One of the things I love about Penguicon is the variety of talks on offer. I can take in a panel on Anime, then go to a very technical discussion on ssh, and move on to hearing a science fiction author read from their work. It is all good. And one talk I got to at a recent Penguicon was by Ed Platt, who has presented at Penguicon with some regularity and usually it is something interesting, and usually something related to privacy. On this occasion, he presented a talk called Re-Decentralizing the Web, which impressed me as a basis for doing some investigation and reporting back to HPR. I contacted to Ed to see if he might be interested in doing something himself, and he declined, but gave me permission to use his material in any way that helped. So I am taking his work as a beginning point and expanding on it just a bit for the HPR audience.
So, why is his talk called Re-Decentralizing the Web? Simply, the Web (and the Internet generally) were fairly decentralized at one time. Those of us who have been around for a while can remember when you might get on the Internet through a school account, or a local ISP via dial-up. The social media we had then were primarily e-mail and Usenet Newsgroups, and both of these were inherently decentralized. There was no central server for e-mail, just protocols that defined how messages would pass from one server to another. Newsgroups also had different servers that would accept and pass along messages without any central server involved. And then there was Gopher, which few people even remember any longer, which let people find documents on servers mostly located in various universities. You never heard of it because the Web made it completely obsolete. And the early Web was decentralized as well, with a variety of servers using a protocol (Hyper-text Transfer Protocol) that let anyone log on to a site and download a page.
But in 2019 we face a much different world. While there is still some variety available for e-mail, it is the case that just two providers have over 50% of the market (Apple and Google). Usenet newsgroups have nearly disappeared except as a place for sharing binary files. And a handful of Web sites such as Facebook have locked up so much activity that to many people Facebook *is* the Internet. And the social media options that most people use are very limited and very centralized: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (owned by Facebook), and Snapchat (facing heavy competition by Instagram and Facebook’s money. It will probably be bought by one of the big companies like Amazon in next year or so.) So what was a very decentralized cyberspace at one time is becoming highly centralized and controlled by a small number of corporations. In fact, Amy Webb just released a book called The Big Nine ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07H7G7CMN/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 ) that says it is 6 companies in the U.S., and 3 in China. The US companies she calls “The G-Mafia” for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Amazon. And the Chinese companies are BAT (Baidu, AliBaba, and Tencent).
In the face of this oligopoly control, what can users do to regain control of their online lives and maybe have a little privacy? And that is where Ed’s talk went. He pointed out that there are options that are decentralized that we can try to use. That is not to say that there aren’t trade-offs involved. I personally am not a model of purity since I use Facebook pretty heavily for a couple of reasons: 1) That is where all of my family and friends are located, and most of the groups I belong to are there as well; and 2) I am doing publicity on Facebook for a group I am committed to. Facebook has a big advantage in its ubiquity, and you cannot deny that. Still, I do have friends that I don’t find on Facebook. Until recently, I would find them on Google+, but that has just been closed down, so it occasioned a lot of discussion about where to go next. So for all of these reasons it seemed like a good time to take a closer look at the options. Note that just how much each of them protects your privacy can vary, as is the degree of decentralization, so I will try to cover all of the pertinent points for each app that I investigate in detail. But note that I have no intention of covering all of them, this list is for your edification should you wish to investigate your options.
“Like Facebook, but with privacy.” That’s the motto of MeWe.
“THE CREATORS NETWORK
Ello is a global community of artists dedicated to creative excellence. Built by artists, for artists.”
Decentralization is the biggest selling point of this network. It is a federation of servers, where anyone can set up a server, and others can join.
As you might think from the name, this is related to Diaspora. In fact, it is an instance of Diaspora that is built to resemble Google+.
This is the decentralized alternative to YouTube.
This is a federated alternative to Twitter, where instead of “tweets” you write “toots”
This is an open-source and privacy-respecting alternative to sharing photos on Facebook.
Kind of a federated alternative to Instagram. It is pretty new, but looks interesting.
An open-source encrypted messaging app that lets you sign up with just a user name, no phone number needed.
An open-source encrypted messaging app that is better known, but requires you to let your correspondents have your phone number.
This is a continuation of the StatusNet project. Mastodon is an alternative implementation of GNU Social.
This is a peer-to-peer network that also works offline.
MediaGoblin is a free software media publishing platform that anyone can run. You can think of it as a decentralized alternative to Flickr, YouTube, SoundCloud, etc. It is also decentralized.
Freenet is free software which lets you anonymously share files, browse and publish “freesites” (web sites accessible only through Freenet) and chat on forums, without fear of censorship. Freenet is decentralised to make it less vulnerable to attack, and if used in “darknet” mode, where users only connect to their friends, is very difficult to detect.
So, this is quite a list of applications. What I plan to do next is take at least a few of them one at a time and explore how they work. Every app has both strengths and weaknesses, and none of them are really “one-size-fits-all”. But knowing your options is step one in making some changes.
Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!