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A roller coaster for decentralization: 2022 in review

This year has been a roller coaster for the movement to decentralize the services and tools we rely on every day. The decentralization of Internet services can help solve problems ranging from traditional competition from big business to online privacy.

In order to pay more attention to these issues affecting user autonomy and online competition, this year EFF hired a Decentralization Senior Fellow, ross schulman. Among other projects, Ross headlined EFF’s participation in DWeb Camp and Unfinished Live. In the rest of the world, cryptocurrency markets have continued their dramatic volatility into 2022, which, combined with continued allegations of large-scale fraud, has prompted policymakers at both federal Y Express levels to explore the regulations in space.

In August, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it would place a cryptocurrency privacy tool called Tornado Cash on one of its sanctions lists due to its use by South Korea. North, effectively banning their use by people in the US Many cryptocurrencies pose unique issues when it comes to financial privacy, as all transactions are publicly recorded on the global ledger. Tornado Cash was created to enable private and anonymous financial transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. Many people may want or need that privacy to operate, for perfectly legal reasons, such as when paying for health care, supporting LGBT groups in repressive regimes, or donating to religious organizations. But as with many technologies, it can also be used for illegal purposes.

OFAC’s decision was ostensibly intended to address such illegal uses, but was too vague. The publication of these tools implies fundamental First Amendment rights because, as EFF made clear: the code is speech. Because OFAC’s order was ambiguous as to whether it was attempting to control the actual code that ran Tornado Cash smart contracts, GitHub removed Tornado Cash’s public code repository and disabled the accounts of its main developers. Courts have held since the late 1990s that computer code is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, and OFAC’s actions could have affected that freedom. Us wrote publicly about that fact and, thankfully, OFAC clarified shortly thereafter that they were not including simply hosting or discussing the underlying code of Tornado Cash in the new sanctions, eliminating that concern.

However, OFAC’s actions raise a host of other questions, from fundamental privacy rights online to issues of jurisdiction when it comes to autonomous code running on blockchains. We are following these issues closely.

After a few years hiatus due to COVID, 2022 also saw the Internet Archive once again host the Decentralized WebCamp. This year’s DWeb Camp was held in the redwoods outside of Mendocino, California in late August. Just a couple of weeks after OFAC’s Tornado Cash announcement, law and politics were top of mind for many of the participants, and EFF was engaged in discussions about potential future outcomes, biggest hurdles with lawmakers and regulators, and how to impact and advocate before governments.

Finally, in the last two months of 2022 we have seen a surge of interest in the possibilities of decentralization sparked by the actions of what might be the most unlikely source: Elon Musk. Instead of take our advice to improve the platform, it removed a vital verification system and responsible content moderation. As a result, people began to investigate alternatives in large numbers. Many concerned users turned to the “fediverse”, a collection of interconnected social networks powered by the ActivityPub protocol, the most prominent of which is called Mastodon.

The fediverso is a great example of a decentralized model for online services. It follows a federated network style (hence the name “fediverse”), much like email, and allows for a number of great benefits compared to centralized alternatives. But it is also raising a number of new challenges, as well as new facets of old challenges. In EFF we have removed some pieces explaining the diversity, your potentialY how to find a house there and settle down. We’ll continue this series and work to help make the promise of a fully interoperable approach to social media a reality.

Overall, 2022 was an exciting time for the broader decentralization movement, but it was just the beginning. With a host of opportunities presenting itself to lessen the overwhelming control that the few large internet platforms exert over life online, we look forward to entering 2023 ready to promote a decentralized web that offers more autonomy and democratic control for people who depend on that.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2022