It is pretty simple: if we want an open Internet, we need to celebrate and support its decentralization.
When I was young, my friends and I, had formed a secret group called “The Five Hounds”, inspired by Enid Blyton’s book series The Secret Seven. The group’s main purpose was to identify and solve school mysteries – who had written bad words on the board, where the attendance sheet had gone or who had scratched the Math teacher’s car. During school hours, we would gather evidence and then meet after school to exchange notes. Our meeting places included abandoned buildings, buildings under construction, the playground. Often times we would exchange notes even during class, which would get us into much trouble. We were all consumed by our mission. We were all equally committed.
Of course, we would end up solving none of the mysteries we had taken on. Actually, we were pretty awful at finding clues. But, what was cool about all this was the group and how it worked. The group had no assigned leader and had no hierarchical structure. We were all responsible for our own actions and we all had the same liberty to make the choices we made. We operated on the basis of openness and were driven by what was good for the group. Most importantly, we were all accountable to each other for any success or failure. And, trust me, there were a lot of failures.
This was my first encounter with the idea of decentralization. (Of course, back then, I could not even spell the word). This idea of the dispensation of power and responsibility and the ability for everyone to be their own self within the collective. This feeling that we were all equals and there was no one that we had to ask permission from. For me and my friends, decentralization meant the willingness of the group to be open to new ideas, suggestions and direction.
Decentralization has been applied to different disciplines from political science to group dynamics and project management. Its meaning varies. But, whatever meaning one attaches to it, it should not be one that views decentralization as a free-ride system of anarchy or lack of responsibility.
This is the major flaw in Niall Ferguson’s essay “In Praise of Hierarchy” for the Wall Street Journal. In his piece, he questions the idea of decentralization as a future course for the Internet, blaming it for its current challenges – fake news, propaganda, online extremism or the rise of big tech. He points the finger to the Internet’s decentralized nature, asking whether “we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure”. But, he completely misses the point of what decentralization means in the context of the Internet.
Let’s start, by what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean the lack of governance. And, it certainly does not mean that those who are responsible should not be held accountable. Internet decentralization is not meant to protect the powerful at the expense of the weaker. It is not about creating permanent favorites.
On the contrary, it is about the invariants of the Internet – the characteristics that make the Internet what it is. It is ultimately about openness. It is about interoperability, accessibility, collaboration and global reach. All these characteristics exist because of decentralization and they are very-well elucidated by Leslie Daigle in her piece “On the Nature of the Internet”. They are important because, as Daigle argues, “by understanding the Internet — primarily in terms of its key properties for success, which have been unchanged since its inception — policy makers will be empowered to make thoughtful choices in response to the pressures outlined here, as well as new matters arising.”
So, decentralization enables the existence of these unique features, which, in turn, ensure an open and free Internet. In this context, decentralization is not an end in and of itself – it is a means towards reaching that end. And, that end, is openness. It is pretty simple: if we want an open Internet, we need to celebrate and support its decentralization.
For the Internet, hierarchy will not work. Imagine asking for permission every time someone has an idea that wants to connect to the network? Imagine governments – the principals of hierarchy – being the only ones making the based purely on their national interests. Or, imagine a system that only supports the strong and creates permanent favorites without accountability. All these things are things hierarchy feeds from.
This does not mean that we should give decentralization absolution. Because, its success is only ensured if there is accountability and transparency. When we talk about anyone being able to operate within a decentralized structure, it should not mean that anyone can do what they want without being accountable or transparent. We are all equally responsible for the decisions we take and for the course of our actions. We should make sure that no one uses the unique features of the Internet only for their benefit and not for the benefit of all, including for the Internet itself. When we feel that some lack accountability we should call them out. We should certainly get better at that. But, whatever we do, we should never prefer hierarchs to visionaries.