How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course

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 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




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Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

4 responses to “How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course”

  1. This would be nice! Propagating the knowledge of descentralization is the first step towards it, personally I would find a course focused on free encyclopedias more interesting than one on social medias, but considering the current state of the internet this one would be more “essential”.

  2. x

    I am working on similar things and philosophizing about the issue a lot. One being’s long deliberation of a subject and it’s solutions is easily dismissable by others who have until then not considered their solutions.

    The topic is a lot about expectations of what the Internet should be. A lot of things are missing, a lot of functionality of services, that people would use, are missing. Much of services on the Internet are deliberately dumbed down, they are often deliberately made so that people stay on their sites longer, so that people cannot find eachother, nor have productive discussions.

    Because If they did provide the optimal way of people connecting and collaborating, the world would change in a few days. Such as the world is made imperfect by it’s humans, because of imperfect communication. With perfect communication there could be a perfect world. What if communication methods are made imperfect, deliberately?

    In the early days we had services that provided free space for people to put up their own websites. That was bought up and removed. A free place for people to express themselves, although often blunt and cringy, it was there as an option.

    From what I have seen in trends since the 2ks is that Domain names went to garbage, it became more difficult to find new sites just by typing domain names randomly in a browser. Hosting providers flourished and zillions of websites without content went online. Many even copying eachother. All these services were somehow in collusion of making the Internet worse it seems. For many of the instances the motivation was probably money and still is.
    Why would Yahoo buy Geocities and shut it down? I guess to make even more money elsewhere.

    My proposals for a better Internet are many, one I will share here.

    I think we should remove the middle men of information distribution. We should have be able to broadcast from our own IP addresses. One major obstacle is dynamic IPs perhaps even that is deliberate. Im thinking in an ideal world everyone would have their own static IP address. Do you know how many services would be made obsolete? A lot. Until we each can have our own permanent IP address I suggest we make an alliance of IP-self broadcasters. We make a site where every self broadcaster posts their ip to that site and people browsing that site can see all self-broadcasters and can simply click on an I and they will see a self hosted website with whatever content (content and description can be added to the site we make).

    I think that is the basis of distributed Internet, it is as distributed as it can get. Unless you also mean anonymous which can make it more tricky.

    But still, this is the way for distribution, each access point of people to the Internet is already distributed, the services we love to hate for not being distributed have hijacked THAT. Self hosting from your own IP address is the OG of distributed and probably the starting point of whatever thing people are trying to invent in the name of distributed Internet. We can start there and add services to work on whatever participants (IPs) there are that announce that they support that feature on our site.

    Thanks for reading the rant.

  3. Excellent idea. Lots of us have been hoping that you’d leap back into the fray where your stopped, after the Social Media Strike of 2019. … It turns out that political candidates in this presidential race, including many who condemned the slimy tactics of Cambridge Analytica, are now using apps for similar manipulations. Of course it does make a difference that they aren’t citizens of an unfriendly foreign country — but to a surprisingly small degree, when you reflect on the potential for serious harm. … You must know all about this already, but it was an accidental discovery for me, probably because the media appear to have ignored what Gursky and Woolley had to say in the eye-popping MIT Technology Review article I’ve quoted in the post to which I’m linking, here.

    ‘Notes on a U.S. congressional hearing: turning antitrust guns on Big Tech will not shield us from Orwellian puppeteering. Why did the politician-legislators aim in the wrong direction?’

  4. … forgot to add that the Okta (identity management/security) study published in June that I’ve also quoted in that post shows widespread blind ignorance about Big Tech’s nonstop data gathering and tracking and other manipulations. The public refuse to believe that these tools are actually being used on _them_.

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