‘Enter the means of calculation’
For Cory Doctorow, internet users have become the serfs to the barons and nobles of Silicon Valley – and it’s up to the digital Robin Hoods of the 21st century to set them free.
“We live in this world where bandits are mad for wanting to do terrible things to you and your data,” the sci-fi author, blogger and privacy advocate said Wednesday evening. Consensus 2021. “But rather than defending yourself, you can ally yourself with a warlord like Apple or Google or Facebook or Salesforce.”
In this “feudal security model” (a Doctorow phrase attributed to crypto legend Bruce Schneier), when the masses try to vote with their dollar or their click, as they would in a free market, they cannot escape the oligopolistic power of technology giants.
“The implicit and explicit forms of collusion, combined with a monopoly rent by not having to compete with each other, allow companies to really structure markets and create policies that benefit them,” he said.
For example, one of the oldest web giants, “Yahoo wanted to have a roach motel, not an interoperable part of an ecosystem, and this speaker game was played through acquisitions.”
More recently, “people have left Facebook in droves for Instagram. And Mark Zuckerberg … a man who constantly trips over his own [overconfidence], said: “Hey, we have to buy Instagram.” What the CEO of Facebook did in 2012.
In 2017, when then-President Donald J. Trump hosted a CEO meeting at Trump Tower, “the entire leadership of the tech industry came together around a table,” Doctorow said.
And while blaming much of the concentration of power on the weakening of antitrust enforcement in the United States since the Ronald Reagan administration, Doctorow said that a legislative solution, such as making portability mandatory data, could take too long.
“Law moves at the speed of law and technology moves at the speed of technology,” he said.
Therefore, he passionately argued for a largely bottom-up solution: Web3.
“ Contradictory interoperability ”
The term Web3 generally refers to a movement to re-decentralize the Internet, replacing the current star architecture with something more distributed and closer to the old model of clients and servers. Blockchain and cryptocurrency are an epiphenomenon of this push and arguably can help achieve goals, although they aren’t necessarily essential (more than that later).
“Web3 is really in tune with the problem of freedom,” Doctorow said, later calling on listeners, after Karl Marx, to “grab the means of computation”.
Interoperability, or the ability of different computer systems to exchange information with each other, is a big part of that vision for Doctorow.
“Once everyone is on Facebook, that’s a good reason to join Facebook, unless you can talk to Facebook without being a Facebook member,” Doctorow explained. “And then you can talk to your friends without Mark Zuckerberg looking at your underwear.”
But since Facebook and its ilk cannot be relied on to support interoperability and might find devious ways around regulatory mandates to do so, “I think we need a contradictory interoperability, hacker mentality,” Doctorow said.
Conflicting interoperability describes applications or code that can “hook up” to existing software without corporate permission.
For example, Doctorow described a scenario in which a company “reduces” or weakens users’ access to their own data through application programming interfaces (APIs). Hackers could then “suddenly deploy a million bots, scrapers, and reverse engineers” that “add their own post-hoc APIs.”
This would leave the tech Goliaths “mired in a terrible guerrilla warfare that involves totally unquantifiable risks they can never foresee,” deterring them from doing such stunts, Doctorow continued.
In this way, he envisions Web3 “not giving us back ‘move fast and break things’ [Zuckerberg’s infamous motto] but rather everything can interoperate and if they tell you it doesn’t plug in there, that doesn’t mean you have to take their word for it. It seems to me to be a turning point.
Doctorow is a special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His recent book, “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism” sets out his idea that the the technology monopolies we see today will not persist beyond 2030, thanks to Web3 and decentralized applications.
His contact on Wednesday was Steven Waterhouse, CEO of Orchid, a crypto-powered virtual private network (VPN) that’s an early use case of how decentralized networks can boost privacy on the internet.
Orchid offers an Ethereum blockchain-based VPN where users can use its native ERC-20 token, OXT, to pay for the bandwidth of a global network of nodes. Anyone who makes a staked deposit of Orchid tokens shares the excess bandwidth in the service of building a peer-to-peer ecosystem for internet privacy.
But there was little to no crypto shilling during Waterhouse’s conversation with Doctorow, who seemed a little skeptical about how much digital currency could help bring the internet back to its free-wheeling roots.
“I don’t think blockchain and cryptos are going to make everyone so rich that they all have FU money and don’t have to pay attention to what the law says,” Doctorow said. “That cannot be our answer because there are 5 or 7 billion people on Earth. I’m not an economist, but I think if everyone has FU money, it ceases to be FU money. At this point it’s just normal money, not FU. “