It’s November 2022 and several hundred people are converging on New Orleans for a weekend filled with tech talks, discussions about the future (and past) of the Internet, Cajun food, and a whole lot of socializing with like-minded people. Below you will find my record and impressions of this event, together with a few photos and links to other write-ups.
I became a part of the Interledger community when my podcast, Power Plays, received support through Grant for the Web to produce an oral history of why certain policy decisions were made in the Internet’s earliest days.
Thanks to the Interledger Foundation, I received support to attend this year’s summit. I am extremely grateful for this assistance, and I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Ayesha and Vineel who helped me coordinate my travel.
With the meeting itself starting on Friday afternoon, I flew into New Orleans on Thursday evening so that I would have time to adjust to the new timezone and to meet in advance with my fellow panelists for a session I was moderating on the Sunday. It was a warm and balmy day, and along with fellow panelist Xiaoji Song we walked to the French Quarter to grab lunch and to discuss some of the practical applications of web monetization technologies.
That evening, the Interledger Foundation held a reception at the venue where I had the opportunity to meet staff from Coil and Interledger, as well as numerous grantees.
Over breakfast I spoke with the executive director of the Interledger Foundation, Briana Marbury, Yotam Liel of Tel Aviv University, and Néstor Campos of PeerPay, about what I am currently working on professionally. I spoke about the potential I saw for the media development community in using the Interledger protocol as a means of directing resources to the work of independent journalists in the Global South.
At 9:45 AM I arrived for the official opening plenary. The main stage was elegantly appointed in Interledger branding. After looking back at the origins of the Interledger Protocol and shining a spotlight on the future we are collectively building, Sabine Schaller demoed Rafiki and explained how it bundles Interledger infrastructure with the accounting database Tigerbeetle.
Over in the hack room, one ingenious startup had assembled a QR-code out of Lego blocks. I joked to an acquaintance that it was nice of Interledger to provide these building blocks so that those of us who can't code could still make something in the hack room.
In the afternoon we were treated to a good mix of technical presentations as well as lightning talks that sought to build community. There was time provided for interaction from the audience.
This was my first time attending the Interledger Summit, however relative to other conferences that I have attended, I found it easy to break the ice and to engage in conversation with people from very different backgrounds. The community was social, welcoming, and interested in different perspectives.
In the evening we had an off-site dinner at the historic Orpheum Theatre. There was a second-line parade in the streets of New Orleans, complete with police escort, to kick off the party. It was a very memorable night and a huge discussion point the following day!
It's a simple thing, but something so many conferences do not offer is a continuous flow of hot java. Thankfully, the Interledger Summit had freshly brewed coffee throughout the day. As I grabbed coffee in the morning, I connected with Grant for the Web grantees to learn about their projects.
Later in the day, I moderated a discussion with three technology policy experts in order to understand how emerging technologies, like the Interledger protocol, can foster more equitable alternatives for funding the work of individual creators and collectives. Among the experts on-site were Ellen Magallanes, senior counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation, and Xiaoji Song, an interdisciplinary artist. Joining us remotely from Ottawa was Dr. Stephanie Perrin, an advisor on civil liberties at Palantir Technologies and a 30-year veteran of the Canadian government.
In this session, we began by establishing what exactly is wrong with our current, advertiser-supported Internet. The core privacy issues are (1) the deep profiling of every user, (2) the intrusions into and surveillance of our various devices in ways that are anti-competitive and not user friendly or beneficial, and (3) the risks through insecure payment systems that are integrated into the provision of services. Who doesn’t worry about what is happening to their credit card data that every app and service wants to maintain? (And with good reason, judging from the number of successful breaches.) The profiling of individuals, and the associated selling of their profiles, tends to dampen free speech and curiosity, channeling individuals into certain communities, rather than promoting free and open debate and dissent.
The conversation then turned to, why haven’t we solved these problems through regulation? Our experts argued that society bet on the wrong horse when the Internet was developed, in that we failed to regulate the ad-based Internet. Had the U.S. embraced privacy legislation, life might have been a bit better as the platforms and intermediaries who are currently dependent on personal data would have had more constraints on their activities. But the failure to invest in a “public library” type of approach to consuming content (where the volume of interest in material is measured, but attribution to individuals does not curb serendipity and free expression) is a problem. In this respect, Wikipedia is one of the great successes of what an open, participatory library looks like.
We want available content to be what we want; we do not want predatory companies reading our minds with a view to maximizing profit. Niche tastes have always tended to gravitate towards community-based pricing systems (“beat poetry” was one cited example, but chamber music and political writing all have their journals, publishers and recording studios which have more or less worked). The problem now is that platforms are attempting to offer all content to all people, and the profiling of taste is not focused on community preferences, but on maximizing profit for the controllers of the medium.
Our panel noted that if you look at the Coil browser extension, for example, it offers total privacy by not tracking audiences at all. The problem is around whether people are even willing to pay $5 a month for something like Coil. Ultimately, the problem of “will people pay anything if they can get material for free?” seems to be at the heart of the pricing and identification problem. To return to our pre-Internet examples above, do audiences care enough about being a beat poetry reader/listener to buy those books and recordings, or will they not consume anything but what the public broadcaster/airport bookstore offers them? We can cater to a very broad range of micro tastes in content, without tracking people, simply through the use of anonymous payment systems, but they have to achieve a certain cachet and not be associated with malfeasance. Our panel concluded that the right to read, listen to, and look at what you want always has to be defended, and perhaps we need to focus on that. Questions remained, however, around not the benefit of there being a plurality of perspectives, but around the market reality of how we cultivate a more pluralistic, inclusive content ecology.
While the panel argued that the notion that everything should be free needs to be combatted, this is easier said than done. Do we expect farmers to work for free and not charge for food? Somehow the “free” channels that are paid for with our personal data have persuaded a generation of Internet users that this bargain is doable. There may indeed be content that is so essential that access should always be ‘free’, but to make this knowledge production viable we need to fund institutions that provide access to paywalled information, such as libraries, Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. We need to establish a much broader understanding of the economics of content creation and distribution. Somehow we need to get people to accept micropayments, even though they are used to evading paywalls. Micropayments enable me to read that article my friend sent me, without subscribing to a newspaper for a year. This is a cultural matter; people need to change their beliefs about what is the right thing to do with respect to content creators.
The panel agreed there are audiences that face unique challenges in funding their work who could benefit from web monetization technologies. Queer people are disproportionately demonetized on centralized platforms like YouTube, for example. Dissidents that live in sanctioned countries, like Iran or Russia, are unable to receive payments or donations. The promise that web monetization technologies offer these creators is a positive one, however this is as much an economic conundrum as it is a social process subject to specific political conditions. It is also likely that the withdrawal of these important voices from centralized platforms is not the best solution for the digital public sphere and the formation of counterpublics.
The panel discussed the nature of web monetization technologies being purely transactional. Any publisher can receive payments from, say, Coil subscribers by placing a payment pointer on their website. Coil has no formal agreement with creators. It doesn’t own or fund the creation of content. Similarly, it does not indemnify nor offer creators any legal cover should they face repercussions for their work. The panel debated who should share the responsibility of providing legal coverage on such work? Given the global nature of the Internet and the expense this would entail, even if this was attempted, would legal cover be the most urgent need for creators? If it is, given the forms of oppression and marginalization that certain creators have to deal with based on their work, what is the extent of the legal cover that these individuals require? The panel concluded that there needs to be more of a research focus on understanding what kinds of voices are being muted in other platforms, what legal threats are being faced, and how these impacted creators can be re-centered into the narrative for their global audience through financial inclusion and empowerment.
With the conference coming to a close that evening, we said our many goodbyes after a fantastic week and set out to enjoy an evening of classic Louisiana cuisine. A visit to a jazz bar was mandatory for a nightcap, where I 'schemed', if you will, with newfound friends as to projects I intend to work on that build off of Interledger.
The Interledger Summit 2022 was a thoughtful, enjoyable event. I want to thank everyone who made it possible -- and to thank you for reading this post!