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Their Own Servers


... in response to Moxie's recent article about crypto and other things.

This is post no. 64 for Kev Quirk's #100DaysToOffload challenge. The point is to write many things, not to write good ones. Please adjust quality expectations accordingly :)

Said article was mostly about how crypto and NFTs are not even truly decentralized. Which I actually do agree with. However... let me quote the part that stood out to me the most:

People don’t want to run their own servers, and never will. The premise for web1 was that everyone on the internet would be both a publisher and consumer of content as well as a publisher and consumer of infrastructure.

We’d all have our own web server with our own web site, our own mail server for our own email, our own finger server for our own status messages, our own chargen server for our own character generation. However – and I don’t think this can be emphasized enough – that is not what people want. People do not want to run their own servers.

Even nerds do not want to run their own servers at this point. Even organizations building software full time do not want to run their own servers at this point. If there’s one thing I hope we’ve learned about the world, it’s that people do not want to run their own servers. The companies that emerged offering to do that for you instead were successful, and the companies that iterated on new functionality based on what is possible with those networks were even more successful.

This is not obviously wrong. In fact, it's worse than wrong, since it's not just that it's false: it has enough truth in it that it convinces you that its worldview is true. It is not though.

So... everyone should be running servers?


That's part of the wrong-ness. You shouldn't become a sysadmin and open ports and read security advisories and deal with TLS certs. Most of your family shouldn't, anyway.

I'm a nerd. I'm not running my mail server. (At some point I did run one, but I never trusted it enough.) This site is, technically, hosted on "my" server, but, in fact, I do not own the metal: it's a VPS. Most people should probably host fewer things than me.

And yet, implicitly, the idea I got from the article was this:

the only way modern, competive services can be built is by a single organization controlling a single piece of software, with their servers not talking to anyone else.

This is how AT&T was behaving before it was broken up in the 80s.

I'm not sure of this, but I suspect Signal has similar policies towards 3rd party clients as Discord does: we'll ban you if you use anything but our mobile client. Because that's how most real people use the service anyway. They definitely don't want their own, supposedly "open source" code modified and used on their servers.

I'm... somehow doubtful whether they still qualify as "Free Software", from a "Four Freedoms" point of view.

But then... even ignoring this, there are multiple things wrong with this direction.

Why is it so hard to run servers?

I have written about this before: the amount of complexity that goes into running a simple web service is orders of magnitude more than just installing an app on a phone. There are things that we never really ended up automating since "it's done by sysadmins anyway". Some of these are plain stupid that never got optimized out.

Of course, there is not a lot of profit to be made from selling server software if you could just run the same thing, so this is not something that corporations ended up optimizing for.

But what if it's true in practice?

Still: there is a significant difference between not running your own servers and not even theoretically being able to run your own servers.

As I mentioned, I do not run my own mail. My current provider could, if they wanted, read all of my mail, sell my info to whoever paid enough, and siphon off some amount of money from my bank accounts before I could catch them. I do not have control over these things.

Except... my email address is on my own domain. If any of the above happened, I could switch to another provider with basically zero switching cost. (I already did switch from my self-hosted mail server.)

This is true even though most email users are using Gmail or Outlook. (Note though that you can't switch away if you have a gmail address.)

Moxie might be right about the current implementation of most NFTs; his theory of "... but you can't use peer-to-peer from browsers and mobile" is fairly broken though: if any of these companies suddenly turns evil, there is still something behind. Meanwhile, if Signal happened to go evil tomorrow & start mining crypto on their Official Client... you couldn't run anywhere, really.

... comments welcome, either in email or on the (eventual) Mastodon post on Fosstodon.