Decentralized Communication: The Way of the Future
I mentioned last week that Signal has earned my skepticism and I’ve decided to move on to Riot as a replacement. There were a number of factors that went into this decision, and I spent weeks doing my research. Factors considered included user friendliness, multi-platform support, security features, and privacy. But one of the biggest concerns that went into that choice was decentralization. You see, I think decentralized communication is the way of the future in the sense that it’s the safest way forward.
The Problem of the Past
In the past, communication has been largely centralized. While the message itself may bounce around from server to server, all the servers are controlled exclusively by a single entity or set of entities. When you, a Verizon subscriber, text your friend, a Sprint subscriber, the text stays isolated in those two networks. Because of the proprietary and monopolistic nature of those networks, they are extremely vulnerable to government and social pressure. In other words, it’s real easy for your text messages to be intercepted, read, and even altered or blocked for any reason. Maybe the government doesn’t like your activism. Or maybe you were just born a way the government didn’t like. Maybe you just hold socially unpopular opinions that the providers don’t want to help propagate, even if you have a legal right to hold those opinions.
The Solutions of the Future
Decentralization, as the name suggests, works by making a network run on a variety of providers rather than a single centralized network. Take the Tor network, for example. As I type this, I have an old computer under my desk at my feet running a tor middle relay. Nobody authorized me to do that, I didn’t have to get a license or register with the government. I just needed the hardware and an internet connection. And this applies to anyone in the world, so if the state government came knocking down my door and carried off my relay, people in other states could still run them. And if the federal government outlawed them, people in other countries could still run them. In fact, Tor is a popular tool used in countries like China to help bypass censorship. Because of its decentralized nature, Tor is extremely hard to squash.
We are facing an increasingly hostile environment in the privacy world. The California Consumer Protection Act is often called “GDPR Lite” because it gave California residents so much protection from the sale of their personal data by data broker companies, but the state organizations like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles were explicitly exempted from the rules. The FBI and Interpol have both declared end-to-end encryption to be a menace. The US is explicitly working on a bill that would allow them to outlaw end-to-end encryption. Governments around the world are beefing up their surveillance each day, and personally I find these developments disturbing. Even if you genuinely believe they aren’t doing anything bad with those capabilities right now, having the framework in place is dangerous, especially in the modern world where leadership and agendas change every few years. All it takes is one bad leader to abuse the power, and the infrastructure is already in place.
I’m not here to tell everyone to get off Signal or Wire and switch to Session or Riot. Those solutions are still valid, and hopefully all these anti-encryption efforts and censorship trends die off and become nothing. However, I sadly personally find myself regularly disappointed by people and their astounding ability to remain passive and apathetic to clear assaults on their civil liberties that should’ve warranted resistance many times over. So personally, I’m placing emphasis on self-hosted and decentralized solutions in the future to try to prepare for this eventuality.