When building and deploying software, we at Digital Democracy are rethinking the status quo, starting with the data. In the Silicon Valley model, user data is held hostage and sold to the highest bidder. Instead, we’re building applications where information is controlled by those who generate it. In Mapeo, data is managed as a common resource, and those who generate data also govern it. Communities retain ownership of data, rather than corporations and governments. We’re part of a larger movement that is fighting the monopolization of digital knowledge by a few Silicon Valley “cloud” companies.
Rethinking the status quo from the data up
In reality, a “cloud” is just a buzzword for data storage on someone else’s computer. When the data is held like this by a third-party, users are opened up to threats to their autonomy and decision-making, such as censorship, surveillance, and access restriction. For example, in Fall 2019, a change in export law required that U.S. companies block users connecting from Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba (1, 2). Without warning, users were effectively cut off access to their data. This sets a dangerous precedent, where knowledge can disappear or be inaccessible permanently. This is a power dynamic that creates information security vulnerabilities and is especially dangerous for marginalized people, frontline communities, and social movements.
When we at Digital Democracy design and build technology alongside marginalized people and frontline communities, we utilize a set of principles called local-first software that lock-in autonomy into the data and code. In this approach, data is hosted on each user’s device without requiring a cloud or centralized server, and is synchronized between devices in a peer-to-peer network, similar to BitTorrent. Data then becomes a common-pool resource, managed by those who generate the data, which cannot be enclosed upon by the state or the market. Once knowledge is distributed in this way, people are able to take cooperative ownership of the data they generate.
The entire business model of Silicon Valley breaks down without monopolistic control of user data & interaction, and this is why this approach hasn’t been pursued by many in the technology industry to date. However, in a values-driven nonprofit like Digital Democracy, we’ve been able to prioritize this peer-to-peer development model because it’s what works the best for our partners. Unlike a company or government, we’re able to listen and respond to concerns of marginalized groups that have no money or political clout. Our mission is to co-design these applications alongside marginalized communities, even if they request features that aren’t profitable.
What about Blockchain?
Blockchain often comes into the conversation at this point. It has proved to be a clever mechanism that facilitates transactions (like money) across a web of potentially untrusted computers. It also is a type of a distributed system and uses some of the same computer science concepts as peer-to-peer applications. Even the original Bitcoin paper has ‘Peer to Peer’ in the title.
Blockchain takes peer-to-peer technology and adds an algorithm called “machine-facilitated consensus,” which can be relatively complex. This programmatic consensus involves actors called “miners” who run computationally expensive algorithms that earn money in exchange for computing power. These miners are sometimes able to make profit over their electricity costs. This incentivizes the purchase of ever larger and more expensive data centers, rewarding miners who are able to take larger financial risks. This model at best excludes those living in poverty, and at worst, extorts them. What’s been shown is that with blockchain mining, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those in the middle take enormous risks that can go either way. – and that’s not even factoring in the negative environmental impacts.
But why does a blockchain need this complex consensus algorithm? Because this system is designed for a scenario where public transactions are mediated between participants which are all potentially malicious. These “trustless” transactions are the key assumption baked within blockchains that distinguishes them from peer-to-peer applications. In contrast, applications like Mapeo assume that data is managed by the community generating it – and some of that data may never be publicly accessible. This approach creates a closed group, where data creators are also data stewards, managing their own data and controlling who has access. Local-first applications like Mapeo can make security and privacy guarantees that a public blockchain cannot. We take security seriously and maintain protections from third-party attacks such as targeted hacks and surveillance. For users of Mapeo, privacy is critical for protecting their ancestral knowledge and environmental monitoring data until it’s ready to be shared with trusted partners such as legal and advocacy groups.
Although blockchain authors claim it to be ‘trustless’ and horizontal and autonomous, technology is not neutral, which in practice means that you have to trust someone at some point. Any technology requires its users to trust the rules set by the software engineers, designers, and investors. Those able to understand and participate in these technical rulemakings primarily represent existing power imbalances – they are mainly technical, white, and male, and largely from the U.S. and Europe. So then, is a “trustless” public blockchain that much of a departure from the centralized power structures which we are trying to move away from? Who has the incentive to participate and invest in a blockchain to set the rules? Who benefits when a new market is created and who is enriched by that market?
Blockchain simply isn’t the right tool for a privacy-first digital knowledge commons. It isn’t the right tool for challenging the tech colonialist status quo of Silicon Valley. To be clear, there may be some important uses for it, but we have concluded it’s not well-suited for protecting freedom of expression and human rights, and therefore we do not advocate its use. If you want to learn more, please read the recent report by Article 19 which outlines this position in more detail.
Digital Knowledge as a Commons
Mapeo is not blockchain-based, although there is overlap in some of the underlying technology used. We’d rather pull from common-pool resource management to describe our work in this area. In Elinor Ostrom’s book Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, published in 2006, she laid the groundwork for not just natural resources as commons, but also digital knowledge. In the last decade, we’ve seen a growth of attention on digital knowledge commons, such as libraries, wikis, open source code, maps, scientific articles, and everything in between. Digital Democracy is putting this theory into practice by developing the tools and doing the research to make that possible in an application near you.
- Article 19: Blockchain Technology Alone Cannot Protect Freedom of Expression
- Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, Edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom
- Crypto‐miners: Digital labor and the power of blockchain technology
- No, Everyone Is Not Getting Rich Off Bitcoin
- Local-first software for frontline communities
- Local-first software: You own your data, in spite of the cloud