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Resisting the Centralized Web

Started by trilight, Jun 26, 2024, 04:10 PM

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Digital Dissidents: Resisting the Centralized Web

In the nascent days of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee envisioned a digital utopia—a universal space free from proprietary shackles and corporate control. Talking about the technologies he invented that led to the internet, HTTP, URL and HTML, he once stated "Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can't propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it". This ideal of decentralization, rooted in non-discrimination, universality, and consensus, empowered individuals and kickstarted the greatest era of innovation ever witnessed by human civilization.

However, as the internet matured and neo-capitalistic megacorps amassed more and more ungodly amount of wealth, these ideals have become systematically eroded by big tech, corporations, and surveillance states. The once open and egalitarian web has become increasingly centralized, dominated by a handful of powerful entities. Take, for instance, the Android operating system. Initially hailed for its open-source nature, the core Android kernel has become increasingly locked down by Google, making it harder for independent developers to innovate without Google's blessing. This represents a broader trend where the need of the market for "growth" leads companies to pursue increasingly complex advancements, creating opaqueness for few useful features and increasing the attack surface for both inside and outside jobs.

Similarly, Microsoft has been leveraging its dominant position with Teams and Office to create a near-monopoly in enterprise software, forcing users into their ecosystem and limiting competition. Many are the cases where students below 18 have now a personal and a school Microsoft account, of course with no awareness of the risks caused by the former and the inability to request deletion of the latter. The aggressive corporate behavior of bundling practices has turned what should be competitive marketplaces into monopolized territories. This mirrors the broader trend of tech giants consolidating power, which ultimately erodes user choice and autonomy.

With that said, megacorps are not the only sources of bleakness. The situation is even more dire in regions where governments aggressively censor and control cyberspace. As of this writing there are more and more countries banning or trying to sabotage specific technologies  (as successful as such endeavor can be) aiming to eliminate citizens' ability to access information freely and maintain privacy. Such actions are part of a global trend where state actors exploit the centralization of internet services to enhance their surveillance capabilities, suppress dissent, and control the flow of information. From a tool to empower and disseminate, the purpose of the internet has been transforming into a tool for surveillance and control.

Technological Militantism and the Resistance

In response to this centralization and corruption, movements of technological militantism have emerged, advocating for the creation and use of decentralized and peer-to-peer networks. These technologies aim to restore the internet's foundational ideals, providing secure, private, and censorship-resistant alternatives to the current centralized web. This technological resistance is not just a theoretical exercise; it is a practical movement aimed at reclaiming the internet for its users, of which we will present a few examples.

The venerable I2P, initially forked from Freenet, is a peer-to-peer network designed to enable anonymous communications between its users. In effect, it is what is called a "darknet", almost entirely separated from the "clearnet" beyond a few limited entrypoints.
While more people are aware of Tor, I2P still has immense potential in providing resilient communications via parallel networks, as opposed to trying to maintain anonymity on the global web.

Similarly, while the whole world is effervescent about Bitcoin and its halving, as if a deity was about to arrive on Earth, Monero is the only cryptocurrency perpetrating the original use-case of avoiding centralized control. That said, Bitcoin is the start of "everything" and has its deserved place as the new "gold" of the 21th century. The very nature of Monero makes it extremely difficult to observe currency movements on the blockchain. In an age where financial transactions are increasingly monitored, financial privacy remains a rarity. Unfortunately, the number of centralized exchanges offering the ability to buy this coin has been declining, but we will come back to this.

Meanwhile, while not focusing on privacy, it is worthwhile to mention IPFS, a decentralized protocol designed to create a global system of content-addressing not by referencing servers but files. By using a distributed network of nodes to store and share files, IPFS eliminates the need for centralized servers. This makes it very difficult to censor content, and could serve as a foundational layer to build decentralized applications. As it stands, the vulnerability of IPFS remains with the lack of anonymity of the host nodes who are "pinning" (hosting/saving) the files, hence the importance of combining it with privacy-focused technologies.

Decentralized Finance (DeFi) is another area with the potential to strengthen individual liberties. By eliminating intermediaries and enabling peer-to-peer transactions, DeFi platforms can offer financial services that are more inclusive and resistant to censorship. Decentralized exchanges like Haveno, built for the Monero mainnet, provide a way to trade assets without relying on centralized entities that can be controlled or shut down (read about localmonero). DeFi and decentralized crypto exchanges in particular have the potential to strengthen the ability to buy crypto with fiat and exchange non-privacy coins with privacy coins without relying on intermediaries and in a permissionless environment. It's crucial to approach DeFi with a critical eye though, as the space is rife with hype and speculative projects that can obscure its true potential.

Challenges and the Road Ahead

While the promise of decentralized technologies is immense, realizing their full potential requires concerted effort and active participation. One way to contribute is by running nodes for networks like  I2P, Monero, and IPFS. This not only strengthens these networks but also helps distribute the load, making them more robust and resistant to attacks. Detailed guides are available online to help users set up and maintain these nodes, making participation accessible to all skills levels. Engaging with these networks on a personal level is a step towards reclaiming control over our digital lives.

On a more positive note, there are also non-technological ways to fight for privacy: supporting organizations dedicated to defending digital rights and privacy. Organizations like the EFF, which have been raising awareness on numerous topics including fingerprinting, and NOYB, responsible for a 1.2 billion euros fine against Meta, are on the legal frontline of the battle to protect digital freedoms, and their work is essential in countering the encroachment of corporate and state surveillance.

Within the European Union, it is possible to witness these political fights through different means. For example, the proposed chat control legislation, supposedly here to fight against CSAM but in fact the product of lobbying by surveillance groups, is a schizophrenic move making the GDPR look like a happy mistake. Nevertheless, it is also the only continent with elected members of the Pirate Party, most notably in the Czech Republic and Germany. While a minor political force, it remains relevant in advocating for policies that align with the original ideals of the internet. Supporting and engaging with such political movements can help push for systemic changes that favor a decentralized and open internet. The Pirate Party's continued existence is a reminder that political action remains a critical component of the fight for a free and open internet.

All in all, the internet's centralization represents a profound betrayal of its foundational ideals. However, through technological militantism and active participation in decentralized networks, there is a path forward. By embracing privacy-enhancing technologies, supporting digital rights organizations, and advocating for policy changes, we can resist the forces of centralization and reclaim the internet as a space of freedom and innovation. The future of the internet depends on our willingness to fight for its original vision—a decentralized, open, and universal space for all.