How to Break Open the Web: a report on the first Decentralized Web Summit

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Pains me to say it, but I think this is fighting a losing battle.

I’ve been pretty heavily involved with the internet and related technologies since the early 90’s (when I started an Internet company), and honestly the 'Net has just been one disappointment after another.

When we get technology right…

And the thing of it: it has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with people. It’s a fundamental mistake to think that the Internet’s openness (or lack thereof) really has anything to do with technology. Sure, there needs to be technology to enable any particular vision of the web, but the problem isn’t with the technology.

It’s with the vision.

Deep down, people (i.e., “most people”) don’t care if the Internet is open or closed. They just want some place where they can buy their crappy products (Amazon) and watch their crappy TV (Netflix). Oh, yea, and they want life to be safe.

The bottom line is people don’t find the vision of an open internet at all compelling, unless it makes Game of Thones stream faster.


I’m a fan of peer-to-peer networks. Hell, I built and ran one that was widely used. I just don’t see the mass decentralization happening any time soon unless some serious changes happen.

There are too many drawbacks and not enough benefits for the average user to host their own server. I’m not even talking about performance or reliability, but rather tools. People use centralized services because they are easy for everyone from a novice to an expert and they just work without any fiddling.

We might expect that some open source product would get created that would let someone set up the equivalent of a Facebook account on their own machine, but the truth is… while open source tools have brought us a lot of great functionality, they kind of suck for ease of use unless they are controlled by a company with an actual design staff. And there aren’t many of those.

The only way I see the distributed net coming back into fashion is if the client is the server. If we live in a world where someone’s web browser is also a web server and web sites they visit can install themselves on the user’s machine, then we might be able to migrate back towards a distributed network.

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I think the key is to work out what kinds of things work best in a centralized system, and what kinds work best in a decentralized system.

There’s no reason for to work over a decentralized system. But Twitter? A Twitter that couldn’t be brought down by a government, and could work between connected cellphones in a rural community, or after an earthquake? Such a thing would get traction. And if people had to connected to a “different internet” to do it (or eventually have applications that do this automatically), they’d probably accept the trade-off.

If all people want is “some place where they can buy their crappy products (Amazon) and watch their crappy TV (Netflix)” then TOR wouldn’t exist.

The thing is that decentralized systems are really good for one thing: avoiding censorship by a government entity.

They aren’t faster. They aren’t easier. They aren’t more versatile. They aren’t more reliable. They aren’t more private. They aren’t better in any way except that one specific use case.

One may argue that use case is important to many people, but so important that we restructure the very nature of the web when a single distributed chat system would solve most use cases? I don’t know.

Frankly I don’t even know how long a distributed net would be more resilient against censorship against a determined government entity either.

You and I may think it’s a good thing (I do at least, and I assume you do), but I don’t think it would gain much traction. As @Aloisius says, it’s not necessarily easier, or faster, or reliable. It would probably find some core group of enthusiastic users, but it would be unlikely to be any kind of game changer. Like TOR, which you bring up: it does have enthusiastic users, but it doesn’t solve issues like privacy and overreaching surveillance, because few people use it.

And then when you bring the governments in… that decentralized twitter? “It’s a haven for terrorists and child pornographers! To ensure your safety, we’ll need to back-door it.”

Yes, TOR is great for, say, a journalist in a repressive country that needs to get a story out. But it’s already solved that use case. What’s the use-case that the decentralized web summit is trying to solve? Seems to me to be trying to provide attributes to communication (like anti-censorship and privacy) to people who don’t really care all that much about those attributes. And that seems like a losing battle…

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These people never wanted the net in the first place until it appeared. We have to show people some vision and inspire them with things they didn’t even know were interesting. They’ll come around eventually. I mean, you’ve been around for long enough (I was there in the late 80s) to remember when people didn’t think they’d ever want to buy anything online and who would be stupid enough to do so when you could just go to a store.

Build it and they will come but you cant’ build it in a year or two and then sell it to Facebook or Google and have it mean anything.

This really is a vision problem. We got so mired in money and making it that people forgot what the net was likely before it was nakedly capitalistic.

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