A Web of Small Properties

This a bit of a two-headed post. I’m talking about The Future of the Internet to anyone who might be interested in that. But I’m also talking about Distributism and using the internet as an illustration of distributist policy. I happen to be passionate about both things.

 

A core point about distributism is that it emphasizes the importance of property over enterprise. Instead of starting with the question How can we increase business growth, we prefer to start with the question How can we increase property ownership for the common person?

If long-term stability and independence are important, then it’s not enough to have access to services, income, or the data you create, because access can be taken away or exploited. It’s much more important — again, for the sake of personal stability and freedom — for people to have ownership of these things. And it’s not enough for personal ownership to be merely “technically possible” — it should be widespread and actively encouraged.

We’re seeing this exact sentiment in the growing “Indie Web” movement, which is a distributist movement without knowing it. They’ve realized the downsides of prioritizing access over ownership on the Internet — the danger of relying on big businesses like Facebook and Twitter. Facebook provides access to social networks and a publishing platform, but not ownership. What happens when they make it hard or impossible to search your past photos, links and statuses? What happens when they change their privacy rules? What happens when they eventually shut down? Answer: you live with whatever decisions they make, with no recourse.

[W]hen we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.

…Amber Case, one of the Indie Web creators, was drawn to it because the Web had become “a claustrophobic space where all I could do was consume, with barriers to building and owning.” She saw a new generation of Internet users who’d never registered a domain name, and weren’t even aware of what was possible.

— Dan Gillmor, Why the Indie Web Movement is so important

The Indie Web movement aims to make it easy for people to set up their own domain names and servers, and to use them to interact and publish in the same ways we do on Facebook and Twitter — without ceding ownership of their data. This way, your data is completely under your control, and you have the ability to publish things that will never be taken offline until you decide to take them offline. No one is selling it to advertisers, no third party is making decisions about how it looks or what people see. And you now have the ability to back up your data, so it won’t be lost when a company shuts down their service.

Looking through the lens of property rights, and fostering a culture that values property, has two additional benefits. First, it solves the problem of privacy on the web. “Privacy policies” have never and will never be a solution to securing online privacy. Fundamentally, the whole idea of a “privacy policy” is predicated on the user ceding ownership of their data, and their ultimate purpose is to protect service providers from liability for doing whatever the heck they want with that data. They’re also unenforceable, and can be changed at will. But when you own your data and the tools that make use of it, the “privacy policy” is whatever you say it is, full stop.

Finally, small properties tend be humanized and beautiful spaces, and web properties are no exception. Frank Chimero illustrates this beautifully:

Have you ever visited an architect’s house, one they designed themselves? It’s fun to walk through it with them. They have so many things, arranged so thoughtfully, and share the space with such pride because of the personal reflection the house required to design (not to mention the effort it took to build). It’s really quite special. I think there’s a pleasure to having everything under one roof. You feel together, all of you at once. In a way, building your own house is the ultimate project for a creative person: you’re making a home for what you think is important, done in the way you think is best.

But the web right now is a house divided: a silo for each little thing that you make. As I look back at how I’ve used the internet this year, I’ve come to realize it’s not sustainable for me to continue this way. Hosting my things all over the place is fatiguing, never mind attempting to keep track of everyone in multiple places.

— Frank Chimero, Homesteading 2014