DSNP Advisor Summit
December 8, 2023
MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Meeting objectives and priorities
- Q&A with Frank McCourt
- Ethics, governance and standardization
- DSNP community projects
- Technology workstream: Community context, moderation and content removal affordances
- Technology workstream: Discoverability and global identity, data ownership and storage
- Summary and closing
- Frank McCourt (FM), McCourt Global and Founder of Project Liberty
- Erik Suhonen (ES), Project Liberty Foundation
- Wes Biggs (WB), Project Liberty Foundation
- Jeb Bell (JB), Project Liberty Foundation (remote)
- Sarah Nicole (SN), Project Liberty Foundation (remote)
- Braxton Woodham (BW), Amplica Labs
- Harry Evans (HE), Amplica Labs
- Dave Clark (DC), DSNP Advisor
- Larry Lessig (LL), DSNP Advisor
- Deb Roy (DR), DSNP Advisor
- Wendy Seltzer (WS), DSNP Advisor
- Sara Wedeman (SW), DSNP Advisor
- Sandy Pentland (SP), DSNP Advisor
- Wes Chow (WC), DSNP Advisor Team
- Thomas Hardjono (TH), DSNP Advisor Team (remote)
- Maggie Little (ML), Ethics Lab
- Jonathan Healy (JH), Ethics Lab
Meeting objectives and priorities
- The meeting was called to order at 9:00am by ES.
Q&A with Frank McCourt
FM gave a brief history of the origins of DSNP and its place as a foundational piece of a new way of approaching the Internet to address the harms to human rights being inflicted by the current paradigm.
He noted that more operational infrastructure was being created to support the mission. Advisors were invited to a forthcoming multifunctional Summit event.
The group welcomed the opportunity to ask a number of questions about associated organizations and objectives.
FM emphasized the importance of enabling a self-sustaining commercial ecosystem or “effective invisible hand” to simplify and accelerate adoption of the DSNP.
SP asked whether it might make sense to pursue an alternative strategy by starting with government buy-in prior to commercialization. FM agreed that interfacing with the government sector was important and that role is being played by the nonprofit organization.
DR asked if there was a potential for a venture capital fund to accelerate the space. FM felt it was important to ensure that there was a functional commercial ecosystem that did not depend on any single entity.
WS asked for FM’s thoughts on how to govern who participates in projects under the PL umbrella. BW suggested that one approach might be to decentralize the ability to participate, but provide a form of certification, drawing on parallels like the Energy Star certification for appliances. JH noted that Energy Star is in fact a government-sanctioned program. SP commented that government inclusion in the certification process might be a means of alignment with privacy regulators.
DC remarked on the distinction between the Internet as a (user) experience and the Internet as technical infrastructure and protocols, and that some confusion was arising due to conflation of these ideas.
DC asked if FM thought of the goal as the creation of a platform or of an ecosystem. FM was clear that the end state was not to produce a killer app, but a “killer ecosystem”.
Ethics, governance and standardization
JB framed the Project Liberty nonprofit organization’s DSNP-related active workstreams as follows:
- DSNP governance, which will be spearheaded by SN
- Web3/blockchain governance
- Ethical principles, including work on responsible technology in collaboration with Aspen Digital
International standardization (JB mentioned the desire for input from advisors on the strategy and sequencing of work with different standards bodies)
- User research, including the ability to quantify what constitutes a “better web” and tell meaningful stories.
The group discussed the role of language choices and how distinctions like “humans” vs. “consumers” matter. SP noted the terminology of “trust networks”. DR stated that role words like “participatory” were important when describing decentralization in practice.
JB introduced SN to the group as leading PLF’s contributions to governance and standardization efforts. SN gave an overview of the status of current activities from a PLF perspective, including recent ITU interactions to take the DSNP specification forward toward its standardization track. She emphasized that PLF is open to, and looking for, advice from the group.
Several advisors raised questions about the engagement with ITU and noted that due to its plenary structure (one country, one vote), there were geopolitical factors involved in the consideration of standards bodies. SN clarified that this was only one path and did not exclude others. SP noted that the ITU in particular is often dominated by big telecom companies. FM agreed but noted that big telecoms were increasingly looking to differentiate themselves from “Big Tech”. He referenced recent efforts from Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile (video link: Nachricht von Ella | Without Consent.
The group highlighted a need for the advisors to be included in standardization discussions and for the PLF workstreams to be integrated into the agenda going forward.
WS raised a concern that creation of a formal governance framework for the protocol had not moved forward significantly. SN acknowledged this and noted that changes in personnel had contributed to delays on PLF’s side. An action was taken to constitute a separate working group on governance to meet outside the advisor group sessions, with SN to connect with WS on setting timelines and schedule.
DSNP community projects
This section was dedicated to updates from group members on community projects using or intending to use DSNP.
DR gave an overview of the relationship between Cortico and the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, and background on the creation of the Fora app. WC, with the help of engineering staff from the Cortico team, gave an overview of the development process and key design decisions that underpin Odessa, the experimental application that will be used to introduce and explore new features and functionality, including interconnectivity with DSNP, as a continuous fork or “permanent prototype” of Fora. WC showed a brief demo of user interaction within Odessa and noted that it would be available on the App Store in early 2024. The core construct within the application is small group conversations with human facilitators, where those involved in a conversation can choose to highlight and emphasize voice content (with the consent of its creator). SP commented on the need to find areas of joint commitment to enable consent-based movement of content across communities.
ES gave a brief overview of work begun with Harvard’s Applied Social Media Lab, which will include opportunities to integrate DSNP into applications being built by several pods of researchers. LL described his group’s work on deliberation platforms (deliberations.us) and the goal of creating and nurturing an open source system so that the well known benefits of these systems could be better distributed and used by wider communities and audiences.
BW summarized the status of DSNP adoption with the MeWe application, with more than 300,000 user identities now decentralized via the Frequency blockchain, giving it the most active users of any decentralized blockchain social network.
Technology workstream: Community context, moderation and content removal affordances
The group discussed next steps in establishing affordances for communities and contexts. HE noted the distinction between a data context (for example, content for a community that can be accessed from any number of applications) and an application context (content that is solely or primarily consumed via a given application). The data context model embraced by DSNP raises complexities for moderation and management which the traditional paradigm of app-centric content contexts has not had to grapple with.
DC suggested the importance of identifying codifiable norms of communities. HE remarked that the protocol might allow for both programmatic (i.e., enforced in code) and declarative (agreed/contractual) approaches.
DC raised the question of application attestation; WC referred to applications that would enforce declarative norms as “normatively compliant”. BW suggested that the communities themselves could also be “certified”, so that communities that operate within agreed norms could be identified and promoted by pro-social applications. WS cautioned that any certification process should not lose sight of the goal to make a system that is resistant to consolidation.
Technology workstream: Discoverability, data ownership and storage
HE whiteboarded the design of DSNP content, decomposing it into three layers:
Batch references persisted on a consensus system (e.g. on a blockchain), pointing to
Content-addressable batches of DSNP announcements (e.g. on IPFS), where each announcement points to an Activity Streams Content file, hosted on HTTPS URLs and authenticated with hash values (which may in turn reference other URL/hash tuples as attachments and so on)
WB expanded on this to describe current assumptions about which entities would be responsible for hosting and retaining content. The “Web 2.5” model introduced by Frequency incentivizes “providers” (applications that users delegate permissions to) to facilitate hosting of content items (level 3), consolidation and creation of batches (level 2), and transacting with the consensus system (level 1). However, it was noted that cross-application data contexts would potentially create scenarios that call into question the incentives for providers to remain long-term hosts. DC voiced his opinion that level 3 content should also be content addressable to allay some of these concerns. WB agreed that this would, at minimum, enable users who were willing to take the required actions to ensure content preservation on the network independently of any particular provider. The group agreed to consider how affordances for this might be proposed to be added to the protocol; WB noted that this was in line with and a component of an active request for proposals for content removal affordances on the DSNP specification community github site.
The conversation then turned to a discussion of privacy and encryption of data within DSNP. WB represented the current approach of DSNP as effectively “radical transparency”, but noted that this was only a starting point and that the original DSNP whitepaper included designs for private communications. HE agreed and noted that these had not been dropped, and were still an important part of the notional roadmap for the protocol.
WS stated that many protocols start with privacy by default, because adding affordances for privacy at a later stage often proves very difficult. She noted that discussions of privacy for social networking or communications protocols lead to design decisions that determine what affordances are given to entities such as law enforcement. ML interjected that these were ethical conversations, and it would be worth including voices and expertise from beyond the world of technology and engineering in the discussion. The group discussed reaching out to some potential experts in these matters.
WB noted that privacy affordances could have profound implications beyond law enforcement applications, and referenced a recent discussion with DC over the anonymity (or non-anonymity) of DSNP Reaction Announcements (e.g. “likes”); given the “radical transparency” of the protocol as currently constituted, many forms of profile-building for advertising and marketing purposes (or worse) could be done invisibly and without user consent based on a user’s history of likes and replies. It was noted that while this might be technically possible for third parties to achieve with existing social networks, centralization in those environments actually served to provide a form of defense against this.
Summary and closing
ES reminded the group that the next in-person meeting would be held January 23, 2024, in Cambridge. The group determined that the best date for the subsequent meeting would be March 7, 2024, also to be held in Cambridge, Mass. (exact location TBD).
The meeting was brought to a close at 4:30pm by ES.
Minuted by WB