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Decentralization, federation, and self-hosting

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Jan 13, 2017 03:06 PM
This large and fragmented space deals with increased centralization of Web activities. The free software community provided extensive feedback regarding many projects that fall under this initiative.

Today's Web is highly centralized -- a few walled gardens claim millions of (or, in the case of Facebook, over a billion) users. When users stop using software on their own computers and replace it with the software living on someone else's computers, they very often lose important freedoms, such as the freedom to see what the software is doing, modify it, or install someone else's modified version. They also put their data and privacy at risk, and become dependent on mammoth services which may decide to filter or otherwise control their communication with others. And there is an increased potential for single points of failure that can stop an entire system from working.

In the past few years, there has been a push to decentralize the Web, in some ways returning it to its original state. Many Internet users don't consider the true cost of the convenience of the Web -- lack of control and information security -- but relatively inexpensive hardware and available bandwidth have created opportunities for people to host decentralized and federated services or service nodes themselves. Federation means different nodes can talk to each other and share state using the same protocol -- like email.

One important step forward for decentralization: in January 2018, ActivityPub was made an official World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommended standard. ActivityPub is a protocol for building decentralized social networking applications. Learn more about ActivityPub in their overview!

Ways to help

  • Self-hosting of services or service nodes allows the individual more control over the security and nature of their information storage and is a social contribution to building networks that serve rather than undermine communities.
  • Some federation efforts have focused on the social Web, like the microblogging platforms GNU social and Mastodon, and the social network Diaspora. Try those projects for alternatives to Twitter and Facebook.
  • Other projects aim to replace closed digital media platforms. For instance, GNU MediaGoblin is a free alternative to closed digital media platforms like YouTube and Flickr.
  • The W3C Social Web Working Group is "working on technical protocols, vocabularies, and APIs to facilitate access to social functionality" on the Web, including federation.

This is just one item on the Free Software Foundation's High Priority Projects list.

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