When a system becomes too tightly-controlled and centralized, the people being squeezed tend to push back to reclaim their lost autonomy. The internet is no exception. While the internet began as a loose affiliation of universities and government bodies, that emergent digital commons has been increasingly privatized and consolidated into a handful of walled gardens. Their names are too often made synonymous with the internet, as they fight for the data and eyeballs of their users.
In the past few years, there's been an accelerating swing back toward decentralization. Users are fed up with the concentration of power, and the prevalence of privacy and free expression violations, and many users are fleeing to smaller, independently operated projects.
This momentum wasn’t only seen in the growth of new social media projects. Other exciting projects have emerged this year, and public policy is adapting.
Major gains for the Federated Social Web
After Elon Musk acquired Twitter (now X) at the end of 2022, many people moved to various corners of the “IndieWeb” at an unprecedented rate. It turns out those were just the cracks before the dam burst this year. 2023 was defined as much by the ascent of federated microblogging as it was by the descent of X as a platform. These users didn't just want a drop-in replacement for twitter, they wanted to break the major social media platform model for good by forcing hosts to compete on service and respect.
The other major development in the fediverse came from a seemingly unlikely source—Meta.
This momentum at the start of the year was principally seen in the fediverse, with Mastodon. This software project filled the microblogging niche for users leaving Twitter, while conveniently being one of the most mature projects using the ActivityPub protocol, the basic building block at the heart of interoperability in the many fediverse services.
Filling a similar niche, but built on the privately developed Authenticated Transfer (AT) Protocol, Bluesky also saw rapid growth despite remaining invite-only and not-yet being open to interoperating until next year. Projects like Bridgy Fed are already working to connect Bluesky to the broader federated ecosystem, and show some promise of a future where we don’t have to choose between using the tools and sites we prefer and connecting to friends, family, and many others.
The other major development in the fediverse came from a seemingly unlikely source—Meta. Meta owns Facebook and Instagram, which have gone to great lengths to control user data—even invoking privacy-washing claims to maintain their walled gardens. So Meta’s launch of Threads in July, a new microblogging site using the fediverse’s ActivityPub protocol, was surprising. After an initial break-out success, thanks to bringing Instagram users into the new service, Threads is already many times larger than the fediverse and Bluesky combined. While such a large site could mean federated microblogging joins federated direct messages (email) in the mainstream, Threads has not yet interoperated, and may create a rift among hosts and users wary of Meta’s poor track record in protecting user privacy and content moderation.
We also saw the federation of social news aggregation. In June, Reddit outraged its moderators and third party developers by updating its API pricing policy to become less interoperable. This outrage manifested into a major platform-wide blackout protesting the changes and the unfair treatment of the unpaid and passionate volunteers who make the site worthwhile. Again, users turned to the maturing fediverse as a decentralized refuge, specifically the more reddit-like cousins of Mastodon, Lemmy and Kbin. Reddit, echoing Twitter once again, also came under fire for briefly banning users and subreddits related to these fediverse alternatives. While the protests continued well beyond their initial scope, and continued to remain in the public eye, order was eventually restored. However, the formerly fringe alternatives in the fediverse continue to be active and improving.
Some of our friends are hard at work figuring out what comes next.
Finally, while these projects made great strides in gaining adoption and improving usability, many remain generally small and under-resourced. For the decentralized social web to succeed, it must be sustainable and maintain high standards for how users are treated and safeguarded. These indie hosts face similar liability risks and governmental threats as the billion dollar companies. In a harrowing example we saw this year, an FBI raid on a Mastodon server admin for unrelated reasons resulted in the seizure of an unencrypted server database. It’s a situation that echoes EFF’s founding case over 30 years ago, Steve Jackson Games v. Secret Service, and it underlines the need for small hosts to be prepared to guard against government overreach.
With so much momentum towards better tools and a wider adoption of better standards, we remain optimistic about the future of these federated projects.
Innovative Peer-to-Peer Apps
This year has also seen continued work on components of the web that live further down the stack, in the form of protocols and libraries that most people never interact with but which enable the decentralized services that users rely on every day. The ActivityPub protocol, for example, describes how all the servers that make up the fediverse communicate with each other. ActivityPub opened up a world of federated decentralized social media—but progress isn't stopping there.
Some of our friends are hard at work figuring out what comes next. The Veilid project was officially released in August, at DEFCON, and the Spritely project has been throwing out impressive news and releases all year long. Both projects promise to revolutionize how we can exchange data directly from person to person, securely and privately, and without needing intermediaries. As we wrote, we’re looking forward to seeing where they lead us in the coming year.
The European Union’s Digital Markets Act went into effect in May of 2023, and one of its provisions requires that messaging platforms greater than a certain size must interoperate with other competitors. While each service with obligations under the DMA could offer its own bespoke API to satisfy the law’s requirements, the better result for both competition and users would be the creation of a common protocol for cross-platform messaging that is open, relatively easy to implement, and, crucially, maintains end-to-end encryption for the protection of end users. Fortunately, the More Instant Messaging Interoperability (MIMI) working group at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has taken up that exact challenge. We’ve been keeping tabs on the group and are optimistic about the possibility of open interoperability that promotes competition and decentralization while protecting privacy.
EFF on DWeb Policy
DWeb Camp 2023
The “star-studded gala” (such as it is) of the decentralized web, DWeb Camp, took place this year among the redwoods of Northern California over a weekend in late June. EFF participated in a number of panels focused on the policy implications of decentralization, how to influence policy makers, and the future direction of the decentralized web movement. The opportunity to connect with others working on both policy and engineering was invaluable, as were the contributions from those living outside the US and Europe.
Blockchains have been the focus of plenty of legislators and regulators in the past handful of years, but most of the focus has been on the financial uses and implications of the tool. EFF had a welcome opportunity to direct attention toward the less-often discussed other potential uses of blockchains when we were invited to testify before the United States House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Innovation, Data, and Commerce. The hearing focused specifically on non-financial uses of blockchains, and our testimony attempted to cut through the hype to help members of Congress understand what it is and how and when it can be helpful while being clear about its potential downsides.
The overarching message of our testimony was that blockchain at the end of the day is just a tool and, just as with other tools, Congress should refrain from regulating it specifically because of what it is. The other important point we made was that the individuals that contribute open source code to blockchain projects should not, absent some other factor, be the ones held responsible for what others do with the code they write.
A decentralized system means that individuals can “shop” for the moderation style that best suits their preferences.
Moderation in Decentralized Social Media
One of the major issues brought to light by the rise of decentralized social media such as Bluesky and the fediverse this year has been the promises and complications of content moderation in a decentralized space. On centralized social media, content moderation can seem more straightforward. The moderation team has broad insight into the whole network, and, for the major platforms most people are used to, these centralized services have more resources to maintain a team of moderators. Decentralized social media has its own benefits when it comes to moderation, however. For example, a decentralized system means that individuals can “shop” for the moderation style that best suits their preferences. This community-level moderation may scale better than centralized models, as moderators have more context and personal investment in the space
But decentralized moderation is certainly not a solved problem, which is why the Atlantic Council created the Task Force for a Trustworthy Future Web. The Task Force started out by compiling a comprehensive report on the state of trust and safety work in social media and the upcoming challenges in the space. They then conducted a series of public and private consultations focused on the challenges of content moderation in these new platforms. Experts from many related fields were invited to participate, including EFF, and we were excited to offer our thoughts and to hear from the other assembled groups. The Task Force is compiling a final report that will synthesize the feedback and which should be out early next year.
The past year has been a strong one for the decentralization movement. More and more people are realizing that the large centralized services are not all there is to the internet, and exploration of alternatives is happening at a level that we haven’t seen in at least a decade. New services, protocols, and governance models are also popping up all the time. Throughout the year we have tried to guide newcomers through the differences in decentralized services, inform public policies surrounding these technologies and tools, and help envision where the movement should grow next. We’re looking forward to continuing to do so in 2024.
This blog is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2023.