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Redecentralize Digest — August 2020

Don’t shoot the messenger

The Google Play app store decided that several

Fediverse

apps (

at least

Subway Tooter, Fedilab, Husky, MastoPane) will be removed from the store

because they ‘promote violence or incite hatred’; thereby blaming the

app for the forums (typically

Mastodon

instances) people _could_ connect to by knowingly entering such a

forum’s address. Mastodon-developer Eugen/Gargron

put

it well:

“A Mastodon app does not host or promote any content. The user types the

address to connect to. The responsibility of moderating resides with

that server. So unless Google is going to drop Chrome, Firefox and Opera

from its platform, this is completely out of line.”

You could just as well start blaming camera apps for the photos people

make with them, or QR code scanners for the content of the codes they

read, or even blame keyboards for the text typed on them.

On the other hand: with social media clients, it seems relatively easy

to add a list of forums it could refuse connecting to, so for the

clear-cut cases of objectionable places it understandably becomes

tempting to impose the duty of blocking access to those. But going this

route opens a can of worms: who determines what counts as problematic?

What about all the cases that are not so clear-cut? What about chat apps

that do not block known hateful groups? And, again, web browsers?

Note that this matter was also debated in the community of the

F-Droid

app store

a year ago

; although much of that debate was rather about the inverse: whether to

reject apps that _do_ block any servers. The F-Droid policy became to

leave app developers free to choose whether to block specific forums;

but require them not to _promote_ a problematic forum — which I

increasingly consider a wise solution.

Suggesting a specific provider is a decision for which an app could be

held responsible. However, it seems untenable to hold provider-neutral

client apps responsible for the service providers their users

intentionally connect to. Or, likewise, to hold content-neutral tools

responsible for the content their users might end up consuming or

producing.

Quite likely Google will revert these decisions again in a second review

after sufficient outcry, perhaps with an apology (as

happened

with a podcast app earlier this year). But either way, incidents like

this remind of the deeper problem, which is not the unjustified and

unexplained decisions, nor the opaque and mediocre appeal process, but

people’s dependence on this single gatekeeper platform that makes their

decisions too impactful. Some lessons to draw:

find and install apps — get at least

F-Droid

, or download apps directly from their creator’s website if possible

(and poke them if not).

publish it on your website (ideally not a

.app

domain) and other channels; a nice incentive structure is to charge

money for the app on Google Play, while offering it for free on F-Droid.

not presume that some invisible hand will come and fix things.

DWeb meetup on community networks

In July, the DWeb

meetup

“Community Views Around the Globe” gave the floor to several people from

around the world involved in community network projects.

Unlike the typical economic development goal of ‘connecting people to

the Internet’, community networks aim for people to _be connecting_

instead of _being connected_; for a community to be in control of the

technology it adopts. Besides (or instead of) connecting to the outside

world, focus is often on local connectivity, and on the specific ways

this can create value for and with the people — for example, to provide

localised information about the epidemic.

Have a look at the event’s

recap

for the recording and for summaries of the participants’ projects and

stories.

Note that DWeb meetups are often planned on short notice, so to hear of

them do not rely on the events listed below, but subscribe to e.g. the

DWeb mailing list

.

The Internet is for End Users

Most

RFC

documents from the

IETF

specify internet protocols and practices in technical detail. Valuable

exceptions however are the more reflective RFCs, such as the just

published

RFC 8890

with the clear title _“The Internet is for End Users”_. In this RFC, the

IETF’s Internet Architecture Board acknowledges the political impact of

creating technical standards, and stresses the importance of

prioritising end users’ interests over those of other stakeholders.

The document cites for its inspiration the “priority of constituencies”

defined in the

HTML design principles

:

“In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over

specifiers over theoretical purity.”

To me that reads like poetry.

About feeds

In theory, people should not need an account on some platform to follow

the news, blogs or other posts. Nearly every website also provides its

posts as an RSS feed, and there is a large ecosystem of apps to read

them with. Nevertheless, RSS is underappreciated and people having been

debating

whether

‘RSS is dead’

for years now.

A big disadvantage of RSS is that it is not self-explanatory. Whereas a

“follow us on Instagram/Twitter/…” kind of button leads visitors to a

web page that helps (& pushes) them to get set up, a “Follow our feed”

button that links to the RSS feed would likely result in people’s screen

being flooded with XML code. As blogger Matt Webb

realised

:

“If you don’t know what RSS is, it’s really hard to start using it. This

is because, unlike a social media platform, it doesn’t have a homepage.

Nobody owns it. It’s nobody’s job to explain it.”

Hence he created

aboutfeeds.com

to try solve this. A simple web page that explains how feeds work, why

you’d want it, and suggests a few reader apps (without being partial to

any of them).

The effort is simple but laudable, and perhaps worth imitating. For

various underappreciated protocols and practices, rather than inventing

yet another app or protocol, it may be more helpful to create

(app- & vendor-neutral!) explainer pages and instruction videos. Or to

undertake an especially thankless but heroic effort: improve the

relevant Wikipedia articles.

“How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism”

Cory Doctorow wrote a long and long-awaited

essay

(see also his

summary

) to critique the narrative of “surveillance capitalism”, as popularised

last year in Shoshana Zuboff’s

book

. In Cory’s view, _“Zuboff puts enormous and undue weight on the

persuasive power of surveillance-based influence techniques”_, whereas

the problem of big tech is rather rooted in their unrestrained monopoly:

“Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a “rogue capitalism” whose

data-hoarding and machine-learning techniques rob us of our free will.

But influence campaigns that seek to displace existing, correct beliefs

with false ones have an effect that is small and temporary while

monopolistic dominance over informational systems has massive, enduring

effects. Controlling the results to the world’s search queries means

controlling access both to arguments and their rebuttals and, thus,

control over much of the world’s beliefs. If our concern is how

corporations are foreclosing on our ability to make up our own minds and

determine our own futures, the impact of dominance far exceeds the

impact of manipulation and should be central to our analysis and any

remedies we seek.”

Miscellaneous

Decentralized Identity Foundation

published an

overview of introductory resources

(videos, organisations, government iniatives, and other publications)

about self-sovereign identity. Also, the

EFF

published an

article

about the privacy and equity implications of such identity systems.

Public Spaces

is a coalition of public broadcasters, museums and other publishers,

mostly from the Netherlands, that work on a software ecosystem serving

the common interest. Now that it exists two years, it

reflects

on its mission, goals, and non-goals.

posted

a reason to leave Facebook, finishing with 10

solutions

to replace it.

call for proposals

for “digital infrastructure research”, with $1.3M USD to hand out; but

be quick as it closes this week (5 Sept).

Events

All are online, unless noted otherwise.

Solid World

; monthly presentations related to the Solid project

Open Tech Will Save Us

; monthly presentations hosted by the Matrix project

Our Networks

; “a conference about the past, present, and future of building our own

network infrastructures”

ReclaimFutures

; “a technology and culture conference around the broad subjects of

post-capitalist desire, utopian exploration, ecology and alternative

computing”

DOTS design workshops

; developing and systematising design patterns for user experience in

decentralised software

ActivityPub Conference

1st International Workshop on Distributed Infrastructure for Common Good

, Delft, Netherlands (or online)

IndieWeb events

.

About this digest

The

Redecentralize Digest

is a monthly publication about internet (re)decentralisation. It covers

progress and thoughts relating technology and politics, without ties to

a particular project nor to one definition of decentralisation —

figuring out its meanings and relations is part of the mission.

This edition was written by Gerben.

The digest’s format and content are not set in stone. Feedback,

corrections and suggestions for next editions are welcome at

hello@redecentralize.org

. We don’t spy on our readers, so please do

tell us what you think

!

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