MIT Open Learning, Filecoin Foundation experts make the case for a decentralized web
The experts spoke at a recent event, part of MIT’s work studying how decentralized technologies can affect knowledge distribution and more
By Lauren Thacker
Most digital information is stored on the servers of three companies: Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. In a recent salon hosted by MIT Open Learning, in collaboration with Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web (FFDW), experts emphasized the need to distribute knowledge with decentralized technology.
Marta Belcher, president and chair of FFDW, laid out the foundation’s mission to preserve the world’s essential knowledge and explained the urgency to adopt decentralized systems. “Anything on the web, or anything that’s digitally preserved, is most likely stored on the servers of one of three companies, which means also that you have these single points of failure,” Belcher said. “If you want to preserve humanity’s most important information, you need to create a better version of the web.”
“If you want to preserve humanity’s most important information, you need to create a better version of the web.” —Marta Belcher
The event, which gathered 45 people on campus and included a global audience watching via livestream, is part of MIT’s work studying how decentralized technologies can affect social change, knowledge distribution, and preservation. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a “decentralized web,” think of it as a system of interconnected, independent, privately-owned computers that work together to provide confidential, secure, censorship-resistant access to information and services. Preserving privacy, ensuring unbiased use of data, democratizing learning through the innovative use of digital technologies, and developing frameworks for the policy-compliant are key to these efforts.
Christopher Capozzola, professor of history and senior associate dean for Open Learning at MIT, said that designing trusted information systems is “critical to building and defending democratic institutions.” He called for the creation of “new policies and practices” to combat misinformation and the distribution and preservation of knowledge that matters deeply to the world — from democracy to climate change and global public health.
Danny O’Brien, senior fellow at FFDW, framed decentralization as a technical challenge with major social implications. He explained that large-scale centralized systems like Google may appear secure so people store massive amounts of personal data on various Google platforms. But, he said trust in a single system is dangerous.
Another vulnerability of centralized systems that O’Brien pointed to was Apple’s decision to remove VPN applications from the App Store in China. This compromise between Apple and the Chinese government has consequences for activists and information sharing more broadly. He called this the “centralization trap.”
“Designing trusted information systems is critical to building and defending democratic institutions.”
— Christopher Capozzola
“Maybe one day, someone will break through that single, giant, feudal castle that all our data is held in,” O’Brien said. “There are massive incentives to do that.”
A decentralized web is an alternative that could prioritize education and information sharing. O’Brien prompted people to imagine “a world where facts are free and lies are costly, where information finds its way to people who can best use it for positive good.”
Sharing MIT’s collections
OpenCourseWare, which has shared knowledge from the MIT curriculum since 2001, currently hosts approximately 2,500 courses on its website. Users can view content on the OpenCourseWare YouTube channel, which has the largest subscriber base of any .edu channel in the world, or download and adapt content for their own uses.
OpenCourseWare also serves users through its Mirror Site Program, which provides free copies of content on hard drives to educational organizations with limited or costly Internet access. More than 440 hard drives have been shared via the Mirror Site Program alongside successful collaborations with organizations, including a digital learning nonprofit in Myanmar and schools in Somalia.
Curt Newton, director of MIT OpenCourseWare, called the physical hard drives a “20th-century solution,” one that often requires human couriers and manual updates. New solutions, including work supported by FFDW social impact engineer Ian Davis, may include the InterPlanetary File System, or IPFS, a peer-to-peer network. This type of sharing could distribute information more broadly and efficiently.
Clayton Hainsworth, director of MIT Video Productions, presented an overview of MIT Video Productions’ video archive: audiovisual assets created and collected for the MIT community over decades. It includes digital assets as well as over 42,000 physical legacy assets, with highlights such as a convocation address given by Winston Churchill in 1949 and an interview with Nobel-winning Niels Bohr from 1961.
The archive likely contains long-forgotten content that may prove useful for today’s learners. As an example of the archive’s hidden gems, Hainsworth shared that he recently found a video recording that included an introduction to artificial intelligence as it was known in 1987.
Hainsworth said that with support from FFDW, the work of digitizing archival content has begun. “It is no small task,” he said. “This [funding] has given us the opportunity to think about how this content might get out into the world again.”
Potential roadblocks to creating a decentralized web include the immense amount of data our world generates and subsequent storage capacity issues, funding and regulatory challenges, and the mainstream adoption of decentralized tools and other emerging technologies. Lalana Kagal, who leads the decentralized information group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, also spoke at the event. Her research addresses related issues like policy compliance across distributed sources, accountability in blockchain technologies, and concerns about privacy and biases in machine learning.
Decentralized tools may be more widely used than the general public realizes, Belcher commented. The majority of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are stored on IPFS or the Filecoin network for technical reasons.
Filecoin technology is able to preserve and authenticate video content and has been used in submissions to the International Criminal Court to demonstrate the authenticity of evidence of war crimes. In many ways, Belcher said, the decentralized web highlights the fight against misinformation and the importance of trust.
A recording of the salon can be viewed on MIT Open Learning’s YouTube channel.
MIT’s work on decentralized systems is supported in part by a multi-year grant from Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web (FFDW), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of preserving humanity’s most important information. FFDW focuses on charitable activities, including building and supporting the decentralized web community, funding research and development, and educating the public about the decentralized web.
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