Dodging Bullets on the Path to a Decentralized Future: 2019 in Review

By Danny O’Brien

The Internet’s decentralized nature has historically been its greatest super-power, granting it the ability to shrug off censors and spies and redistribute power away from corruptible gatekeepers out to the creators and innovators on its edges. But it’s only been in the last few years that the Net’s own corporate children—Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the rest—have started to defeat that innate ability to re-route around such choke-holds.

In response, a movement to re-decentralize the Internet has sprung up online: networks of volunteers, communities, and small independent businesses working to develop new tools, and new ways of organizing online that might build a more resilient and equitable network.

At its best, 2019 felt at times the point when lawmakers—prompted by the warnings and encouragements of prominent voices like Tim Berners-Lee, Brewster Kahle and even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey—began to realise that decentralized alternatives could, if nurtured, challenge the worst of Big Tech, just as upstart innovators helped bring down earlier knots of tech power. At its worst, it seemed like politicians, aiming their own shaky weapons at Big Tech, ended up shooting straight at this vulnerable new generation of replacements.

EFF’s job in all of this has been to make clearer the possibilities of a re-decentralized future, spell out what it would need to survive—and defend it when its comes under attack.

EFF’s Cory Doctorow has written here throughout the year on the topic of adversarial interoperability, the techniques by which new entrants can supplant apparently untouchable tech incumbents. Interoperability, along with data portability, could help unlock the data and connections frozen into centralized social media platforms online, and let them be used by a wider ecology of decentralized tools and services, more directly controlled by its users.

In the United States, two bills were introduced in 2019 by Senators Warner, Hawley and Blumenthal and Representatives Eschoo and Logren respectively, both looking to mandate interoperability and data portability. You can expect to see broader data privacy laws (including Senator Cantwell’s recent proposal) to also include a consumer right to data portability. But companies like Facebook have also been making the case in D.C. that the best way for it to protect privacy would be for it to continue to hold tightly the data it holds on its users. The Supreme Court’s acceptance of Oracle v. Google will play its part in establishing developers and users rights to interconnect for their own, and the public interest. We continue to push for solutions that will protect new entrants, while defending user autonomy and privacy—including decentralized solutions.

To some, the best chance for decentralizing the Net lie in cooperatively built, free, open source, and ethical software. For others, decentralization’s best hope is in the blockchain and its accompanying array of cryptographic innovations. The two communities’ fate are interconnected: In June, British financial regulators, in order to better control crypto-currency, proposed controls on the dissemination of all open source software. EFF submitted a response to this dangerous land-grab. Similarly misplaced questions are being asked at the state and federal level in the United States, as regulators struggle to come to grips with decentralized crypto-currency exchanges and smart, distributed protocols. Federal lawmakers, eager to challenge the privacy problems in Facebook’s new Libra currency project, ended up talking up proposals that could affect decentralized competitors to Libra—including far more user-friendly, privacy-protecting alternatives. At the state level, EFF spoke up in defense of new technology’s potential for protecting privacy and defending human rights on the edges of the network.

Outside of the frenzied blockchain world, some of the most significant investments in decentralization this year have come from Europe. On a continent eager to extract itself from the concentration of tech power in Silicon Valley, federated services like Mastodon, Matrix and PeerTube, have found new users, developers, and—to the extent that any truly distributed endeavour can call a single jurisdiction home—some sort of legal residence. Mastodon’s Twitter alternative (using ActivityPub), and the Matrix Foundation’s secure group messaging protocol, now have millions of regular users, and a legal basis in Germany and the UK respectively. PeerTube, a federated YouTube alternative, is now led by France’s Framasoft. Other decentralising projects are being funded by far-thinking donors such as the Netherland’s NLNet, and the European Union itself.

Unfortunately, just as some parts of Europe are realizing the promise of re-decentralizing online power, the EUs most powerful institutions have undermined it. By far the biggest defeat for the decentralized Internet this year was the passing of the EU’s Copyright Directive. Built on the pessimistic idea that the Internet is merely a revenue-grabbing battleground between Big Tech and Big Media, the Directive negotiated two legal requirements that directly contradict a decentralized vision of the Net’s future. With new liabilities and licensing requirements for sharing user content, and even quoting local news, the implementation of the Directive will have to be carefully drafted, and probably legally challenged, to stop federated and distributed services being stuck with expensive copyright filters, or crippling liability for their users’ actions.

Despite great leaps forward, 2019 was never going to be “the year of decentralization.” But one can see a glimmer of a new, more equitable future for the Net. EFF sees our job in the coming years as making sure, as the pendulum swings back to the users, no-one gets to stand in that future’s way.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2019.

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Danny O’Brien has been an activist for online free speech and privacy for over 20 years. In his home country of the UK, he fought against repressive anti-encryption law, and helped found the Open Rights Group, Britain’s own digital rights organization. He was EFF’s activist from 2005 to 2007, its international outreach coordinator from 2007-2009, and international director from 2013-2019. He now supervises EFF’s medium and long-term strategy, with an eye to maintaining the organization’s global impact and reputation.

In a previous century, Danny wrote and performed the only one-man show about Usenet to have a successful run in London’s West End. His geek gossip zine, Need To Know, won a special commendation for services to newsgathering at the first Interactive BAFTAs. He also coined the term “life hack“: it has been over a decade since he was first commissioned to write a book on combating procrastination.

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