Due to the consolidation of privately owned corporate platforms and their massive adoption around the world the Web is becoming more and more centralized. The current networked communication environment is dominated by privately owned spaces that mediate most of our interactions online. Although this environment gives the impression of a vast open public space where anyone can speak, share, and interact, in reality it is not that public. It is not that open. Instead, most of the online spaces were we get information and connect to others are owned by giant corporations. They are private infrastructures for public life.
Think for instance of the activities we do on Facebook, Google, Twitter, or YouTube, including reading news, publishing content, watching videos, and engaging in conversations. Who does regulate these platforms? Who can decide which content is taken down? Who can own the data we users generate? Who does write the rules of engagement?
Big corporate platforms have become major spaces for mediated activity and data collection, changing the power dynamics of the Internet. Initially developed by practitioners and researchers from academic institutions, the Web was intended to allow anyone to move and publish data around in a descentralized way. The readable and writable characteristics of it, made the web generative. Anyone, with the skills to write code, could build things on the top of it.
However, driven by free market and in neoliberal climate, the Web has become centralized with the consolidation of giant corporate platforms that operate under business models that rely on surveillance and personalized advertisement. Although these platforms have enable more users to publish, exchange, and interact with content, they have also have limited what the users can do in terms of governance, privacy, and data ownership.
Paradoxically, by becoming more connected through web platforms, users have lost their privacy and have little participation on the governance and accounting of those spaces. By empowering users, giant global platforms also dis-empower them.
Centralization of the web creates a number of challenges for the maintaining freedom of speech online, data sovereignty, and inclusion. Think for instance in how obscure are the proprietary algorithms that these platforms use for organizing user interactions. We know little about how they organize the information diet we receive when interacting on the platforms. What happens when the platforms decide to censor or ban users? Who can take the decisions? Who can write the rules of engagement? Centralization makes control and surveillance easier.
Efforts to re-descentralize the web and change the current the power dynamics are not scarce. Practitioners, activists, and scientitsts, are working on a variety of projects that support peer-to-peer interactions and openness. From criptocurrencies to federated social networks to tools for data ownership, several initiatives are currently being developed in order to re-empower the users and counterbalance monopolization. However, such technical efforts wont be enough for re-descentralizing the Web given barriers such as the network effects and economies of scale in which giant corporate platforms operate.
On Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future?, a new report released last month, researchers from the Center for Civic Media & The Digital Currency Initiative at MIT Media Lab identify the challenges that decentralization faces ahead, and recommend policy interventions for keeping the web open. The report includes a series of case studies of some of a variety de-centralized projects. Below is a list of them:
* Freedom Box, a system for personal publishing
* Diaspora, a federated social network
* Mastodon, a federated Twitter-like service
* Blockstack, a distributed system for online identity services
* IPFS (Interplanetary File System), a distributed storage service with a proposed mechanism to incentivize resource sharing
* Solid (Social Linked Data), a linked-data protocol that could act as a back-end for data sharing between social media networks
* Appcoins, a digital currency framework that enables users to financially participate in ownership of platforms and protocols
* Steemit, an online community that uses an appcoin to incentivize development and community participation in a social network