A big forking deal

While the big internet platforms are beginning to suffer from a mountain of responsibility, decentralized networks are forming formidable, resilient mountain ranges

October 24, 2017
Jonathan Libov

Internet platforms facing a severe set of problems at the intersection of product and policy. Twitter has trolling and moderation problems. Facebook and Google have fake news and malicious ad targeting problems. Cloudflare has free speech problems. These problems are a big problem.

For all the positive abundances brought about by the internet, there are negative abundances: Responsibility for more people than any company or government has ever been responsible for. More values and customers to satisfy than anyone has ever had to satisfy. More data to secure. A towering mountain of responsibility.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince on terminating support for The Daily Stormer:

"This was my decision. Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

"Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

"Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. I’ll be posting something on our blog later today. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power."

All this responsibility is peaking at a time when values seem to be diverging and trust is eroding, when a handful of companies are having trouble governing themselves and and governments unclear about how to regulate them.

Meanwhile, there’s a 12-digit-market-cap world-spanning system that, within a month, will have gone in four different directions, from a shared history. From a towering mountain to a no less formidable and maybe even more resilient mountain range.

It never fails to boggle my mind that Bitcoin forked. And that’s it’s forking again next month. Ethereum also forked, and the networks that haven’t yet emerged as important enough to merit a fork will as well. In fact I suspect that it’s the biggest achievement a protocol could earn: A group of people going another way because the protocol is important and valuable enough to try something else with.

Bitcoin and others have forked because their participants wished, or rather voted, for different values. Taking a shared history and going separate ways is something that has never been done in private or public organizations like this. Go ahead, try and think of one at even a fraction of Bitcoin’s scale.

(Update: Larry Sukernik makes the excellent point that religions fork. It's not lost on me that blockchain, particularly Bitcoin, often behaves figuratively and literally like a religion.)

Beyond Bitcoin and Ethereum, how we get from mountains to mountain ranges, and whether the world is better off for it, is beyond my ken. But forking as a concept is well within my ken, and if people are smart and willing enough to type "aitch tee tee pee" into a browser in order to access remote files, they're probably smart enough to adopt a paradigm that could make technology a lot more responsive to their values.