Brewster Kahle's theme for the meeting was "A Game With Many Winners". He elaborated on the theme in his talk on the second morning, which included a live demo of accessing the Internet Archive's collections via the decentralized Web. Brewster stressed the importance of finding a business model for publishing on the decentralized Web that isn't surveillance-based advertising. This is something I agree with, but I believe insufficient attention has been paid to DuckDuckGo's successful advertising model, which isn't based on surveillance.
Brewster, who admitted that he'd made a lot of money from Bitcoin, lauded the ability of cryptocurrency micro-payments to enable a pay-per-view model. Alas, Bitcoin is about making a lot of money, whereas micro-payments are about making a little money, so Brewster's experience may have misled him.
The pay-per-view idea ran into opposition from many in the audience who were concerned with opening the Web's resources to under-served populations. The idea of differential pricing, as exemplified by initiatives such as Hinari for the biomedical literature, was raised only to have Cory Doctorow point out that charging different prices depending on how poor you were implied very intrusive surveillance, which was what Brewster was trying to get away from!
I was skeptical in another dimension since, as I wrote earlier:
Clay Shirky had pointed out the reason there wasn't a functional Internet micro-payment system back in 2000:To illustrate the state of the art in cryptocurrency micro-payments, I e-mailed Brewster the link to Shitcoin and the Lightning Network.
The Short Answer for Why Micropayments Fail
Users hate them.
The Long Answer for Why Micropayments Fail
Why does it matter that users hate micropayments? Because users are the ones with the money, and micropayments do not take user preferences into account.
Brewster ended his talk by using the example of the "Internet Archive, but decentralized" to exhort the audience to go forth and multiply "XXX but decentralized" systems, such as "Slack but decentralized". And, indeed, many of the demos of working software shown at the summit were of "XXX but decentralized".
Alas, in most cases the demos may have been decentralized but they weren't yet as good as XXX. This pointed up a theme common to many sessions, which was that developers needed to focus on the User Experience (UX in the jargon); the mass of users already use XXX and won't shift to something that does the same job no better just because it is decentralized. In this context I'd point out that there is a long-established decentralized network that gets far less use than it should, which is Tor. How Do Tor Users Interact With Onion Services? by Philipp Winter et al from Princeton looks in detail at Tor's UX barriers to adoption, some of which are shared with the decentralized web (such as names that are impossible to type correctly).
Adoption of the decentralized Web outside the geek-o-sphere requires either:
- applications that are compelling to ordinary people but can only be implemented in a decentralized system, which I haven't seen identified,
- or a UX enough better than centralized systems to overcome network effects and incumbency, which I haven't seen implemented.
Indeed, one thing I found irritating about much of the discussion at the summit was the casual assumption that the theoretical advantages claimed for the decentralized Web, including security, privacy, persistence, and censorship-resistance, would automatically be delivered by practical implementations of a decentralized Web. As we see with Nakamoto's magnum opus, this is rather unlikely.
A decentralized Web needs ride above a decentralized storage layer. Nodes participating in the storage layer need to either:
- Accept liability for the content which they store, which implies that some human has looked at it and decided whether, for example, it is child porn. Or at least that they operate under the DMCA safe harbor and delete content on request.
- Or claim ignorance of the content which they store, which implies that it is encrypted and the node does not know the key, so cannot decrypt the content. In the context of a decentralized storage system this is technically manageable, if possibly legally fraught. In the context of the decentralized Web, where the whole point is to make the content accessible to anyone, it is difficult. Anyone includes the node itself.
For me the most interesting thing was talking with a Swiss professor who is heavily involved in the Named Data Networking effort that I wrote about in Moving vs. Copying. Basically, the decentralized Web is replicating all the work that the Named Data Networking people have been doing, just at a much higher level in the stack. The properties of the underlying IP layers are likely to vitiate many of the properties that the decentralized Web proponents want. I made the detailed argument about this in Brewster Kahle's Distributed Web Proposal. Somehow we need to get these two groups talking.
In Decentralising the web: Why is it so hard to achieve? John Leonard interviewed a number of attendees in the run-up to the summit. Here are some extracts showing that realism is starting to sink in:
Matt Zumwalt, program manager at Protocol Labs, creator of Inter-Plantetary File System (IPFS), argued that proponents of decentralised web need to think about how it might be gamed.Another caution I agree with the first part of is this:
"We should be thinking, really proactively, about what are the ways in which these systems can be co-opted, or distorted, or gamed or hijacked, because people are going to try all of those things," he said.
The decentralised web is still an early stage project, and many involved in its creation are motivated by idealism, he went on, drawing parallels with the early days of the World Wide Web. Lessons should be learned from that experience about how reality is likely to encroach on the early vision, he said.
"I think we need to be really careful, and really proactive about trying to understand, what are these ideals? What are the things we dream about seeing happen well here, and how can we protect those dreams?"
Mitra Ardron, technical lead for decentralisation at the Internet Archive, believes that one likely crunch point will be when large firms try to take control.The investors in decentralized technology companies are not investing with the idea of being one among many, they're hoping that the one they chose will end up dominant and thus able to extract monopoly rent.
"I think that we may see tensions in the future, as companies try and own those APIs and what's behind them," he said. "Single, unified companies will try and own it."
However, he does not think this will succeed because he believes people will not accept a monolith. Code can be forked and "other people will come up with their own approaches."
Patrick Stanley of Blockstack raised the governance issues that most cryptocurrencies have failed miserably at:
That's lots of positives so far from a user point of view, and also for developers who have a simpler architecture and fewer security vulnerabilities to worry about, but of course, there's a catch. It's the difference between shooting from the hip and running everything by a committee.David Irvine of MaidSafe was also concerned with governance:
"Decentralisation increases coordination costs. High coordination costs make it hard to get some kinds of things done, but with the upside that the things that do get done are done with the consensus of all stakeholders."
Within any movement dedicated to upending the status quo, there lurks the danger of a People's Front of Judea-type scenario with infighting destroying the possibilities of cooperation. Amplifying the risk, many projects in this space are funded through cryptocurrency tokens, which adds profiteering to the mix. It's easy to see how the whole thing could implode, but Irvine says he's now starting to see real collaborations happen and hopes the summit will bring more opportunities.Patrick Stanley also raised the elephant in the room:
There are already privacy-centric social networks and messaging apps available on Blockstack, but asked about what remains on the to-do list, Stanley mentioned "the development of a killer app". Simply replicating what's gone before with a few tweaks won't be enough.
A viable business model that doesn't depend on tracking-based advertising is another crucial requirement - what would Facebook be without the data it controls? - as is interoperability with other systems, he said.
Althea Allen of OmiseGO stressed the importance of UX and the added difficulty of implementing a good UX in a decentralized system:
"It is difficult, though not impossible, to create a decentralised system that provides the kind of user experience that the average internet user has come to expect. Mass adoption is unlikely until we can provide decentralised platforms that are powerful, intuitive and require little or no change in users' habits."
Cory Doctorow's barn-burner of a closing talk, Big Tech's problem is Big, not Tech, was on anti-trust. I wrote about anti-trust in It Isn't About The Technology, citing Lina M. Kahn's Amazon's Antitrust Paradox. It is a must-read, as will Cory's talk be if he posts it (Update: the video is here). I agree with him that this has become the key issue for the future of the Web; it is a topic that's had a collection of notes in my blog's draft posts queue for some time. Until I get to it, one hopeful sign is that even the University of Chicago's Booth School is re-thinking the anti-trust ideology that has driven the centralization of the Web, among many other things. The evidence for this is Policy Failure: The Role of “Economics” in AT&T-Time Warner and American Express by Marshall Steinbaum and James Biese, which is worth a read.
I plan to write a follow-up to this post looking at several areas, such as the demos of the Beaker Browser and MIT's Solid system, where I feel the need to follow Andreas Brekken's example, and try before I write.