What is Decentralisation?
The Internet was born of research and development in the United States and internationally to build and interconnect communication networks for computers. Early networks had rigid structures with centralised structures. One of the early goals of the 1960s studies that influenced the Internet was to build a survivable network which could withstand a nuclear war. In this regard, decentralisation was one of the core objectives of the Internet.
In the modern Internet the meaning of decentralisation has shifted slightly: now instead of referring to the low-level routing technology it is about the services which run over the top. As the Internet industry has consolidated — through mergers, acquisitions, the natural flow of the free market, and the network effect — the users have concentrated around the large, successful services. The larger a social network, the more friends you can connect with, the more valuable it is to a user. At some point this reaches a critical mass and results in a positive feedback loop, the bandwagon effect.
This then poses a number of problems for those networks or services:
- different audience expectations
- different legal jurisdictions
- varying levels of cultural acceptability of different content
- monetisation models of the service
At some point these networks need to moderate the content that is published on them — increasingly powered by opaque machine-learning algorithms due to the sheer volume of posts — which rubs against groups discussing any subject which isn’t PG-13. Whether it’s image sharing websites banning photographs of cancer survivors, or inconsistent application of “community standards” to LGBQT+ content, one does not need to search for long to find numerous apocryphal examples of censorship overreach. It is particularly troubling where this could lead to a “terms of service violation” at a global cloud service provider, thus denying you access to email, calendaring, document sharing, and both your personal and work files. As the network effect of these social platforms increases their value, so to increases the risk of having all your eggs in one basket. The aim of decentralisation is to provide many alternative ways that users can express the multifaceted aspects of their lives, with more choices about how their content is processed, shared, and moderated.
What is Federation?
Alone, decentralised services are less compelling to users than centralised ones. How do other people with similar interests discover your group? And each additional system to login to, read, interact with, is a tiny additional burden for each user. Federated services bridge these gaps.
Numerous attempts have been made over the decades at federation of various services. These have been driven by the philosophy of an open and interoperable web, often at odds with the corporate interests aiming to embrace, extend, and extinguish those technologies in their drive towards customer acquisition.
Email is one of the earliest federated Internet services. Anybody can set up their own email server and, so long as a few standards are followed, it will interoperate with anybody else’s email server. The email ecosystem is not locked to one global super-provider. There are of course challenges with running an email server in the modern age, mostly centered around spam and security. For this reason we built a server template including email hosting, and also offer fully-managed servers so that you can take advantage of the benefits of federated email services without having to become an expert in running it entirely on your own.
The RSS Feed allowed users to keep track of updates to websites in one central place. Aggregator applications and syndication services could pull feeds from multiple different content sources, and show the relevant new posts in one place rather than the user having to check each individual site. This technology became the basis of the podcast. Over time, it declined in popularity as syndication services such as Google Reader were abandoned, only to be replaced by “open” (and yet simultaneously proprietary and both user- and publisher-hostile) technologies like Accelerated Mobile Pages.
We still believe in these early technologies, and provide an RSS feed of our news content.
Federated Identity Management
Often part of single sign-on (SSO), federated identity management allows cross-organisational identification of users. One of the largest examples is eduroam which provides teachers and students network access when visiting other institutions.
Federated Social Media
“If you’re not paying for it, you become the product,” so the saying goes. Federated social media aims to provide distributed social networks where users of one site can communicate with those on other sites. This is often called the Fediverse.
We run a variety of decentralised and federated social media instances:
- a Mastodon instance at toot.host (a microblog service a bit like Twitter)
- a Pixelfed instance at shared.graphics (a photo sharing service like Instagram)
- a PeerTube instance at repro.video (a video sharing service like YouTube or Twitch.tv).
- a Matrix instance at faelix.im with a client at riot.faelix.im (a chat service similar to IRC or Discord or Slack)