Our terrible future of closed protocols and proprietary systems

TL;DR (1072 words): The current trend towards closed communications systems like Slack, Facebook and the like can only hurt us as society. An open standard needs to emerge. Who’s volunteering to support things like Matrix and the “new decentralized Internet”?

I’m trying to illustrate the newly closed nature of the Internet using team chat and team collaboration as an example. But you can expand this example to pretty much anything nowadays. Because the solution to combat this closed-ness applies equally to all of these issues, I hope you can extrapolate from this as necessary.

It used to be that communications on the Internet were based on open protocols, often agreed upon in RFCs. This is what shaped the Internet into a global communications medium. Not Microsoft, not Apple, not Facebook; these companies were irrelevant to the Internet or didn’t even exist at the time.

But what these companies have done in the last decade is turn the Internet into a series of closed, gated communities. Facebook users can’t communicate with Twitter users. If your company chats on Microsoft Teams, they can’t talk to another company that uses Slack. There are some open source projects like Rocket.Chat that offer a bridge between itself and Slack, for example, but the situation is still not good. These bridges rely on proprietary APIs, not open standards, and the makers of Slack can change these APIs at any time, locking out the competition.

So what’s bad about the current situation?

  1. The systems are controlled by single entities, usually a single company. This gives that company absolute power over how you communicate and also creates a single point of failure. The old Internet was decentralized and worked much better for it. No one controlled such a large portion of it.
  2. Each communications sytem locks all your messages inside itself. There is sometimes a way to back up your messages, but there is no way to make Slack messages appear reliably in Hipster Chat Tool Of The Week and the other way round.
  3. There are no standards, no defined protocols. Each company invents its own stuff from scratch. Each system has its own API. Older standards like IMAP or XMPP can be implemented by anyone and your development investment is reasonably safe because standards changes happen in an orderly fashion through a standardization body instead of capriciously by a single company (see point 1 above).
  4. Many of these companies are too lazy to make native applications. They often roll out horrible abomiations wrapped in Electron — basically an entire separate¬† web browser running on your system consuming hundreds of megabytes of RAM for something that could be done in kilobytes with a native application.

From this there follow several problems, such as having to check a dozen different apps for new messages instead of just one. Could you imagine a world where you have to check four different e-mail clients just to know if one of your customers wrote you? This is the terrible reality for most people using proprietary team chat and collaboration systems right now.

So what’s the solution here?

At least for the chat problem:

  • Re-establish the power of standards bodies and working groups, like we had with the RFCs.
  • Establish a new open communications standard for more than just e-mail (a successor to XMPP is necessary).
  • Provide at least one FOSS implementation.
  • Lobby proprietary companies like Slack, Microsoft and Google to fully and unreservedly support this standard.

There is a promising open chat standard in the form of Matrix, and currently I’m putting my money (literally) behind this.

Will this succeed? Hell no, I don’t think so. Facebook makes so much money precisely because it does not interoperate, it does not share. Yes, you share your most intimate secrets with your friends on Facebook, but Facebook reads them, analyzes them and then sells them. They don’t want to interoprate and pass them on to other systems where someone could read them without having a Facebook account.

In establishing a newly open Internet we are up against half a dozen multi-billion dollar companies who want to close off the Internet even more, whose motivation is to keep their walled gardens. The odds are firmly against us.

The future is hopefully the re-decentralized Internet

The real future is probably in the “new decentralized Internet”. As a sidenote: some parts of society should be terribly ashamed that something like this is necessary. The Internet was decentralized from the start. Large multinational companies like Facebook then centralized it, but society itself is also to blame. People fell for the lure of these systems without thinking.

Of course these people are innocent because they don’t know enough about technology to see the ramifications of their decisions. But the fact remains that society has allowed these closed companies to come into power and to make all the decisions about how we communicate.

But back to business: How is this decentralized Internet gonna work? Some people are betting on systems for uncensorable, distributed websites.

Others think we need to take the basic infrastructure back into our own hands, establish a separate, secure Internet inside the Internet that can be disconnected from the Internet and become its own network once it has grown enough.

Still others are thinking about establishing a system where users provide network connectivity to each other and use a blockchain system to pay each other automatically for their services. Think of it like this: Your wifi router connects to several ones in your neighborhood to route traffic from house to house all over the planet, and you get money for the traffic passing through it — so does everyone else. Of course you also pay for the traffic you use and hopefully in the end it just evens out.

None of this is quite ready for production. But as a responsible Internet citizen you owe it to yourself and society to keep an eye out for these developments. I hope this reaches critical mass rather sooner than later and mainstream press reports on it, but we have a chicken and egg problem here. Anyone fancy constructing a chicken?

This can still fail

What if history then repeats itself, what if large companies come onto these new networks, establish alluring services, suck up a large user population and then start building walled gardens again? Will we be stupid enough to fall for it a second time or have we learned from our mistakes?

Only time will tell.


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