The Internet and the world wide web are not the same thing. First, there are parts of the Internet that are not the web (the most obvious of which is email). But second, even though the web as a whole is decentralized, the design of the web is not technically a decentralized technology in the way some other Internet services are. That has had many implications for digital governance.
In a recent paper I co-authored with professors Meares and Tyler, we include a brief history of how, gradually, communities and autonomous decision-making on the Internet turned into a centralized, top-down governance on social media platforms. One reason we have identified is the “centralized” nature of the web. (P.26) Before the web became popular, services such as Usenet operated in a decentralized manner. Multiple Internet site operators had a role to play in governing the space and it was not possible to take control of an entire operation. Attempts to impose central control resulted in people objecting and setting up alternatives.
When the web started becoming popular, its comparatively centralized technology encouraged centralization of content and a more top-down governance approach. However, note that it was still possible to have a decentralized governance on the web and early on, platforms such as Slashdot and Wikipedia continued using a community-based governance on the web (they still more or less do). Gradually, however, new platforms emerged with a tendency to be more and more centralized. It was the website owners who would decide the governance of that site, and it is costly to set up alternatives to a site if a governance mechanism is not desirable. Economically, it was also in these platforms’ interest to keep users inside their “ecosystems”. It was easy to predict that the centralization and top-down governance approaches and the disappearing communities would eventually happen. But the question is, how innovative are we in our technological and governance approaches that can create a decentralized digital space?
Perhaps we should be more creative than just arguing for tired content moderation governance systems and arguing with social media platforms about who is “really” in charge and keep bringing up platform responsibility. Maybe decentralized technology can help us with solving some of the contemporary social media platform problems. Last week at the Unfinished Live event Jonathan Dotan (Starling Lab) gave an excellent and powerful presentation on a new paradigm for preserving history and human rights. By creating a new “web” protocol that is decentralized, it might be more feasible to create trust in the digital records of human history— for example to preserve the accounts of a holocaust survivor or an Afghan Taliban victim. They intend to provide a way to create a chain of custody, store data in a decentralized way that cannot be manipulated or altered (but that doesn’t necessarily need consensus) and provide the ability to verify data without having to trust the source. Imagine if, instead of tech-giants, the nodes (i.e. humans) were able to authenticate a piece of data and store it.
These kinds of initiatives are worthwhile to follow as they are very issue specific and, unlike other claims about decentralized technologies, they are not too abstract. However, one thing that I think we should stop doing is to separate decentralized governance from decentralized technology discussions. The combination of decentralized governance and technology might be an answer to some of the digital problems we are facing. Perhaps MacKinnon’s thought piece about governance of Web3 is a step in that direction.