What Decentralization Requires
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4 min read

What Decentralization Requires

Decentralization. It’s not just a hip happenin’ buzzword. And it’s not just for blockchain. It has been important, and it always has been
What Decentralization Requires

Decentralization. It’s not just a hip happenin’  buzzword. And it’s not just for blockchain. It has been important, and  it always has been—I was using it back in 2005 to describe the early Wikipedia—because it uses technology to guarantee, or at least safeguard, freedom. It removes control of public  conversations from the hands of would-be overseers of the digital  plantations.

Here are the principles that “decentralization” encodes:

  1. Self-ownership. Each user owns his own identity in the network.
  2. Data ownership. You own your own data; you control your own data, within the bounds of controlling law.
  3. Platform-independent following. You control your friend/follower list independently of all platforms.  Hence, once a friend follows you on one platform, he should follow you  forever everywhere until he unfollows you or you block him (or there is a  lawful government order compelling a change).
  4. Platform-agnostic posting. Posting on one platform means posting the same thing on all platforms that are part of one big decentralized network.
  5. Decentralized moderation. Content moderation, which is ultimately an absolute requirement, cannot  be performed by a single, central, controlling body or system,  providing identical outcomes. So it, too, must be decentralized.
  6. Single conversation. Therefore, there is one giant integrated conversation, but parts of are  not shown to people who don’t want to see it (or in places it’s  literally illegal). Of course, it is still legal for people to run closed, walled gardens; but they’re not for general broadcast.
  7. Anti-monopoly. Therefore, also, no corporation has anything like a monopoly over the means of social media broadcasting, as at present.

There are several requirements that, I believe, are absolutely required of the alternative social media platforms to satisfy these principles:

  1. User exportability. Platforms should permit users to export a complete and unadulterated  copy of their user data from the platform and host it elsewhere.  Moreover, public user data that is edited by the user in one  place must be brought current with all other copies made elsewhere as  well, in a timely fashion.
  2. Data exportability.  The user’s data must be easily exportable in a common, easily  machine-readable format, according to a widely-used standard. This is an  absolute minimum. Not many actually support this yet. This isn’t  enough, though, because you need to be able to export your followers,  too, and to do that:
  3. Interoperability. The  social media platform must be made as interoperable as possible (at the  user’s option). So I should be able to subscribe and follow someone who  is posting on his own blog, or Mastodon, or Gab, or Parler. I should be  able to post and read from any of these networks, and the data should appear in a timely fashion in all the rest.
  4. Data inalienability. If the user’s data is not actually served from outside of a  platform—which should be possible—then it is treated by the platform as  if it were. The platform is merely holding the data on behalf of the  user, as a service. The platform must not treat the data as “theirs.”  This is still a rather vague requirement, but it has specific  consequences. One of them would be that the platform is absolutely not  permitted to delete or edit a post from your data, although they can of  course opt not to post it on the platform. Twitter and Facebook violate  this principle when they fail to retain copies of posts that they  delete.

Those are things I feel confident of, as a bare  minimum. There are other things that really also need to be part of it, I  suspect:

  1. Moderation. Individual  users, or whole platforms (if users should wish to use them), should be  able to select their own moderators. Moderation data, or metadata—such  as that a certain user should be blocked, or that a certain post should  be hidden or flagged in some way—should be shared in a way similar to  how the user data and content itself is served (so, across the network  in a decentralized way), and independently of the user’s canonical copy  of the data.
  2. Text representation. The user’s  public data must be syndicated in a lo-tech text-based (more  human-friendly) format such as JSON or XML, even if they have an API  (maybe I don’t want to be forced to use their API, maybe because it’s  too restrictive). The purpose of this is to enable the user to more  easily exert control over the source or original  version of his own tweets. This text stream, if it still exists and the  author’s control can be proven, becomes the user’s personal assertion or  attestation as to how the state of his personal feed should be  represented; this human-friendly data representation of the content  becomes the controlling, “canonical” version of the data. No other  representation, in no other data medium (blockchain, IPFS, bittorrent,  or otherwise), is to be regarded legally or operationally as “the  canonical version.”
  3. Permanence (or uncensorability). By network policy, the user’s public data must also be able to be made available forever (so a particular platform couldn’t delete it on behalf of everyone else, even if they wanted to) via bittorrent or IPFS or the like. Maybe the blockchain is OK, but frankly due to the financial complexities  involved in blockchain, I don’t trust blockchains as bittorrent-type  “decentralized public cloud” storage.

Something like that.  This is not a complete set of “decentralization requirements.” It is  merely an attempt to articulate some of the basic requirements,  including many that current attempts at decentralization have failed to  deliver on.

If you put all such things together, then  you’ve operationalized the vague principles of decentralization for  social media. The more that existing social media platforms actually  implement these features, the more social media will actually be decentralized.

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