It is time to liberate ourselves from a digital dystopia

New legislation from the EU could give users control over where their data is stored and help restore the original purpose of the internet.

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When the internet began, it was decentralised, built on foundations that respected the autonomy of users. However, all that changed as the internet became more commercial. Services enclosed their users and looked to monetise their data in centralised systems based wherever was convenient and beyond the control of the original user. So says Matthew Hodgson, CEO of Element. 

Nowhere is this more the case than in communications and messaging. Your phone is probably littered with multiple messaging apps that are largely versions of the same thing, unable to operate with each other, and free as long as you are willing to give up your data to a faceless company. “Today, most of the conversations, most of the messaging is happening through centralised systems, which have complete control,” explains Element co-founder Amandine Le Pape. This means data and conversations could be sitting anywhere in the world, and users have to trust the providers that all is OK. 

This centralisation has real practical implications. Slack, which many businesses and organisations have turned to in order to keep running in lockdown, went down for six hours, bringing disruption to its whole network. Centralised systems are more vulnerable and less resilient. They are also less trusted, with high-profile scandals where user data has been used or manipulated by service providers. Recently, the German government announced an investigation into messaging apps, including WhatsApp, with a focus on consumer protection and allowing people to move systems and interchange between them.

“We have been working on the alternative, a decentralised, open-source system for messaging with a good customer experience,” Hodgson explains. This means being able to run a Slack or Teams-style service in-house – or with Element's help – that is completely unique to the customer and their services. Element is based on Matrix, an open communications protocol, like the web but for real-time communication, and allows for end-to-end, encrypted, decentralised communication. 

Hodgson and Le Pape created Matrix in 2014, and there are currently about 26 million people on it across 60,000 deployments. Many of them use Element as an app built on top but retaining access to the wider network, much like how your email provider does not limit you to communicating only with people using the same provider. “It really gives government in particular and others the ability to choose actually where they host their data,” says Le Pape. “You’re independent from the rest of the network and you have complete control over where your data and conversations are stored.” 

The French government had been using WhatsApp and Telegram, both of which have security problems. They had to find a way to run their communications infrastructure themselves and decided to develop one based on Matrix for 5.5 million public sector employees across 16 ministries, with systems decentralised to each one. 

“On a wider level, we see this move from centralised to decentralised communications as a transition similar to Linux replacing Unix systems,” Hodgson says. What were expensive proprietary systems were quickly replaced by open-source systems in two years, he explains. “We are in the middle of that transition with communications,” he adds. Element, and others, are working to reclaim control of communications and put it “back into the hands of the people”.

This will also challenge the lack of innovation in the sector. “Everybody is creating a clone of Slack, another silo or island trapping the users and holding them hostage in that environment rather than banding together in a more sophisticated sense,” Hodgson says. “Economics shows you can create a silo, grow it and sell it – from a short-term perspective you can use this to make a quick buck, but you damage society and split it into factions.” As a result, humanity is being deprived of a richer way of communicating, other than by email or a phone network, that does not involve being trapped in this type of silo – that is what Matrix tries to solve. 

Government is finally taking action as well. The EU's Digital Markets Act and Digital Service Act have a real chance of tackling the gatekeeper problem – of tech giants trapping their users in their systems – and supporting real innovation on top of the platforms. At best, they could mandate them to use open standards and interoperate using Matrix or something similar. Hodgson and Le Pape are already talking with their colleagues in the tech giants about what this means and how they can help with the use of Matrix. 

Matrix also tries to solve another problem that haunts messaging: how to keep it a safe environment for everyone. Element is very concerned about government mandating “back doors” into end-to-end encrypted messaging services because they believe it does not work. Hodgson explains that where back doors have been planted in the past, they get abused by the very “bad guys” they were set up to tackle once those bad guys realise how to use it. Today’s “good guys” may become tomorrow’s “bad guys” when governments change. 

Instead, Element believes we should look at more sophisticated ways of tracking abuse. Their focus is on “decentralised reputation” – but unlike the Chinese social credit system, which is centralised. “We propose to empower users to check their own data on who they consider high reputation and who is abusive on any environment,” says Hodgson. Users can publish that information to a subset of the world, sharing personal positive preferences or block lists with a friend or group of people, or the whole internet. In turn, you could subscribe to the content created and recommended by people or brands you trust. 

This allows people to make up their own minds about what content they want to see – network admins can do the same – and moderators get a framework to limit, or not limit, the information in their communities. Hodgson explains that part of the work is about the user experience, to enable users to filter, but to give them control over that filter so they can broaden it and look around the corner to see what is there and what others think of it. Element is currently using this on a microblogging platform on top of Matrix, where you can subscribe to reputation feeds and have sliders on them to determine what you see based on the feedback from the wider network and change the strength of the algorithm. 

It is also working on a peer-to-peer Matrix project, where the server stack is run entirely on your phone, without any external servers, so you have complete sovereignty. Users do not even need internet access – they can use Bluetooth or an ad hoc wi-fi to communicate. “It is a Holy Grail for us, and we hope the default for Matrix in five years' time will be totally peer-to-peer,” says Hodgson. “In effect, everyone starts nomadically, but can eventually choose to rent a home for their data, which they will have control over.” He believes it is a complete change from the centralised systems that dominate us and exert significant control over our lives, and concludes: “Decentralisation can end this dystopian centralisation and give us autonomy again.”

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