Report for “A secure, decentralised Internet”
NGI Move project session at NGI Forum (Porto, September 13)
Lead by Marta Arniani (futuribile.org | NGI Move)
Find her personal review here.
This interactive session aims at identifying R&D topics and priorities for coming funds and initiatives by the European Commission on the topic of decentralised digital infrastructures. Decentralisation is a pillar of the NGI initiative, but it comes with many challenges in terms of governance, security and data management. Setting the right European ecosystem enabling at the same time innovation, power distribution and security is thus key. We define the Next Generation Internet as a set of centralised protocols that can be operated in a decentralised way.
During this session, we will be highlighting best practices and use cases coming from research, entrepreneurship and funding management, and discuss solutions to the most compelling challenges emerging from the implementation of blockchain in real scenarios.
INTRODUCTION – Marta Arniani
What do we talk about precisely when we say a “decentralised internet”? It is undoubtedly a hot topic, especially from 2017, the year the internet lost its innocence under the attacks of the Cambridge Analytica affair, boycotts like #deleteUber, or the widespread of fake bots, just to name a few. Since, much of the debate has been focusing around data, namely on their concentration in the hands of a few big corporations and on privacy concerns. The conversation has gone so far that there are “data as labour” advocates, who claim that maybe citizens should be able to sell their data. After years of work, with perfect timing the EC launched in May the GDPR privacy norms, which reinforce citizens’ rights and agency over big corporations’ data-extractive businesses.
Although we can’t deny the role of data management and privacy in the debate, a decentralised internet does not happen only at the Web and individual applications level. In NGI Move we have defined the NGI as a set of centralised protocols that can be operated in a decentralised way. It is a working definition that spurs some essential questions. Which digital infrastructures should be centralised in Europe? Can they be defined “commons”? How and to which extent can they be freely operated at the edges by companies and citizens? In one word: governance.
The narrative of peer computers and individuals interconnected on a blockchain is partly true: running blockchain systems requires an increasing computational capacity (at machine level) and technical skills (at personal level). These elements can be equally distributed in a niche of experts, but a large-scale adoption of such systems will undoubtedly recreate unequal distribution of power.
The blockchain hype is all about a promised land of business and democracy coming from the application of the technology in any possible field. The reach that promised land, consider focusing on governance, the real bearer of decentralisation. Technology will follow.
Antonio Tenorio – Decentralized Infrastructure for a centralized world?
Blockchain technology is perceived as a panacea against all centralization. It seems we are finally free from all middlemen, and the old monopolies are a thing of the past.
However, we have seen how decentralized infrastructures, such as the Internet, can be the foundations of heavily centralized realities, such as today’s web. A decentralized infrastructure is not a sufficient condition for a decentralized world; and it is far from sufficient for a fair, egalitarian, feminist or Utopian future.
Indeed, many Blockchain applications are build with the objective of becoming new monopolies, the winners that will take all off the markets to come. Most Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, rely on these strategies. They inherit the walled garden pattern from which this technology was supposed to take us away from.
Is the future of blockchain technology decentralized? We should not take it for granted. It is not an easy challenge; however, we can build together some antidotes against these centralization tendencies. We could begin by working in collaboration instead of in competition, building standards instead of closed silos, and designing with communities and not for venture capitalism.
Sanyu Karani – From 24 months to 24 weeks: bridging the EU gap between research and market
Today the whole process of getting public funds takes in average 24 months. One can’t be surprised that Europe lags behind in innovation, especially the go-to-market step. Two years make a brilliant idea obsolete, or in the best scenario just another implementation of a very well diffused practice. We estimate that blockchain could help shrinking the process to 24 weeks, keeping the procedure transparent, efficient and public. Blockchain-based funding delivery will be tested in the upcoming NGI calls for decentralised technologies. What should be the requirements?
Pablo Ojanguren – The unbalance of data relationships in the digital market
Internet has become a centralized capitalist market. But are these data and market-based relationships between users (consumers) and companies fair? Users don’t really control how their data are delivered to service providers, which gathers them through centralized channels (user interface, web or app) and process them. Also, the information returned by the service can be only consumed in one controlled way. It is like buying shoes that you can only wear in the streets allowed by the vendor. Another case of unbalance is when organizations can handle our information automatically but we cannot handle theirs in the same way. Should these commercial relationships of data been legally regulated? Giving personal data for a service converts our data in a currency, that should be regulated as real ones? Could we legally force service providers to give APIs to allow users to retrieve its data or to decide where its data must be stored? Moreover, in collaborative economy platforms (Uber, AirBnB…) where part of the users are “producers” why couldn’t they get data about their work on the platform? What would happen if users could get raw data from service providers? Would that been helpful? Here is where real decentralization apps can help. Of course, a single user couldn’t extract much more value from its data by itself (or service’s data). But people could aggregate its data in a peer-2-peer platform to operate them. In cases like Uber, for example, it would bring opportunity for drivers to be organized in a kind of p2p digital union driven by data that could allow better self regulation.
Alex D’Elia – Economic models for the new Industrial Revolution
The Token economy in the new Blockchain industry is promoting a new model of “decentralized power” for a better wealth redistribution. Is this real? Is it enough to use decentralized technologies to foster a better economic model for our society? How can these technologies help us step into the new Industrial Revolution and accelerate the transition?
MAIN DISCUSSION OUTPUTS
TRENDS. Blockchain is strongly emerging as an infrastructure appealing to all types of industries and public services, regardless their level of digitalisation. With it, tokenisation is widespreading as mean for value circulation and interaction. Despite the decentralised nature of blockchain, the business models related to decentralised technologies are still extremely centralised and reinforce the revenue and power of a single player. Portability is prioritised through protocols and standards. Finally, the public opinion is increasingly aware about the distortions of centralised mechanisms and willing to engage in decentralised initiatives.
CHALLENGES. The main challenge for a decentralised internet is to avoid the concentration of data (and power) in the hands of a few dominant players: big corporates have limited interest in empowering their users, but are undoubtedly more competitive than decentralised solutions in the user experience. The challenges to be tackled in this run are building trust in decentralised systems, as well as creating a strong community around the topic while supporting a larger upskilling and literacy. Moreover, citizens will need to better understand what value they can extract from their personal data and become more responsible in managing them.
PRIORITIES. The technical priorities are openness and security, as well as a reinforcement of the decentralised data handling. Under a business and economic perspective, new business models (more distributed, not leveraging massively data extraction) are to be pioneered, and the appropriateness of decentralised infrastructures has to be proved case by case and where positively evaluated, tailored to the specific needs of entire industry verticals. The environmental, economical and political sustainability of such systems has to be reinforced. Last (but not least!) capacity building is a key priority: the more literacy on the topic, the more decentralised the next generation internet will be.
The session was concluded by an informal discussion about the “elephants in the room” of decentralisation. Several criticalities were underlined. First and foremost, the speed and appropriateness of regulation on such fast-pace evolving topics. Moreover, regulation focuses on the business sector, leaving behind private citizens in two ways: regulation implications and relevance for citizens is hard to grasp; there is a poor regulation of digital individual behaviour. As an ending note, one participant asked an open question to the room: “do we have the guts in Europe to support a truly decentralised internet?”.