If you want an interoperable Internet, start with how organizations work

Mai Sutton on Interoperability
October 21, 2021

The Internet is busted. Huge corporations are calling the shots, extractive business models prevail. And safe and privacy-friendly online spaces have become scarce. How do we move from extractive practices to regenerative ones? How do we retain public control and move to a people-centered internet?

In our research on a Shared Digital Europe and public-civic spaces, we argue that public and civic actors need to build these alternative spaces. And that interoperability is an essential principle, through which they can together form a bigger ecosystem.

Over the course of summer, we consulted friends and experts on the question: how do we get to public-civic spaces, what role does interoperability play? And what is holding governments and civil society back to make the shift? In this series we share the insights that these conversations produced, one at a time.

Previously featured in this series on interoperability and digital public-civic ecosystems were Nathan Schneider and Geert-Jan Bogaerts.

Decentralizing the Internet

A few weeks ago we sat down with Mai Ishikawa Sutton, organizer, writer and digital commons advocate. Much of their work deals with decentralization and exploring what that might actually entail in the digital domain. They have, for instance, been a contributor to  Internet Archive‘s (IA) work on DWeb, short for Decentralized Web. The main aim of this project — which launched in 2016 with the first DWeb Summit — was to create a space for those building and exploring ways to build a better web, to meet, share strategies, and cross pollinate. The IA’s DWeb work has continued to establish some common ground among diverse communities and contributors building new DWeb protocols and platforms, as the project fleshed out a set of overarching principles to guide the development of a decentralized version of the World Wide Web. Sutton: “The main question was: what does decentralization actually mean meaningfully from a social institutional perspective?’’

One side of the decentralization coin concerns protocols. DWeb protocols such as IPFS and Hypercore enable decentralized data storing, whereas today’s web heavily leans on huge central servers and its enabling protocol, HTTP. By contrast, if one adds a file to IPFS, for example, the file is split into smaller parts and stored in local storage of peer-to-peer ‘nodes’ (connected computers). Basically, if I download an image added to IPFS, I receive the information from multiple nodes at the same time.

Sutton has been creating DWeb content, accessible on protocols like IPFS with open source publishing tool, Distributed Press. “The goal of Distributed Press is to essentially become a WordPress-like content management system which publishes to DWeb protocols”, they say, “By using these protocols we show the viability of publishing through the decentralized web, and in the process, invite more people to be involved in thinking about its purpose.”

More than protocols

The online magazine COMPOST, which Sutton cofounded — and short for Commons Post — provides an example. The magazine features creative essays and personal stories about the internet, from its current form to the internet as a ‘digital commons’. It’s an active use case of Distributed Press, Suttton explains, to show what the DWeb can do, and to provide an inspiring example of working with decentralized protocols. But the work on decentralization is more than just about protocols, they say, it’s also about engaging communities and exercising shared governance, which COMPOST goes to show.

As a self-identified digital commoning project, Sutton and the team behind Distributed Press believe that interoperability at all layers of the network stack are critical to bring about a more decentralized web, where many protocols, platforms, and networks flourish. “We want to see creators — journalists, artists, sex workers, and others — be able to reach their audience in the way they choose, on their own terms. The current models simply don’t work for them, since the platforms they have to rely on, like Instagram or OnlyFans, don’t give them a seat at the table. Interoperability is key for new tools like Distributed Press to be built. It’s critical for many technical solutions to exist alongside each other”.

From niche to mainstream

Another central aim of the COMPOST project, Sutton continues, is to appeal to a wider audience. “We are trying to attract more creative people and artists to the decentralized web. It’s still too much of an insider situation, where technologists are designing and building DWeb tools without other communities’ input”. They also think artists need to be paid for their work, and that their needs should be prioritized as the DWeb is being created. In Sutton’s eyes, creative work online is often undervalued in comparison to technical work. “That equation is extremely broken. I really see this as a weakness of Facebook and Instagram and that’s why COMPOST believes in paying artists and creative writers a fair fee”. They think that prioritizing the creative part of the equation is crucial for an alternative civic ecosystem.

But what role could interoperability play in the bigger picture of a fairer and secure Internet? According to Sutton, without interoperability, people will stay locked into networks, platforms, and hardware that prevents new uses, or even new solutions, to emerge alongside existing technologies. Interoperable protocols allow special needs to be addressed, they said, for instance to allow offline communities to access content on locally-hosted servers, without having to be connected to the internet. Sutton believes that if content and identity were federated, the powerful network effects of big platforms would not be as much of a monopolistic threat. Through data interoperability, newer platforms would be able to enter the playing field, as it would be easier for individuals to switch to new products without losing all their data.

The concept of Interoperability has been gaining traction. In policy circles, but also perhaps unexpectedly, from Big Tech itself. Google, Microsoft and Facebook, for example, launched a Consumer Data Portability initiative a few years ago, which would make their services explicitly ‘interoperable’ by allowing users to effectively move their data between service providers.

Watered down solution

Usually, as in this case, the main argument behind interoperability is that it facilitates more open and fair competition by allowing competitors to connect to and adjust to each other’s services and products. Does Sutton believe that’s the answer? “I think it’s an extremely watered down answer. I can’t imagine why Facebook would advocate for a model of interoperability that would actually allow new platforms to compete with them. I’m extremely cynical that Big Tech consortiums that push for open protocols that would substantively challenge the grip they hold on people’s data and networks. To me it seems like they’re trying to get ahead of stronger policies that would force them to loosen that grip.”

At the same time, implementing other pro-competition measures would be helpful, they note. “It would be much easier to create more alternative systems if there wasn’t such a high cost to compete with services by Apple, Google or Facebook. For example, fixing or even eliminating laws that make it crime to circumvent DRM [Digital Rights Management] would be a great start.”

Open Twitter?

Another interesting case is Twitter. Through a research project called BlueSky, Twitter is looking at using or creating an open protocol for chat. The company wants to become one stakeholder of many that use an open protocol for micro-blogging. Responding to critical comments by existing open protocol communities for overlooking them (such as Mastodon, developers of the ActivityPub protocol), Twitter produced an ecosystem reportthat reviews the strengths and weaknesses of existing open protocols.

Beyond competition, toward democratic models

How do we move beyond ‘competitive interoperability’ and towards some kind of integrated (eco)systems approach where interoperability is but one of the norms? “Well”, Sutton begins, “it feels right to talk about the technical end goal, but thinking about the organizations that create this ecosystem is really important too”. The first thing to look out for, they say, is: How are you creating organizations that would be resilient to private capture and that are flexible enough to deal with new challenges and respond to them with innovative, people-centric approaches?

Many initiatives, for instance, fail because of toxic leaders or cultures. Sutton noted that “even the most well-meaning projects can collapse, or just sputter along because the organization is mismanaged.” Thus it’s important to have explicit conversations about how people work together. Think codes of conduct at the very least. Being aware of these dynamics is key, Sutton says,“If your aim is to create some kind of alternative interoperable system, the social and organizational aspects of the project needs to be addressed seriously from the beginning”.

They take inspiration from more democratic and flexible organizations like cooperatives. And from New York City, where the local government cofunded the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative providing a one million dollar grant to developing cooperatives such as service worker or cleaner cooperatives. “I think about not just how new organizations can create these standards, but what would that look like for existing civic institutions to work together. Would there be some sort of clearing house, some sort of body that is able to negotiate what the needs are and be flexible enough to face them?”


This blog series is a co-production of  Open Future and Commons Network in the context of the joint project Shared Digital Europe.

with: Sophie Bloemen (Commons Network), Jens Kimmel (Commons Network)