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"the Decentralized Web" 2017

O eterno disclaimer: só porque entrou no geist - se não é pop, não entra nas teses. Curiosamente, com tripla entrada: chega-nos por via da imprensa, webdev e do papel-digital (*).

* Sorry folks, perdi a ref deste último :(

Segue-se o nosso take away para ingressar na literatura, mashup para efeitos de brevidade. Começando pelo fim, a conclusão condensada:

Protecting the future of speech online involves not only ambitious experiments in decentralization, but the cultivation of an ecosystem of competing publishing platforms, diverse in governance strategies, interoperable and connected by a diversity of federated clients - support[ing] not only experiments with decentralization, but the legal, normative and technical work necessary for these types of projects to thrive.

Pelo meio, cedências ao realismo capitalista e alguma futurologia tech, mas grosso modo a avaliação do percurso feito e análise presente é tranquila com a nossa. Dig in!


This is not merely a technical problem, but a social and political one, involving debates over what aspects of media consumption are most important for citizenship. In order for this technical intervention to push us in the right direction, we will need to accompany it with broader cultural campaigns that nudge people towards embracing the diverse society we live in today.

The Web is a key space for civic debate and the current battleground for protecting freedom of expression. However, since its development, the Web has steadily evolved into an ecosystem of large, corporate-controlled mega-platforms which intermediate speech online. In many ways this has been a positive development; these platforms improved usability and enabled billions of people to publish and discover content without having to become experts on the Web’s intricate protocols. But in other ways this development is alarming. Just a few large platforms drive most traffic to online news sources in the U.S., and thus have enormous influence over what sources of information the public consumes on a daily basis. The existence of these consolidated points of control is troubling for many reasons. A small number of stakeholders end up having outsized influence over the content the public can create and consume. This leads to problems ranging from censorship at the behest of national governments to more subtle, perhaps even unintentional, bias in the curation of content users see based on opaque, unaudited curation algorithms. The platforms that host our networked public sphere and inform us about the world are unelected, unaccountable, and often impossible to audit or oversee.

At the same time, there is growing excitement around the area of decentralized systems, which have grown in prominence over the past decade thanks to the popularity of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Bitcoin paints a picture of a world where untrusted networks of computers can coordinate to provide important infrastructure. Advocates of these decentralized systems propose related technology as the way forward to “re-decentralize” the Web, by shifting publishing and discovery out of the hands of a few corporations, and back into the hands of users.

In this report, we explore two important ways structurally decentralized systems could help address the risks of mega-platform consolidation:

  1. First, these systems can help users directly publish and discover content directly, without intermediaries.
  2. Second, these systems could indirectly enable greater competition and user choice, by lowering the barrier to entry for new platforms.


Between 1989 and now, the World Wide Web transformed from an obscure system for publishing technical notes to a basic infrastructure of commerce, learning and social interaction. In celebrating the rise of the web and the ways it now provides interpersonal connection for billions of people, we often forget that the web has undergone dramatic organizational and infrastructural shifts. These shifts force us to reexamine one of our most cherished hopes for the web: that it could be a space for civic debate and social inclusion, opening previously closed conversations to a broader set of citizens. As the web gained more widespread adoption, legal scholars and online advocates began to conceive of it as an important new battleground for preserving core social values, such as freedom of expression. For them, that battleground was situated squarely in the technical underpinnings of the web itself. Particular emphasis was placed on the structural factors that helped to preserve individual freedoms online, particularly against the encroachment of powerful actors such as the State - in the 1990’s, [many] saw the technical architecture of the web as a powerful vehicle for achieving transformational social change through the free exchange of ideas. According to media historian Fred Turner, many of these ideas were an extension of left leaning counterculture movements from the 60’s and 70’s, which sought to replace hierarchical social structures with new models of governance based on self-sufficiency and shared consciousness, rather than the laws of the ruling class.

The idea that code itself is a mechanism for negotiating power and control over speech online

The early web was quite chaotic and hard for users to navigate. The organization of content was highly distributed. It was assumed that users would be both publishers and readers, that each person would have a homepage composed of links that she authored and used to document useful resources and shortcuts across the web. This distributed wayfinding architecture made it difficult to find resources online, especially as more and more people started making their own websites. Moreover, users needed a baseline of technical know-how in order to set up and run their own server for publishing. This created a significant barrier to entry for new users to participate fully in the dream of the open web. Even though the Internet was built on distributed protocols, the web needed to consolidate around a few curated service platforms in order to become practical for everyday people to use. This trend towards consolidation has serious implications for two key functions of the web–publishing and discovery of content.

Due to improvements in usability today’s web is much easier to use and open to vastly more people, but centers on a small number of points of control. The owners of those points of control–primarily large, for-profit, publicly traded companies–comprise a new class of elite power players, ones that have enormous influence on our online interactions. And because so many of our interactions–commercial, interpersonal and civic–are mediated online, we have inadvertently given these companies a great deal of control over our political lives and civic discourse.

Structurally decentralized systems strive to avoid any chokepoints where a single actor can constrain use of the system, while hoping to preserve the usability of centralized systems.

In light of these developments, concerned open web advocates have begun to call for the “re-decentralization” of the web. Decentralization has become the new moniker under which technologists and free speech advocates have organized to re-establish the web as an open infrastructure for everyday people. But what does “decentralization” mean? Echoing back to the rhetoric of the early web, re-decentralization advocates tend to focus on structural interventions that might realign power relationships between institutions (governments, corporations, etc.) and end users - urge[ing] open web advocates to investigate ways we might “lock open the web” with code, enabling more peer-to-peer interactions in the place of mediated private platforms. The urge here is to return to the good old days of unmediated publishing without the need for third-party intermediaries who can exercise undue influence over our interactions online.


On the Internet of 1994, two major chokepoints existed that could prevent you from publishing online - your Internet service provider could refuse to provide the connectivity that allowed your web server to be online, or your domain name registrar could refuse to serve your domain name. In practice these constraints were very seldom seen. Today, new chokepoints exist in terms of both publication and discovery of content. These chokepoints are largely situated around the rise of large social network platforms, which not only own and operate the user interface for interacting with online content, but also the underlying physical architecture that stores and manages the data we generate. Social media platforms have become a critical communications and information infrastructure–a highly standardized and ubiquitous system that remains largely unseen and unfelt, until something goes wrong. When incidents occur the gradual privatization of the web becomes apparent, and the line between public infrastructure and private property is blurred. In light of these challenges, it is not surprising that technologically sophisticated users of the web would seek architectural solutions to these chokepoints.


Forty years later, the cypherpunk dream has not (yet) been realized.

In some ways, this line of thinking is a reincarnation of the cypherpunk worldview, which first emerged in the 1970’s alongside significant developments in the study of cryptography. Technological advances in encryption made it possible for an individual with modest computing resources to enjoy strong privacy protections, even in the face of governments and corporations with significantly greater resources. Still others–the cypherpunks–strove to harness cryptographic innovations in order to drive much broader social and political changes. The most extreme adherents to the cypherpunk worldview embraced a philosophy sometimes referred to as crypto-anarchism, which envisioned a world in which all laws and regulations were supplanted by mathematically verifiable code. Important values and enforcement mechanisms could be encoded directly into software that would carry out critical social processes through the secure exchange of information.

The cypherpunk movement has experienced a renaissance in recent years thanks to the rise of projects like Bitcoin. Bitcoin has captured public imagination and provided the conceptual framework for a new generation of projects that strive to distribute critical processes and services that currently fall under the purview of large, for-profit companies - many of these projects seek to “disrupt” this new class of power elites–the digital platform owners.


It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature.

The networked media sphere has given rise to various groups that “hack” traditional media distribution channels in order to get their ideas heard and seen by a wide audience. If one were to distill these immense code bases down to a few comprehensible rules for how content is prioritized, then we open up platforms to the vulnerability of massive manipulation by users who want to ensure their content reaches as many eyeballs as possible.


Two distinct, but interconnected meanings of the term centralization:

  • Market centralization, where a handful of private companies now dominate personal publishing online and
  • Structural centralization, where we see the consolidation in control over publishing infrastructure, such as data storage, identity authentication and data formats.

Market and structural consolidations are deeply interconnected. This is in large part due to the business model most successful platforms employ, advertising and targeting based on user data. Users seem comfortable giving up their content in order to get free access to applications. Platforms are motivated to capture, collect, and cordon off a growing set of user data to improve advertising targeting. In addition to being motivated by data capture, these platforms become more valuable through network effects as more people join and use them. The rise of large platforms has brought about and accelerated the privatization of the web’s underlying infrastructure, shifting it out of the hands of users and into the control of a small number of private corporations.

Decentralized infrastructures can directly impact the way online services are able to capture value through their platforms: if an intervention undermines the prevailing business model of the web–which is based largely on the monetization of user generated data for targeting and advertisements–then we must understand how the companies that might adopt this intervention would be able to survive.


The challenges decentralized systems as a whole face are as follows:

  • User and developer adoption. Technical feasibility alone does not guarantee the sort of widespread adoption necessary to build a useful social network. Social networks, in particular, are difficult to bootstrap due to network effects. We generally join social networks because our friends are already there.
  • Security. Decentralized” networks generally means anyone can join, which implies these systems have to take strong precautions to enforce security, usually by pushing the responsibility of security to users in the form of managing public key cryptography.
  • Monetization and incentives. Given that user data is so important for monetizing these platforms, there is little incentive for the mega-platforms to adopt interoperable protocols – they would rather own all the data. Similarly, content that is viewed and clicked on the most generates the most advertising revenue, so mega-platforms have an incentive to prioritize viral, attention-grabbing or feel-good content.
  • Resisting market consolidation? Platforms benefit from economies of scale in multiple ways – it’s cheaper to acquire resources - [and] we are increasingly persuaded that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that a more realistic goal might be the development of a robust, competitive marketplace that offers a range of ground rules for online speech, rather than a return to a purely peer-to-peer architecture for communication online.

Possíveis soluções adiantadas:

  • Embed safeguards and limits on power directly into the underlying infrastructure and, whenever possible, give users autonomy over where and how their content is published;
  • Develop better strategies for discovering and filtering content within peer-to-peer architectures
  • Greater consumer choice in the face of unsatisfactory experiences on dominant platforms - that make it easier for consumers to switch from one service to another


Precondition for the success of these distributed platforms is a shift towards user-controlled data, the ownership of a user’s social graph and her intellectual property created online. It will be difficult for new platforms to develop without widespread support for efforts towards data portability and rights over data ownership. Data portability also enables new models for aggregation.

Rather than striving for censorship-proof technology, a better goal would be to pursue strategic structural, legal and normative shifts that support greater experimentation and user choice in the way platforms curate content and govern community interactions. What is more likely – though far from guaranteed– to arise, we argue, is a small set of trusted service providers who compete for business in an open network, where
users can opt in or out of services based on information about the platforms’ performance according to well-defined metrics. Reduced market centralization combined with increased transparency, rather than full “decentralization” of publishing infrastructure, might be what is needed to rebalance the current equation.


It appears that structurally decentralized architecture doesn’t inherently lead to decentralized, competitive markets.

It’s not clear that these issues of centralization can be solved by simply pursuing the opposite trend, towards “re-decentralization” of publishing online. The concept of decentralization is closely tied to the values of individual empowerment and self-sufficiency, eliminating choke points in the system by placingkey functions of publishing, discovery and curation directly back into the hands of users. Today’s advocates of decentralization tend to view any third party intermediary as a threat, a choke point that could be used to censor speech. For them, the ideal web landscape is one of self-publishers, who can directly reach their online audiences without the need for a third party service to host and curate their content.

It’s important to remember that today’s mega-platforms are built on top of the Web’s already distributed and open protocols. The real issue to address is this natural tendency towards market consolidation. Practically speaking, the web is now heavily consolidated around just a few service providers. This consolidation is most clearly illustrated in the distribution of online advertising dollars, which roughly reflects the distribution of viewership on the web. Underlying these concerns is the predominant business model for platforms on the Web – user-targeted advertising. Advertising based business models encourage the consolidation and the hoarding of user views and data, driving platforms to become ever larger.

However, we have reason to doubt that these decentralized systems alone will address the problems of exclusion and bias caused by today’s mega-platforms. For example, distributed, censorship-resistant storage does not help address problems related to bias in curation algorithms – content that doesn’t appear at the top of your feed might as well be invisible, even if it’s technically accessible. And though censorship-resistance and decentralization are noble goals that will undoubtedly appeal to tech-savvy and politically inclined users, most users are not ideologically motivated and have no interest in shouldering the additional cost and responsibility of running these complex systems directly. They will want to engage with the Web through friendlier, third-party publishing platforms, and these platforms will suffer from the same forces that drive consolidation today.