The Decentralized Web

Nearly half a billion people use Gmail. Facebook boasts more than a billion users. Want to host documents in the cloud? Dropbox has you covered. Photos? Ditto for Flickr (which Yahoo owns) and Google.

If you buy an iPhone, you’ll likely be sucked into iCloud, the service that backs up your email, photos, address books, calendars and documents — all at no cost (not including the price of the device). Same goes for Android and Google's own offerings.

All of these companies are moving fast to implement fingerprinted identification. And they all provide one-stop access to your full information dossier.

Welcome to the centralized Web. As the next billion Internet users come online in the coming years, they’ll encounter a different Web than its first pioneers found. Corporate walled gardens are replacing open, community-run platforms. An unholy partnership between corporations and government is killing online privacy and free speech. The result is access to a few useful services — at great cost to our digital rights.

The newly online — most of whom will log on via a mobile phone — will encounter new uses of technology that violate our basic rights. For example, Pakistan has implemented a mandatory biometric regime for new SIM-card users, who must submit their fingerprints upon purchase so that private companies can line up matches with the state fingerprint database.

Contrast this with Talea de Castro, the Mexican village in Oaxaca that built and has full control of its own mobile network — a private oasis outside the realm of state governments and big corporations.

For most Internet users, the availability and utility of services like Gmail are prime examples of the magic of free.

For others — free press advocates, corporate watchdogs, human rights defenders — Apple, Facebook and Google provide a kind of poisoned fruit: It’s seductive but destructive.

The very fact that just a handful of companies are capturing the vast majority of Internet users' communications and data is the great challenge of the information age. Most Internet users make a Faustian bargain with these companies: We give up our basic rights in exchange for convenient and inexpensive communications tools. But, as with any deal with the devil, we’re ultimately on the losing side.

Companies like Apple hook users with beautiful designs and usability. They're status symbols. They're convenient. But the hardware and software are usually locked so you can’t see what’s going on inside — or know who has access to your private data.

But back to that bargain we’ve made. Who doesn’t find comfort (and utility) in powerful search engines and bottomless email archives and deep databases of everything you and your friends (and their friends, and their friends’ friends) value in this world?

This is what people like to call Big Data: vast troves of our innermost secrets, our spending habits, details about our private lives, our preferred foods, our most-hated foods, our favorite musicians, our political interests, our social connections, our political preferences, our sexual preferences, our readings.

And all of it can be mined either for good or evil. It can be used to deliver targeted advertising that allegedly benefits us. It can also be used to discover the illnesses we cover up, the financial distress we ignore, the unpopular beliefs we harbor and the suspicious people we know.

Your data can be with you or against you. Most often, it’s a mixture of the two. In too many ways, the Internet has become a vehicle for consumption, redirecting your attention to the wares of corporations. And as we now know thanks to the ongoing revelations about unchecked surveillance activities, this “attention economy” has made it all too easy for government to spy on us.

Thanks to Google and others, the U.S. or EU governments don’t have to compile a deep profile of you: These companies already have it. Whether these tools of surveillance are in state or corporate hands, that they exist at all should raise grave concerns about the future of democracy and our basic human rights.

This exploitation of data is a tool of totalitarianism. As legal scholar Eben Moglen reminds us, this kind of surveillance is incompatible with “the system of enlightened, individual, democratic self-governance.”

If we’re going to push back against this mindset, we must resist corporate platforms compromised by the pursuit of profits and the desire for political influence. And to do so, we might need to sacrifice some of the features we enjoy. We will need to change our personal behavior, urge our friends to change theirs, build new tools and systems and reform the policies and laws that have allowed such unchecked surveillance to take place.

And all of these responses must be coordinated and organized so that millions of concerned Internet users can act as one and effect real change. We need to do it for those of us lucky enough to be online, but also to preserve the legacy of an open Internet for those who are still disconnected.

Here are some steps you can take to fight back.

1. Change your digital habits. Ditch Google and turn to alternative search engines and email providers (try to avoid other advertising-driven companies and instead support providers that either make money directly from users who pay them, or that subsist on donations). Get off Facebook. Embrace free and open-source software. Support ­and use federated or peer-to-peer services like identi.ca and Diaspora. Or even better, create your own social network using GNU Social or the new Mov.im. Think about the FreedomBox project, which aims to develop and promote personal servers for distributed social networking, email and audio/video communications. Learn about encryption and off-the-record chat.

Once you’ve liberated yourself, get a friend to do the same. Then another. Rinse. Repeat. Social networks are useful only if they’re … social. Get your company or organization to adopt free and open software and better privacy and security standards. Promote the technology you like, get excited about it, tell your friends to try it.

2. Build and invest in new technologies. Let’s face it: Many free and open alternatives are hard to use, especially for those of us who have grown accustomed to consumer applications like Gmail, Google search and Facebook. We need to develop easy ways to get our data off the corporate cloud and access it using dependable, well-designed software that isn’t sending our data to anonymous servers to be collected, analyzed, packaged and sold. And the only way to make the free tools more usable is to expand the pool of users and give feedback to those developing them.

Encryption tools like openPGP and OTR chat are still beyond the reach of the average Internet user. Some promising projects that are attempting to solve the quality problem while baking in secure technologies are under development. But we need several hands working together to create a fully functional suite of tools, technologies and platforms that offer a true alternative.

Take a look at encrypted email services like Mega, Parley, Scramble and StartMail. Alternatives to email as we know it are emerging, so check out new technologies like BitMessage, Darkmail, FlowingMail or Pond.

Getting there means building funding structures to ensure the best ideas are supported. And it means thinking big about what it would take to offer true alternatives. For example, how can we create a software and hardware stack that users can own and maintain, that is secure from corporate and government prying, and that even people with elementary technical abilities can operate?

There are many ways you can help facilitate this transition to new tools. You can draw on your particular skills and step up to translate documentation, write your own documentation, donate a cool logo, promote these tools in technology articles or donate a free hour of legal advice for a committed startup.

3. Change the laws. The Edward Snowden documents exposed a mammoth digital surveillance apparatus. The government agencies spying on us rely on the cooperation of companies that have been tracking us for years. These companies hand over our metadata and, in many instances, the actual substance of our online lives and conversations. Meanwhile, the NSA is apparently breaking into corporate fiber networks that carry our personal information from one data center to another.

As the revelations became public, the movement to take back the Web began to flourish. It inspired people to fight these abuses of our fundamental rights. If you care about rolling back the surveillance state — and the corporate surveillance that has contributed to its rise — then you must urge your policymakers to hold intelligence agencies accountable. And you must tell your elected officials to safeguard your rights.

There are many ways to get involved. You could join the Web We Want campaign (disclosure: We helped start it), which promotes processes to create Internet users’ bills of rights in every country. Because these problems go far beyond surveillance, a frame protecting fundamental rights on the Internet and protecting our rights to access information and speak freely is necessary. Everywhere.

Also take a look at your local context. Make the changes you want to see in your town or city. Show those in power that change is possible.

All of these strategies will help us decentralize the Web and return ownership of our modern communications technologies to their rightful owners: us. It will take a number of shifts — habitual, cultural, political — to get us there. We'll have a shot only if we work together to build better technology and to reform bad laws.

Collectively, we already have more advanced tools and intelligence than any big company — we just have to work together to use them and embrace inclusion, transparency and the respect of users' rights. The moment is now and we need to seize it.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good