How To Fight Deplatforming: Decentralize

Does America need a Reality Czar? That was New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose’s suggestion for how the Biden administration could help solve the so-called “reality crisis” facing the country.

The chaotic events of the January 6 Capitol riots marked the beginning of a new era of online content moderation. Not only did every major social media company kick Trump off their platforms, but Amazon Web Services, which owns about a third of the global cloud storage market, evicted the Twitter competitor Parler, and Apple and Google removed it from their app stores. Parler, which had signed on more than 13 million users, announced its relaunch on February 16.

Both Democrats and Republicans want Washington to have more influence over how big tech companies operate. There is a bi-partisan push to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, known as the internet’s First Amendment, which would give the government more power to hold social media companies liable for the content that appears on their platforms.

President Biden has gone on the record in support of repealing Section 230. When, during an interview with then candidate Biden, the New York Times’s editorial board called the regulation foundational to the modern internet, Biden responded, “That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked.”

But the great deplatforming of 2021 has also energized the movement to build a new, radically decentralized internet that would allow users to escape whatever form the Reality Czar takes. Many of the projects in this space are trying different approaches to solving the same set of problems, such as how to give individuals control over their own digital identities, and how to store data in the cloud so that it can’t be controlled or accessed by a large company subject to political pressure from the state.

Muneeb Ali is the CEO of Stacks, which has garnered some major backing for its effort to build a new computing platform that could become the foundation for a new decentralized internet.

“Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on with certain political figures getting banned on social media platforms that is not the point,” said Ali. “The point is no one should have that type of power.”

A project called Filecoin is building a decentralized cloud storage system that allows computers all over the world to contribute space on their hard drives, which can be accessed through the InterPlanetary File System, an alternative protocol to the “http” that underpins today’s web. In exchange, they get paid with a digital token. If Parler ran on IPFS and Filecoin, it would be difficult for a government or any third-party actor, like Amazon, to shut down their service.

“In a world in which you can truly take your data with you and take the app with you and everything, you have so much more control” said Molly Mackinlay, a project lead for IPFS.

“We just address the problem at its root. It’s like, all right, well, may as well just rewrite it.” said Gaken Wolfe-Pauly, co-founder of Urbit.

Urbit is an entirely new operating system that Wolfe-Pauly envisions becoming as all purpose as WeChat is in China, which allows users to make social media posts, send direct messages, make calls, play games, hail taxis and pay bills online and in-person. Except with Urbit, the user owns all the data, as opposed to a Chinese company that shares it with the government to monitor the activities of its citizens.