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Dr. Larry Sanger cofounded Wikipedia. Now he’s calling for a decentralized web

Why can't you consume your Facebook posts and tweets in one place? Power is in the hands of powerful companies that fight standardization.

Wikipedia cofounder and Everipedia CIO Dr. Larry Sanger is calling for a more distributed social web. (Courtesy Photo)
Of 2.6 billion email accounts, a cool billion of them are with Google’s powerhouse Gmail product.

For all that market dominance, if a true competitor came into the market, users could download their emails and, thanks to standard file types, start with a new email client, mostly painlessly. From the foundational elements of the web to RSS syndication, the internet has been friendly to innovation thanks to all sorts of common standards.

Dr. Larry Sanger is worried that that’s fading. Sanger is best known as a cofounder of Wikipedia and is now the CIO of Everipedia, a for-profit fork of Wikipedia on the blockchain that is still finding its way. In both these endeavors he’s shown interest in access to information. He’s taking an interest in the communication side of media, too.

“I’m not going to blame Google for making Gmail awesome. But they can’t be and they aren’t the only email provider, because of standardization,” said Sanger. He said he’s transitioning out of his own Gmail account, going with a self-hosted variety. “With social media, it isn’t just that social media violates our privacy but also because all our information is concentrated in one spot.”

The relative interoperability of email is why it remains a rare digital communication tool in today’s landscape that gives content creators a direct and uninterrupted relationship with readers.

Contrast that with today’s digital communication powerhouses, like Facebook and Twitter. (Full disclosure: At a journalism conference a few years back, this reporter participated in a spontaneous round of applause for email, as an alternative to the finicky and publicly traded social media giants.)

True, the tech giants are facing the pressure. This week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made waves by articulating a vision of regulation that he can support, getting ahead of calls for heavier government intervention. A dominant theme of that push is a fight around the details of data portability. He and other tech leaders are now nearly as associated with the regulation of Washington D.C. as they are with the disruption of Silicon Valley. The European Union is debating regulation that would allow users to leave services like Uber and Amazon with their data, arming challengers with troves of insights.

Strategically, the social giants have resisted maintaining a standard format (across, say, your Facebook posts and tweets) because they’d rather you stay in their universe. That’s why years after Google killed its cultish Google Reader product, there are still proponents who rally to the defense of RSS, which happens to be celebrating 20 years this month.

Sanger wants to lead a revival of a decentralized web. That’s what he told me when I interviewed him at Austin’s SXSW conference last month. We met inside the Austin Convention Center’s Mercedes-Benz lounge, because that’s what SXSW is like. I had a latte, and he politely removed his signature newsboy hat, in his quiet Midwestern way. There was a fake fern in the room. Later that afternoon, he would be speaking on that very topic. He has a proposal to get it done, and it involves the blockchain.

The day we spoke, Sanger exchanged with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking whether he’d commit to contributing to a standard file type that would allow users to more easily take their content elsewhere if they grew dissatisfied with that platform. Dorsey, who takes as much public criticism on his own platform as anyone, did respond, with a muted affirmative.

Sanger’s interest in the blockchain is its distributed ledger, which boosters claim is more secure than when, say, a single publicly traded company like Twitter has to fend off hackers.

“They’ve got information on millions if not billions of people that’s a honeypot of information for hackers,” Sanger said. Sure, he noted, hackers get into corporate email systems, but our personal email accounts tend to be far less lucrative, simply because the value is so much more distributed.

By contrast, “the NSA’s PRISM program wouldn’t be as effective if Facebook wasn’t out there spying on them for them. Facebook could be a front for the NSA,” he said, before quickly clarifying that he did’t mean that literally.

Still, his exasperation shows why he’s working on Everipedia, when it is so far behind the nonprofit behemoth Wikipedia, of which he is a major contributor. Wikipedia’s success itself is a risk, given how centralized its power is — famously just 12,000 people regularly contribute to what is effectively the most powerful and universal base of knowledge in human history.

We should come to expect and demand interoperable standards that would drive forward a decentralized web, Sanger says. That should mean video formats and end-to-end encryption. The social web is just one of the public and prominent places to start.

“Blockchain shines as delivery method,” he said. But Sanger is not ideological about any one methodology, or even his company Everipedia. He says there is a much bigger fight here, of the web as we’ve come to know it, of our rights as digital citizens.

“It bothers me greatly that social media companies violate our privacy systematically,” he said. But beyond that, “in a moral way, they are violating our rights.”

“We should do something about it.”

Companies: Twitter

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