Decentralizing behemoths

September 18, 2017

The New York Times today has an interesting article on the hurdles Facebook encounters as it tries to expand and governments try to assert control over internet companies. What strikes me is that this is a story of one set of powerful behemoths battling with another set and regular folks will be increasingly caught in the crossfire, especially if the behemoths learn to cooperate.

The article begins by noting that a Vietnamese dissident poet was arrested because Facebook apparently cooperated with the government since, after all, he had violated Vietnamese law by writing a critical poem. The implication seems to be that Facebook shouldn’t have cooperated in the name of free speech. But as a Facebook spokesman is quoted saying, “We understand that and accept that our ideals are not everyone’s.” Whether you believe Western liberal values are universal or not, we can’t expect an internet company to always stand up for them.

The article also explains how governments in Europe and elsewhere have been trying to reign in Facebook’s data privacy practices, and Kenya and other developing countries are concerned about Facebook’s market dominance. Parochial protectionism is probably a motivating factor in these cases.

The movement for a more decentralized internet isn’t mentioned, even though it would avoid the battle between the behemoths. If we could replace Facebook’s functionality with a decentralized network, there would be no company that could comply with Vietnam’s or China’s illiberal laws, no company with an incentive to Hoover up and warehouse personal data, no single company to take a dominant market position. And it’s not just Facebook , of course:

As nations try to grab back power online, a clash is brewing between governments and companies. Some of the biggest companies in the world — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Alibaba among them — are finding they need to play by an entirely new set of rules on the once-anarchic internet.

And it’s not just one new set of rules. According to a review by The New York Times, more than 50 countries have passed laws over the last five years to gain greater control over how their people use the web.

I say, let’s make the internet anarchic again.

I welcome thoughtful comments via Twitter where you can find me at @jerrybrito.