How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course

Larry Sanger

I am thinking of offering a new, independent online course about decentralization and freedom. The focus would be social media; perhaps a future course would focus on free encyclopedias. Or maybe we would do the encyclopedia course first. A proposed reading list is below. Interested? Have ideas about what we should read for this?

This could be considered an outgrowth of last year’s work on the Declaration of Digital Independence and the social media strike. As I said in this Wired article, at some point after we do the strike, we should organize mass try-outs of a bunch of social media tools. I wanted to, but I never did this last year because doing it properly would take time, and time takes money.

A course could help pay for this, though. Maybe we could fund proper deliberations over social media tools by combining such deliberative work with a course. That seems like a good idea. My worry has been that I’d be on the hook to offer a course that not many people were interested in. But a friend just told me about a Gumroad.com feature: you can let people pre-order a product, but the user is not charged until the course begins. If enrollment gets up to a certain number, I will green-light the course, and people are charged when it starts. If there is insufficient interest, they are never charged. Perfect!

Combining deliberation about the best social media tools with a course seems like a good idea for an additional reason: I do not actually want to deliberate seriously about this important decision with people who are ignorant of the relevant issues. Indeed, I would like to seriously review all the relevant issues myself. We got into this Big Social Media mess by going in half-cocked. I propose that we should not do that as we decide what to replace Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter with.

General Course Information (tentative)

Tentative title: How and Why to Decentralize the Internet

Description: A two-to-three month upper-division-to-graduate-level course. focused on reading and discussion. You will read and closely analyze and evaluate many important source texts that go into understanding, appreciating, and making decisions about component projects of the free, decentralized Internet in general and social media in particular. There will be a dual focus on the relevant technology and on practical philosophy (or applied theory). The technical decisions before us must be made based on deep principles.

Instructor: Larry Sanger (Ph.D. philosophy from Ohio State, 2000; ex-founder, Wikipedia; serial Internet project starter-upper; Internet consultant). Maybe also guests/interviewees.

Possible course requirements: most importantly, weekly readings as well as online written, moderated discussions in a forum, blog, or mailing list (haven’t decided yet), focused on the readings; probably a weekly video session; maybe 2-3 short papers (feedback offered if desired); probably, participation in choosing and trying out various social media tools, and then later helping to launch larger try-outs of our top choices of social media tools.

Grading: n/a
If you want a grade, I am willing to give you one based on written work.

Prerequisites: None checked, but you should be able to do upper-division college-level work, including (especially) coherent writing and careful reading; you must also be a “power user,” someone who is not afraid to read about sometimes difficult technology concepts

Texts: all distributed free of charge; Larry Sanger’s first book, Essays on Free Knowledge, will be given to all students.

Reading/Topic List (tentative, unfinished, additions requested)

NOTE: the following is not finalized in any way. If there are topics and readings you want included, please let me know!

I. Background

Internet Governance: History and Recent Developments

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Standards-setting bodies: W3C, IETF, IEEE, etc.
  • Governance/policy bodies: ICANN, WSIS, IGF, Dept. of Commerce, etc.

Technical Background: Internet Protocols and Standards

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • SIntroduction to the Internet’s protocols and standards
  • Languages in which standards are written: XML and JSON
  • Decentralized content standards: RSS and Atom
  • Older identity standards: oAuth and SAML
  • Self-owned(?) identity standards: DIDs
  • ActivityPub, ActivityStreams

Technical Background: Content Networks

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Old-fashioned P2P networks
  • CDNs
  • Modern torrent networks
  • Blockchain content networks and IPFS

II. The Theoretical Principles

Internet Freedom: Principles and Software

  • The very idea of Internet freedom
  • Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”
  • Larry Sanger, “The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir”
  • The rise of git, Github, and modern open source software

Free Culture and Self-Ownership

  • The GNU FDL
  • Selections from Creative Commons website materials
  • Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, selections
  • The “own your own data” movement

Internet Privacy

  • Wacks, Privacy: A Very Short Introduction maybe
  • Schneier, Data and Goliath selections (maybe)
  • Selection from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What is digital privacy?
  • Why is digital privacy important?
  • European and Californian legislation
  • The NSA’s spy programs
  • The Chinese social credit system

Free Speech, Censorship, and Neutrality

  • Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2
  • Sanger, “Why Neutrality”
  • Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet selections (maybe)

Online Anonymity and Pseudonymity

  • Selections from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What encryption is, what it’s for, why it’s important, whether it’s “too dangerous”
  • (maybe) Larry Sanger, “A Defense of Real Name Requirements”
  • (maybe) “The Rise of Digital Pseudonymity

Digital Autonomy

  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget selections
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion selections

Decentralization and Digital Identity

  • What is decentralization, anyway?
  • Gilder, Life After Google selections
  • What is “self-sovereign” identity mean and require?
  • The essential necessity of DID
  • The grave dangers of DID

III. Social Media or maybe Encyclopedias

Critique of Social Media

  • The Social Network (2010 film)
  • Carr, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains selections
  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now selections
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism selections
  • Newport, Digital Minimalism selections (maybe)

Decentralized Social Media Projects

  • IndieWeb and Mastodon
  • Conservative social media: Gab, Minds, Bitchute, and Parler

What Next?

  • Larry Sanger, “Toward a Declaration of Digital Independence” and “Declaration of Digital Independence”
  • Fair methods for organizing mass try-outs of social media tools

Toward a Superior News Service

Larry Sanger

Do you run a news startup that features original reporting—not just news aggregated from other sources? Do you want to make it a standout, the sort of service people will point to as “the best solution to all the problems with fake news”? Then I want to give you some free advice. And look in the comments to see if anyone agrees that this is a good idea. Maybe not. We will see.


No sensible reader accepts the claims of journalists without question anymore, if ever they did. Considering their track record, especially in recent years, this is only appropriate. Journalists might not like this state of affairs, but it is not likely to go away anytime soon. The reason we are more aware of journalistic malpractice today than ever before is that sources are often as close as the reporters who report on them. Besides, reporters wear their bias on their sleeve. It follows that responsible news consumption must be critical.

It follows that we need new and better tools to decide whether various claims made are actually accurate. And that is really the root of the insight I want to give you:

Stop thinking of journalism as writing a story. Start thinking of it as sharing research notes.

What does this mean?

Well, what is the purpose of journalism in the first place? I propose to back to basics: let us set aside the ideological purposes of journalism and think about the more essential function or activity, both from the reporter’s and from the reader’s perspective. The reporter is trying to introduce the reader to some new facts as accurately and efficiently, preferably in a narrative that captures the reader’s interest, perhaps while advancing an editorial angle (not that I approve of the latter). Surely, as old school journalists think, that is enough.

The reader is indeed trying to apprise himself of new facts. But he has to negotiate at least three issues that are at the forefront of his mind:

  1. Importance: How important is this news, really? What might make it important, if it is? Has it been blown out of proportion?
  2. Credibility: Is the purported news credible? Is there adequate evidence, especially in terms of sourcing, to believe it? What is the confidence level of the news?
  3. Neutrality: Are there important facts being left out? Would other sources disagree?

I do not think reporters dwell much on these needs of the reader. For one thing, standard journalistic practice in 2020 is fixated on creating narrative, as if they were novelists or something. In so doing, a reporter might give enough background necessary to appreciate the importance of the story; it might say enough about sources to establish the credibility of the information; it might lay out the context sufficiently that the reader can appreciate that a complete, appropriate range of views are being presented in a way that invites the reader to make up his own mind.

But these days, most news stories do none of this. Stories are presented as if they were all uniformly important, for often undisclosed reasons. Articles tend to lead with sensational claims, without considering why sources (or journalists) might exaggerate. Sources are frequently anonymous, and even when a source is fully identified, key information—specifically why they are in a position to know—is hidden or obscured. The most relevant scientific data, video evidence, documents, etc., are only sometimes included. As to neutrality, that has mostly gone the way of the dodo; but it is still something readers desperately want. This is not a quirk. Responsible readers know they must have the whole story, told from all sides, if they are to come to a rational opinion about it. Otherwise they know they are probably being manipulated.

Imagine, instead of this sort of hit-or-miss news article, readers were presented a news research summary, which featured:

  • Bullet points summarizing the main facts, in order of importance (together with sources).
  • A collection of key quotations from source interviews and documents.
  • A list of sources (people), with their most specific relevant qualifications in the relevant subject matter fully stated, at the top of the article. If a source is anonymous, then as much information as possible (such as that a person is “a retired U.S. intelligence official”).
  • A list of any available supporting media, including images, videos, links to or copies of documents and polls, etc. A nice subsection would be a list of relevant tweets and other social media sources (assuming they are newsworthy).
  • A list of previous reporting consulted.
  • A background narrative or, perhaps better, answers to likely questions about matters necessary to understand in order to appreciate the news, its importance, relevant controversies, etc.
  • Recent commentary on the issues involved, scrupulously divided into competing sides as necessary.
  • Now, if in addition to this you wanted to have a traditional news narrative, that would be OK, as a “nice-to-have”; but I suspect that, once all these other resources were marshaled, the narrative would be regarded as a boring aside that is better skipped.

In short, what we really need is a resource that we can use to research and come to our own conclusions. Of course, a news research summary could be made just as biased as traditional journalism; but if done well, it would be exactly the sort of thing professional fact-checkers need to do their work. In any event, a startup that developed such resource pages should use trial and error to determine precisely the best format; it is not especially clear to me what the very best format would look like. Certain kinds of reports would have specific requirements; for example, a report about a poll should include a section, with both summary and details, about polling methodology and about the pollster.

If done well, I and I think many people would be willing to put down good money for such reporting.

Theoretically, this could be crowdsourced, e.g., on a wiki, but offhand I am inclined to think a crowdsourced version would not work out very well for the simple reason that people do not generally volunteer to do difficult gruntwork, and compiling this sort of resource would be quite difficult work indeed. But maybe; I could be wrong.