/registration of property and or contracts.

    But anyone who is pretending that bitcoin is a foundation for any of this is not interested in solving that problem. They’re interested in pimping bitcoin. Which is what ‘suddenly’ happens when the dollar price of bitcoin rises. Amazing new projects are claimed to become viable at a higher cost structure than before they were deemed viable.

    1. Amazing new projects are claimed to become viable at a higher cost structure than before they were deemed viable.

      It’s almost like green energy is a stalking horse or scapegoat for an entirely separate political agenda.

  4. If this blockchain stuff ever takes off in earnest, the civil and criminal legal system will completely implode. And, that is precisely why it will never be permitted to take off.

  5. We can only expect to enjoy our inalienable rights when guaranteed by the centralized constitution.

    Decentralization only guarantees greed which couldn’t care less about anyone else’s rights.

    Our rights are inalienable, not simply guaranteed for the highest bidder.

    1. Decentralization guarantees self-interest. Which is not the same as greed. But is far more likely to guarantee rights than centralization which only guarantees power. The only person whose rights are assured in a centralized system is the one who runs the system.

    2. This is so obviously false I’m not sure why you wrote it. The Constitution does nothing at all to protect us from private actors, like Google, Apple, and the rest of Silicon Valley. Perhaps you should read the article.

      1. The constitution IS centralization.

        IT APPLIES TO EVERYONE.

        That’s the opposite of decentralization.

        Can you give any example of something decentralized that applies to all?

          1. It seems to me that in this closed system called earth, air is centralized in a layer where all can breathe.

            1. Fallacious. It is every bit as as centralized or decentralized as its breathers are.

    3. A recurring theme/fundamental precept of The Constitution is that decentralization is bad. Mob rule is about as decentralized as one can get.

      It’s a myth that these systems are absolutely free of any decentralization and/or that absolute decentralization is good. At a ‘subconscious’ level all the members of the system agree on a set of communications protocols. At a very conscious and explicit level, all the members of the protocol come to a consensus about the transactions and information on their systems and, as part of the fundamental operating principle, do so frequently/routinely.

      1. “A recurring theme/fundamental precept of The Constitution is that decentralization is bad.”

        Not since the ninth and tenth amendments.

  6. The chaotic events of the January 6 Capitol riots”

    what was so chaotic about the riots. I’m on the west coast and could see what was happening could no one else? or are they just trying to imply something that didn’t happen like an insurection

    1. Hush.
      Questioning the Reichstag Fire narrative is racist.

    2. It looked chaotic to me. Just like any protest that turns mildly violent. Certainly wasn’t very well organized.

  7. How to do it more quickly, stop stretching 230 to cover contract issues (Megan Murphy) and disallow unconscionable clauses not allowed by any other industry.

    https://mises.org/power-market/twitter-violating-contractual-agreements-when-it-expels-users

    1. “unconscionability” is just judicial handwaving for “I don’t like this kind of clause/contract”

  8. The problem isn’t how do I keep other people from shutting me up so much as how do I keep other people from refusing to listen to me. It’s not that Google or Facebook is deplatforming me, it’s that they’re allowing people to ignore me. Look, goddammit, if you’re going to listen to other people then you have to listen to me, it’s only fair and you’re discriminating against me by not paying attention to me.

    1. The problem isn’t how do I keep people from refusing to listen to me so much as how do I force other people to not listen to you?

      I want to discriminate against you for holding a view that is not the view that I want you to be allowed to hold. Stop trying to make me play by the rules. Bake the cake, so I can eat it too!

  9. One of the coolest decentralized projects I’ve seen thus far is Particl (https://particl.io/). It’s a censorship-resistant ecommerce marketplace that directly connects buyers and sellers worldwide without a middleman while preserving user privacy. It’s tiny right now, but out of all the blockchain projects I’ve looked at, I think it has the most promise to be world-changing. The upcoming version 3.0 (currently on testnet) is the first one that will be actually suitable for real-world use. (Previous versions were basically proofs of concept.)

  10. It really sounds like the realization of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, which begins like this:

    Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

    https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence

    1. I am glad somebody else remembers that wonderful manifesto by John Perry Barlow! The pro-freedom activists also used a black flag with a blue ribbon in the center and the motto “Don’t Tread On Us!” Ah, the good ol’ days when Cyberspace was a wide open world of promise!

  11. Wait, what? January sixth marked the beginning of a new era in online content moderation?! Ok.

  12. Wolfe-Pauly believes that although decentralized systems are difficult to build, history shows that most systems trend towards decentralization.

    Wolfe-Pauly is wrong, decentralized systems trend towards centralized ones. That’s why the internet started as a mostly decentralized system and has quickly morphed into a centralized one with a few major corporations in the various spaces depending on how they’re categorized.

    This is not to say that a given major company will always control a major portion of the market share.

    Regardless, Wolf Pauly’s comment is absolutely wrong about his ‘arc of history’ comment. If decentralization was the historical trend, the EU never would have been formed– to give but one tiny example. If you compare say, the period of the Holy Roman Empire to Europe today, it’s abundantly clear that we’re not more ‘decentralized’ now than ever before.

    1. That was my reaction as well. Centralization of power is natural way of things with humans, it seems, despite our stated desire to be free from such authority. We must constantly fight for freedom from central authority. I applaud the efforts to create the decentralized systems referenced in the article. But it will be an uphill battle, not a downhill one, I am afraid.

  13. Sadly, I remember when the original HTTP internet WAS decentralized. That was essential to its design and part of its appeal. How the hell did we get here?

    1. *very earnest Jeff Goldblum voice*
      “Authoritarianism finds a way”

    2. Conquest’s second law.

  14. As I have been saying for decades to anyone who would listen, the solution to the problems of privacy and information control is very simple. It would require a federal law, or better yet, a constitutional amendment, that declared that all information about a person is the *property* of that person. While there would have to be some minor concessions to the income tax people, no one else would be able to keep or use any such information without advance permission from that person. Any violation of the law would be a *criminal* matter, not a civil matter in which the victim has to spend money to ameliorate the problem.

    Any person or organization that holds any information about someone would have to send a request for permission to keep it or use it. The person receiving such a request would have 3 choices: Yes, you can use the information; No, you can’t use the information; or You can use some or all of the information if you agree to pay me some % of what you earn from using the information.

    All previous attempts to protect privacy have failed because they have a basic precept that others can access information about us, and we have to struggle to contain that in some way. My approach would cut through all of that nonsense and get down to the fundamental principle.

    1. So, from across the street, on my property, I see you buy a new lawnmower or beat your kid, at what point between when the photon leaves your body and crosses your property line, the public street, my property line, and impacts my retina does the information it conveys become mine and not yours?

      What if you put up a wall and I blast radiation at you freely and record only the beams/particles/wavelengths that you voluntarily/intentionally reflect back to me? In this case, I’ll even let you keep the information in the photons that you don’t reflect back.

      Direct transfer of information aside, how about I observe or voluntarily contract with all your neighbors and local governance not to monitor you, just every piece of matter and energy that goes onto or leaves your property? You can keep all your photons and matter completely sacrosanct while it’s in your possession, as long as I can extract all the information I desire out of the rest.

      You assert that you’ve solved the problem at the level of fundamental principles, but I don’t think you even realize what the fundamental principles are.

    2. I don’t think that is a very good idea. I have enough problems with the concept of intellectual property. But at least there there is something that someone put energy into to create. Your proposal would allow people to own basic facts about the world. Trying to control that makes all kinds of problems. For example, how would taking photographs in public work?

  15. People have generally discovered that emotion persuades better than facts which actually undermine narcissistic agendas.

    This is a precarious position as emotion is irrational and is easily overcome by reason. So fact based reasoning must be discouraged.

    First it was through political correctness that steered us away from inconvenient facts. Now we have the cancel culture which deplatforms , censors, erases and persecutes those who merely utter unwanted truth.

    Our inalienable right to free speech is supposed to prevent this oppression. Why isn’t it?

    1. You’ve stated the (simple) issue quite precisely, R. Misek.

  16. Does America need a Reality Czar? That was New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose’s suggestion for how the Biden administration could help solve the so-called “reality crisis” facing the country.

    IOW, a Ministry of Truth (let’s just call it MiniTru to keep it simple). Do these people think “Orwellian” is a positive description?

    1. I’m still wondering how it’s not obvious to all that a “Reality Czar’s” job must necessarily be to regulate reality. Anyone other than King Canute would be a poor nomination.

  17. That definition of a “free society” at the end is wrong (“the people” say what is right or wrong), unless what is meant is EACH OF the people, and only AS TO each of ourselves.

  18. Does America need a Reality Czar?

    I’m going to argue that it absolutely does. It is probably the only way to personalize the arrogance of government to subvert the first amendment for the vast majority of people. Moreover it will hasten an overall mistrust of government that the people under stasi control in East Germany understood without much of the actual brutality, I hope, and kick it swiftly to the curb. How does the quote go? ‘The tyranny of the stupid is alleviated only by their inconsistency’ or something like that.

    Of course the danger is that a slim majority of the stupid will think, “these have been the best days of my life!”

    1. I’m not sure that is true. The Stasi had a huge number of employees and unofficial collaborators. If there was unrest it was more likely declining economic conditions.

      Nazi Germany also had a lot of public support and a lot in occupied countries. It wasn’t until we started bombing them to rubble that things fell apart.

      I don’t see much opposition in North Korea or China currently.

      So long as something is not affecting them personally people don’t really care. Look at all of the injustice such as asset forfeiture, qualified immunity, and no knock warrants we complain about here. Nothing gets done.

      The government is monitoring us constantly. No doubt there are certain things one could say right here that would get you on a watchlist. Nobody seems to care much.

      1. I get that but even with no kids in school it’s clear that the lockdowns have impacted many parents who are losing their patience with arrogant school boards. So while it doesn’t impact me personally I can certainly relate simply because it is a great injustice and I don’t believe that I’m particularly empathetic.

        In a similar way I can see people recognizing a common enemy in the truthiness czar (imagine Colbert with gov’t power, omfw) and uniting against it. See, Biden may be bring everyone together after all, albeit against his truthiness czar.

  19. Decentralization just means some asshole storing illegal files on your computer, on its way to some cretin on the other side of the planet.

    We saw this with early file sharing and music transfer services, where unwitting idiots were busted for abuse of copyright and recorded abuse of humans, in peer-to-peer data schemes.

    There needs to be centralization, if only to protect ourselves from liability.

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