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From the Bottom to the Top: Mai Ishikawa Sutton on the Decentralized Web

Does decentralization guarantee equal distribution of power? Who do decentralization and distributed technologies currently benefit, and who should they benefit? The distributed web has become a common buzzword covering everything from the blockchain to peer-to-peer communication protocols and file storage. Decentralized web projects purport to solve the inherent problems with the internet as we know it today, promising to democratize internet governance through distributed ownership and control over web infrastructure.

We sat down with Mai Ishikawa Sutton, lead organizer of DWeb Projects with the Internet Archive and cofounder and editor of COMPOST, an online zine about the digital commons, to discuss what the distributed web and DWeb are, community principles as an organizing tool, and the ways decentralization is a verb not a noun.

Could you tell us about your background and political and technical evolution?

I went to UC Santa Cruz for college and was part of a program now called the Everett Program. The program focuses on training undergraduates on practical technologies—like contact databases and website building, branding, social media, things like that—and pairs them with nonprofits who have concrete technical needs. It’s a student-led, student-taught program with the goal of helping students become what we call “social justice tech entrepreneurs.” As part of the program, I went to Malaysia and worked on the technology side of a Muslim feminist organization. 

After graduation, I didn’t know what the hell to do with my life, so I dove into readings about internet policy and got involved with net neutrality activism. That brought me to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. My initial role there was to support all aspects of their international advocacy work around free expression, privacy, and intellectual property. I eventually chose to work on activism against international copyright laws. At the international policy level, copyright policies are largely decided through trade agreements—Hollywood and big publishers can essentially have their copyright wishlists enacted into the national laws of countries that sign on to these opaque trade deals. Copyright raises a lot of interesting issues and questions around creativity online: How can we make sure artists are paid for their labor, and how does that determine how people engage with culture online? 

At some point, I wanted to figure out how to be on the other side of this equation. Instead of arguing against the endless terrible corporate policies of multinationals, I wanted to fight for positive initiatives. I knew there had to be an alternative, a whole other approach to economic policy. So I left EFF and went to an organization doing solidarity economy advocacy called Shareable. Their advocacy covered the commons as it relates to stewarding everything from land, water, waste, and technology. My work there allowed me to explore this alternative economy: What is the commons? What is a cooperative? What is the essence of these things that people own, share, and steward together? 

I always had an interest in applying what I learned to the realm of technology. The platform cooperativism movement was emerging at the same time, and the first DWeb Summit happened in 2016. I attended that summit and came away with this feeling that there was an opening happening: this was a blossoming community of people who wanted to question the ownership of technologies, to question how infrastructure was being built and who was controlling it. And they weren’t just talking about it, they were actively building alternatives.

So after Shareable I worked on projects that took me in that direction of supporting and building alternatives. I worked at the Oakland Public Library, which completely changed my view on all this. I now focus on projects where I feel like there’s potential to experiment and shape how people think about decentralized technologies—but more than that, build networks of solidarity based on organizational decentralization and interdependence. 

Decentralization and distributed systems have had a long history on the internet, but recently it feels like there’s been a focused energy and community forming around particular decentralized technologies. What’s your perspective on the historical context that informs these current movements?

Decentralization is a core tenet of the internet and the development of the web, but it’s had its peaks and valleys. Email, which was invented in 1971, is the most solid decentralized protocol that has enabled interoperability in a way that many other protocols haven’t. 

There was a long valley of consolidation after that. But then decentralization hit a new renaissance with the filesharing era. As a millennial, the trend that’s most memorable to me was the peer-to-peer networks in the late ’90s and early 2000s like Pirate Bay and Napster. These emerged in response to the way the internet provided great technical affordance to access and remix content, while legal apparatuses like the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) got in the way of doing that. Laws like the DMCA led to a backlash against big entrenched content publishers like Hollywood—an industry that had not properly contended with the ways the internet undermined their copyright monopolies. There was a big boom in filesharing, using new decentralized tech like torrents, and this helped people to change their thinking around the structure and purpose of the internet.

But then for various reasons—one of them being that the original P2P protocol developers didn’t embed privacy into their systems—a lot of people ended up being vulnerable to the legal consequences of using these technologies. This prevented the full potential of P2P technologies from being realized back then. 

Fast-forward: since the teens there’s been a widespread trend towards the centralization and monopolization of platforms and social media. I think this new wave of decentralization is in response to that. We can clearly see how mega-powerful companies are trying to define what the internet is for their own benefit and control every aspect of our social interaction. And so people are trying to imagine: what are the alternatives to that? 

The rise of the blockchain created a new way of distributing information and infrastructure. But a less talked-about, parallel trend is the rise of community networks. Namely in Spain, Slovenia, and in parts of the United States, there are networks where the last-mile internet infrastructure, from the service provider to the home or business, is owned by the community. This movement highlights how community ownership improves access, and prevents things like data throttling, data caps, and other discriminatory behavior that undermines net neutrality. Community networks demonstrate how internet infrastructure can be collectively owned and controlled in a decentralized manner. They’re an alternative to corporate, top-down, profit-driven services that undermine our privacy and expression online.

Distributed Community Building

In San Francisco, these ideas around decentralization and modern distributed protocols can sometimes be mediated through a particular conversation around this idea of “the DWeb,” which is informed by institutions such as the Internet Archive. How do you think about labels like “DWeb” or “IndieWeb,” and the efforts to build communities around them?

I went to the DWeb summit in 2016 and, I have to say, I was not impressed. It felt like an endless barrage of startup pitches by people who looked all the same, standing up on the stage and describing how they’re going to decentralize infrastructure, and how it’s going to save the world, upend this market, and change everything. To me, if decentralization has any political meaning, the people building it have to be very different from the types of people who built the World Wide Web. We can’t just replace the platforms and protocols we have today with other purely profit-driven companies that can only call their product “decentralized” because the technology functions in a more distributed manner. For decentralization to be a remotely revolutionary concept, we need to question the internal logic of the tech industry itself—how people are incentivized to build things, how people are treated in the process, and how the relationships and systems we operate with are controlled. How does decentralization redistribute power? That’s the fundamental question. 

There are currently loosely three factions around decentralization. The first one is this idea of “DWeb,” which is probably the most politically agnostic group. The DWeb movement is a pretty big tent—accepting that there are all kinds of interesting decentralization projects with different approaches that can learn from each other. 

Then there are the people who want to call it a “distributed web” or the “peer-to-peer web”—there’s a strong emphasis in that community on “distribution” as a way of looking at the governance and ownership of the network. 

And then the third faction is “Web 3.0,” which is the crypto and blockchain community. They see themselves as part of the evolution of the web and how it is monetized. They see the legacy of the web being extended through these crypto-based decentralization technologies and see their tools as the new engine of the tech economy.

The Internet Archive’s work has played an interesting role as a mediator and convener of these different ideas. We so far haven’t explicitly excluded certain approaches, though the projects we have highlighted fall more in the peer-to-peer DWeb side of things, rather than Web 3.0. We have curated a dialogue around these trends and elevated open source projects that are more community-driven and are more explicitly focused around having user governance and control. 

As part of my role facilitating these conversations, I came to work on the creation of the “DWeb Principles”—to define what the community finds important and wants to identify as its goals, not just in terms of the centralized forces that they are in opposition to.

That seems like it gives you the opportunity to curate the conversation around “what we are talking about when we talk about the distributed web.”

The DWeb Principles came out of that vacuum of political agnosticism, to identify what it is that we are actually saying when we say we want to “decentralize” the web. We were very explicit that it’s not just another new set of principles that ignore or replace other ones. We cite many other principles, like Association for Progressive Communications’ Feminist Principles of the Internet and the Design Justice Principles. Our principles emphasize that this particular community is concerned with design issues like interoperability, being free and open source, having repairable devices—we tried to really name the things that this community cared about. And having put that first stake in the ground, I hope that will shape the dialogue around what it is that we actually mean when we talk about decentralization and how some of these technologies are being built. 

Declaring those principles feels like an opportunity to move the center of the conversation for the people already involved, and supply a different set of baseline assumptions for people newly being introduced to the concept of the decentralized web. 

Yeah, exactly. The act of creating these principles is also in and of itself a tool for people within the space to have a dialogue with each other. It’s similar to the kind of inter-organizational statements I used to coordinate as a digital policy organizer. The process of creating them involves a ton of back and forth, and it’s this back and forth that’s so valuable. Creating an environment where people can be in dialogue with each other to assert their values, listen to others, and negotiate the desires of their shared dreams—that’s a powerful tool of organizing! The hundreds of edits across the draft versions are artifacts of this process. One of our goals with the principles was to bring the community of people interested in decentralized technologies a bit closer together. Our other goal was to have a document we can use to introduce people to this space and succinctly describe what we’re about.

Putting the principles into practice requires recognizing our own needs and addressing them in creative ways in solidarity with others. That is what centralized top-down systems cannot do—create locally-situated networks of communication that emerge out of the imagination of people who live in their unique economic, social, cultural contexts. If decentralized technologies are designed with an assumed universality—that there can be one blueprint for organizing communication across diverse knowledge systems and language cultures—they’ll become just as problematic as Facebook. 

The act of creating the principles is useful in and of itself, as an act of community organizing beyond whatever the output is. Even if the output was to disappear, the connections between the people and the organizations will still exist. 

Totally! Investors and people in Silicon Valley go to parties together where all this soft power, informal trust-building happens. And it sucks to some degree, but we’re humans and that ability to talk to each other and establish personal trust is really, really important. You need to have new ways of creating alternatives to high-end galas and backchannel investor conversations, and have other ways for people who are trying to build alternatives to talk to each other and build trust. 

What Works in Bangalore

A lot of the projects that get airtime in conversations around decentralized and distributed technologies seem to be centered in the Global North. What are some ways in which your activism has connected these new kinds of technologies to communities in the Global South? 

Before DWeb Camp in 2019, we connected with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an amazing organization that is essentially a coalition group and advocacy organization that connects progressive and feminist tech-based organizations from around the world. [Ed: DWeb Camp was a four-day retreat in Pescadero, CA, organized in association with the Internet Archive.] Through that connection, we invited ten global fellows from APC’s Community Networks program to the camp. They came from India, South Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere, to facilitate knowledge exchanges about internet infrastructure, open hardware, and community networks. 

I think our global fellows program really influenced thinking around decentralization—well, it did for me. The leaders in these communities are really challenging ownership of internet infrastructure. Zenzeleni Networks in South Africa, for example, is a nonprofit that helps create cooperative community networks in parts of South Africa that were deeply affected by apartheid. Janastu is an innovation lab based outside of Bangalore building technology for people who are nonliterate to share audiovisual information. For example, they install Raspberry Pis into old phone booths to allow people to record and listen to messages with each other, as a sort of community radio. 

I think these types of self-determining technologies that are homegrown and locally-situated are central to the spirit of decentralization. Just showing that’s possible makes people imagine greater possibilities than the mainstream techno-solutionist approaches that just drop technology somewhere with the assumption that it will solve systemic problems.

We interviewed Darius Kazemi about distributed social networks and his Hometown fork of Mastodon, and one of the big takeaways from that conversation was the idea that every system and protocol embeds a particular ideology and expectation about relationships in the world. Decentralization is a force that pulls you in one direction, but as you mentioned, if privacy or moderation is not embedded in the protocols, it may not have the outcomes you want. 

Yes, and most of the well-known decentralized web projects have been started by European or North American cis men by themselves. And so obviously they have ideas about what is important to embed in these distributed protocols. For example, if a distributed protocol relies on associating messages and identity to a device, or stores IP addresses along with messages and none of this encrypted, that is totally not a safe or secure means of communication for people who are government targets. If they lose their device, or even worse, if it’s seized, all of their messages are compromised. If the decentralized tech also captures other people’s IP or device information, their device has effectively become an exploitable honeypot of private information.

There’s a degree to which you have to make tradeoffs to create distributed protocols that work, but you need to prioritize certain things from the get-go to make sure that they work for the types of people that you’re building for. Again, a crucial part of decentralization is questioning the universality of technology and technological solutions. What works in Bangalore probably won’t work for a lot of other places. But if it’s free and open source, people can adapt it to their own communities. This assumption that technologies should be universal that everyone should be on one platform is dangerously naive. It flattens the nuances of language and culture and the ways different people engage with information and knowledge sharing. 

It’s sad that there isn’t enough money to support all the experimentation we need. Obviously, some types of experimentation get injected with an insane amount of money—think Zoom or Facebook, or new platforms like Clubhouse. It’s like they’re injected with steroids. 

But there are so many ways to communicate and share information. There’s not enough creativity around that. Due to the nature of capitalism and legacies of colonialism and white supremacy, only certain types of people have the capital and resources to support certain types of innovation. Investors and backers tend to support technologies that frame problems in ways that they can understand or relate to. Funding shapes priorities, and priorities shape technologies—this is one of the ways ideology gets embedded into the tools we use. 

Engage Hypercore!

It seems like with your work with Distributed Press, you’re starting with the core principles first, and then figuring out what is useful to build from there. Could you talk a bit about the formation of the project and its goals—what would success look like for Distributed Press?

The idea originally came about from discussions between Benedict Lau and I, who both worked on DWeb Camp. He worked on Toronto Mesh, a community mesh network in Toronto, and I met him through my involvement with a community mesh network in Oakland. When we were publishing articles about decentralization ahead of the Camp, it felt wrong to have to publish media about the DWeb on the corporatized, centralized web. We wanted to be able to publish to the DWeb protocols we were talking about, and explore other ways of collective publishing in general. 

When we started to discuss what to build, we didn’t want to start from a place assuming we knew what we were talking about. So we did an ecosystem review, interviewing around a dozen people in the IndieWeb and DWeb movements, the journalist/crypto scene, and researchers in rightwing extremism in social media. We wanted to get a lay of the land and talk to people about what’s actually missing. What came out of this research phase was this idea to build a tool that allowed people to easily publish to different protocols, including the World Wide Web, and to have a way to sustainably monetize their work.

As a way to figure out what writers and artists would actually want to use, we decided to create a magazine called COMPOST. It’s an initial use-case for the tool—the magazine is a lab for Distributed Press in a way. We decided to make the project even more meta, and make the magazine itself about the digital commons, while Distributed Press was about doing the organizing and technical work of building shared, free and open source digital tools. 

We paid all the contributors for their creative pieces, and we also compensated them for contributing their feedback and ideas about how Distributed Press and COMPOST should work. We felt that building tools for artists and writers to use on the DWeb necessitated having their active input. Our goal is to continue giving artists agency over how this tool evolves. 

Distributed Press is not yet a cooperative. Udit Vira, Benedict and I are the core contributors, and we were very explicit about the fact that to move this project forward we had to be able to make a bunch of the initial decisions. Having too many cooks in the kitchen can gum up the process of shipping something out. But we had a series of meetings with the contributors, took their input, and tried to implement their ideas as best we could. We’re hoping that with each issue we will have different cohorts of writers and creators that will shape not just the magazine issues, but also Distributed Press itself.

There are different ways that we see Distributed Press as a budding digital commons project. It’s a free and open source tool, and we’re also contributing to these distributed protocols and projects upstream—as part of this work, Ben filed tickets with IPFS, Beaker Browser, and Hypercore. When he’d come across things that didn’t work, he’d do the work of flagging issues and suggesting ways to fix them.

FOSS (free and open source) projects are typically mostly built on volunteer labor. Not just the technical development, but all the layers around the tech that allow others to use the tools—documentation, onboarding, communication, etc. We want to normalize practices where people are paid for all those types of labor. We think that paying people equitably for emotional and organizational labor is intrinsic to the sorts of projects we want to exist in the world. The three core contributors are paid some, though we’re definitely putting way more hours into this than we’re being compensated for. Unfortunately, that tends to be how it is when you’re getting a project off the ground. 

Logic too relies on a lot of unpaid founder labor, but we’ve always paid writers, and our impulse to make the project more sustainable over time has been to find ways to bring in and pay more people for their labor. It’s bad institution-building to rely on an assumption that people will continue to work unpaid indefinitely, even passionate founders.

Totally. If you want to create resilient systems, you need to prioritize emotional security, and making sure people are compensated is part of that. With Distributed Press and COMPOST we are trying to balance between, on the one hand, bringing in people who might just want to contribute some ideas and a piece to our first issue then have no other commitment, and on the other hand, encouraging people who want to stay involved as we eventually turn this into a cooperative. We want to allow different levels of contribution while always respecting people’s time and compensating them for their labor. 

I think that’s really, really crucial. If for some reason we’re not able to pay people equitably or maintain a respectful and safe space for creative experimentation, I’d push for us to scrap the project. I strongly believe that if you can’t hold onto these basic values through the evolution of your project, then it’s not worth anyone’s time. We don’t need another institution that exploits people’s labor and creates toxic work environments.

There’s a major problem of founder’s syndrome in many of these projects. I think that’s very tied to ego, when a person becomes too entwined with a project, or vice versa. Personally, I’d like to keep working on COMPOST and Distributed Press for a long time, but I would also love it if at some point I could take a break, and just trust someone else to run it for a while and experiment with it. There’s a balance, right? It feels good to pour your sweat and tears into a project, so it begins to become part of your identity. It’s your baby. But like babies, they grow up and you have to accept that they need to have a life of their own.

Ultimately, what do you think is the potential of the decentralized web?

When I was entering into this realm of decentralization, what appealed to me about it was the fact that different people with different ideologies were thinking about and were attracted to this word. Nathan Schneider said that it’s a “floating signifier”—the term means different things to different people, and they add their own meaning to it in the process. 

But decentralization isn’t the ultimate goal. Our networks can’t just be this horizontal blob of people where no one is accountable for anything. I’ve worked in community projects where that was the case and, you know, shit just doesn’t get done. So I think of it more as a verb—by saying you’re decentralizing, you’re questioning the ways that things are centralized. I like to associate it with other words like interoperability, interconnectedness, and accountability. 

I want more systems that are self-correcting—you don’t have one person or a clique of people in control that are not responsive to the needs of the system. I think government can be like that—a robust democracy is just one type of feedback loop that can allow policies to shift and adapt to the needs of the community. 

Decentralization alone doesn’t really capture that idea. You need to think about the distribution of power within organizations, with different layers of accountability or maybe even some intentional centralization. You can’t just have decentralization across the board. Decentralization alone is not itself a vision of good governance, it’s not a vision of having accountable, safe, fun systems. It doesn’t encapsulate what it is about distributed systems that make them more resilient. 

I often personally ask myself: am I working on the right problem? There’s horrific inequity everywhere. People are suffering from inhumane policies that make it impossible for them to live dignified lives. The Earth is becoming increasingly uninhabitable for billions of life forms. Is the work of building better networks important amidst all this? 

I actually do think that’s a worthwhile way to spend my time. If we’re to address any of these problems, we need to have strong, healthy networks of communication. We need to see each others’ humanity, have accurate and reliable information, and share stories, art, and memes to make sense of the chaos and make it all tolerable. The web has already proven that it can do all these things. The solidarity-based, interoperability-championing DWeb movement is about making sure we can continue to communicate and share knowledge, without fear or exploitation. The goal of this work isn’t just to have a robust web. The goal is to create knowledge systems that enable us to survive and thrive on this planet.

Mai Ishikawa Sutton is an organizer, facilitator, and writer focused on solidarity economics and technology. She is also lead editor of COMPOST magazine.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 13, "Distribution". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.