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If Code Is Law, Then Protocols Are Good Manners That Help Us Get Along

Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP) and the Multi-stakeholder Approach to Development and Implementation

What is happening?

The Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP) is a product developed by Project Liberty, an international non-profit founded by Frank McCourt, with the goal of transforming how the Internet works, who owns and controls personal data, and who benefits from the digital economy. The McCourt Institute, as the research and digital governance arm of Project Liberty, aims to support the development and management of DSNP. Developed by a team led by Braxton Woodham, DSNP aims to be a key technical means to detoxify social networking by giving people control over their own data. The new protocol provides a key network layer for the Internet’s architecture that makes possible a new generation of social networking services—decentralized, innovative, and, above all, competitive.

What problem is DSNP trying to fix?

“Tech should be optimized for people, not for time online, ad revenue, or rage.”—Frank McCourt, founder and executive chairman of Project Liberty

DSNP is a practical response to what sometimes feels like an intractable problem: how to fix social media. Right now, social networking is concentrated in a tiny number of platforms that gather vast amounts of people’s data to sell advertising and populate social media with emotionally triggering content so we keep scrolling. The result is “a toxic cycle of growth-hacking and greed, leading to a dark age of polarization and rampant disinformation.” The public spaces we use to get information and interact with each other are far too important to be left to a single, highly destructive, business model.

DSNP is a key piece of technical architecture to manage the data that makes genuine social networking possible. It’s designed so people keep control over their ‘social graph,’ the unique network of each person’s online relationships, and move to another service with different features or another moderation policy, if they choose. DSNP isn’t a new social network. It’s an open-source technical protocol that lets anyone build a new, competing social networking application.

DSNP is also great for developers; they can’t suddenly be shut out of a platform they’ve invested in building their service on. And crucially for us all, DSNP takes away the incentive to blast emotive content at people while maximizing ‘engagement.’ DSNP is a key part of making the web a better, more informative, less divisive place.

What are protocols and why are they important?

Our online world is built on layers of networking protocols, complex sets of technical instructions and understandings about how to exchange information. The fundamental protocols that created the Internet and still make it work today are called the Internet Protocol and Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP/IP. These and other essential protocols are constantly updated by open standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). To do their job well, protocols need to serve the communities that use them. Protocols are iterated over time by the communities that use them. Without constant improvement and updating—and the development of complementary protocols to do related tasks—protocols stop being useful.

It’s often said of the Internet that “code is law”, but it might be just as true to add “and protocols are good manners.” Protocols set out the best way that people have collectively figured out to do a complicated series of interdependent tasks at a particular moment. They’re both collective and a work in progress. That’s why we invite people to look at DSNP and start thinking about how it can be even better.

What is DSNP?

DSNP is an open-source social networking protocol designed to operate over a consensus system, such as a blockchain. It builds on existing core internet and web protocols like HTTP, and incorporates open standards including the World Wide Web Consortium’s ActivityStreams data format (as used in Mastodon and other parts of the fediverse). It uses consensus system like blockchains in a very targeted way, to keep people’s data under their own control, not aggregated by platforms.

As well as being a technical protocol, DSNP is developing an evolving community-based process that aims to include and serve a global community of Internet users and developers. For example, a group of expert advisors is developing a governance model to make sure DSNP’s future evolution is open, responsive, transparent and multi-stakeholder. As founder Frank McCourt has said: “There’s no delusion here that these issues can be solved by any one person. There is going to be a very large group of people solving this.”

The principles guiding DSNP are that it will be open, multi-stakeholder, and transparent. Its future evolution, supported by Project Liberty, will be to develop the next iteration of the protocol and an accompanying governance process that supports wide participation in its ongoing development. Everything about DSNP supports the fundamental belief that people should have agency over their data.

Who’s in charge of DSNP?

DSNP is managed by Project Liberty and advised by a group of experts with long and deep history in Internet protocol and governance development:

  • Dave Clark, Senior Research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Previously: chief protocol architect of the precursor body to the Internet Architecture Board, chairman of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies.
  • Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, board member of the UN Foundation’s Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, member of advisory boards for the UN Secretary General, the UN Foundation, Consumers Union, and OECD, and formerly the American Bar Association, Google, AT&T, and Nissan. Member US National Academy of Engineering.
  • Deb Roy, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, and founder and CEO of Cortico. Previously: executive director of the MIT Media Lab, Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, founding CEO of Bluefin Labs, and chief media scientist of Twitter from 2013 to 2017.
  • Wendy Seltzer, Principal Identity Architect at Tucows. Previously: Strategy Lead and Counsel, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Past board director of The Tor Project, World Wide Web Foundation US, and Open Source Hardware Association, and at-large advisory committee liaison to the ICANN Board.
  • Sara Wedeman, Founder and owner of Behavioral Economics Consulting Group. Previously: principal at the Wharton Center for Applied Research, led the Research Division of CoreStates Financial Corporation (now Wachovia Corporation).

This team of expert advisors has done foundational work across protocol development, data privacy, and in developing the technology governance models the Internet relies on today. They bring deep experience in technological innovation and community-building, and are committed to bringing DSNP to the next stage, both technically and in how it is developed and managed in the future.

What’s next for DSNP and how to get involved.

The DSNP advisory group met for the first time on April 20, 2023 at the MIT Media Lab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and will hold two more meetings in 2023. The DSNP advisory group has two priorities:

  1. To guide further development of the protocol, to be iterated on and published in the next 6-12 months
  2. To develop a governance structure and proactively design an open protocol development community

For anyone interested in receiving updates and staying engaged, please find more information on DSNP.org and the Project Liberty forums.

We will also be publishing Q&A’s with our experts each month, along with regular updates about the evolution of DSNP.

By Constance Bommelaer de Leusse, Executive Director, Project Liberty Institute

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