Decentralisation considered harmful

As I work - on writing standards, writing code, studying centralised and decentralised systems - and as I read the news and watch events unfold around me, bubbling away under the surface is always an unease. What if we're making it worse? We all have blind spots, limited experiences. And especially so since many of us working on decentralisting the Web are not amongst those who would benefit most from the purported advantages. Some of us have been working (or watching) in this space for years, decades, longer than the Web. But more of us, an only ever increasing number, have not. We are privileged, we are nerds, most of us don't have all that much experience, and we do not know best. We've jumped on this decentralisation thing as a solution to lots of global problems.

Towards the end of last week, Tantek prompted me to actually articulate some of what were previously just subconscious discomfort. How are the decentralised technologies we're working on going to make people more vulnerable?

Smaller attack surfaces: Large centralised systems have robust network architectures; lots of money and expertise to keep things running even if under attack (except when someone uses all of the Web-enabled kettles to DDOS them, but that aside). Many decentralised architectures imagine smaller 'pods' which federate. It's possible many of these servers will be run by volunteers, hobbyists, or small/poor organisations, and could be easily knocked over and kept down by malicious actors.

Quieter takedowns: We want it to be easier for small communities, perhaps vulnerable minorities, to create safe spaces in their own corner of the Web, and to be able to keep out those who jeopardise that. If these communities are 'disappeared' (perhaps made easier by the previous point) the rest of the Web might not notice until it's too late.

Illusion of control: We promote decentralisation as a way to control who has access to your personal/social data, and to be able to move it somewhere else if you want. But a key part of decentralisation is federation, or enabling access to your data by other systems, ie. so that you and your friends can use a different applications for the same thing, without that getting in the way of your interactions. This involves open data formats and standard APIs and likely complex access control setups. Most people tell me they can't get a handle on their Facebook privacy settings, and these are for a single unified system. Just because you could move your data to a different service, doesn't mean it's safe where it is.

Illusion of control 2: Normies look at me like I'm nuts when they find out I share more about myself on my personal website than they do on social media. I tell them I know exactly what I'm sharing, rather than having it slurped up by algorithms which monitor everything they click or hover over. My explicit sharing is greater, but my implicit sharing is reduced. Or so I think. Related to the previous point, my data is all public and nicely marked up to be machine readable. The confidence I have about the fact that I have to jump through inconvenient hoops of my own making to get it online is dangerous. If social media has normalised dangerous oversharing, and the general populace is starting to clock the 'dangerous' part, then decentralised social media runs the risk of convincing people their oversharing is 'safe' again, setting us back a decade.

The filter bubble: The easier we make it for people to avoid abuse online (just imagine for half a second that the decentralisation efforts are even close to solving this, k?), the easier we make it for people to filter out diverse points of view. The first thing I noticed when Twitter introduced its recent phrase filtering thing was a bunch of privileged liberals screaming about the filter bubble and completely missing the point. But anyway. If this is an either/or we're in trouble.

This is doubtless just the beginning of a very long list, and there are others thinking/writing about this as well. I'll update this post to list other articles as I come across them.

🏷 decentralisation indieweb phd politics social media social web socialwg tantek web

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