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The problem with centralization

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July 5 · Issue #39 · View online
iAfrikan Daily Brief
This week has been quite a lesson on why decentralization (of the Internet and the Web) is the way to go. First, it was Cloudflare which caused a good portion of online services and websites not to work, and then it was Facebook’s systems which malfunctioned causing Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook to go offline or work intermittently affecting how billions of people communicate around the world.
Both cases, in my opinion, highlight the problem with centralization in different contexts.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, computer scientist and inventor of the World Wide Web, is currently on a mission to re-decntralize the web as he (and many of us) believe it has reached a critical point where big corporations are using it for their own selfish needs at the expense of users. Most of what is happening (eg. AdTech and tracking) is against the spirit of an open web.
With Cloudflare, it illustrates how centralizing (through eg. convenience) key and critical Internet services such as DNS is a big potential risk. Many companies and people, like iAfrikan, use Cloudflare because of its ease-of-use and lower costs but one of the services it offers is one that is critical and at the core of how the Internet and the Web operates. Without DNS servers, we’d all need to be memorizing IP addresses of our favourite websites in order to visit them. Of course, not everyone has the resources nor skills to run their own DNS server/s but given how important the Internet and the Web have become, isn’t it time we reconsidered how they are run and perhaps look into making some of the key systems a public service in some way? (Just a thought)
When it comes to the Facebook outage, it is a case of us congregating on the Web around a handful of platforms that we use as part of our day to day communications and in some cases business. Given how network effects work, these platforms (e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram) end up becoming crucial because any other platform (e.g. secure and private instant messaging platform like Signal) might be putting your privacy and is decentralized but does not have enough people in your networks that use it. As such, when they go down like Facebook’s platforms did this week, billions of people are affected.
This is where I agree with the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, that we need to re-decentralize the Web.
I’ve always believed the web is for everyone. That’s why I and others fight fiercely to protect it. The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas. Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point, and that powerful change for the better is possible - and necessary. This is why I have, over recent years, been working with a few people at MIT and elsewhere to develop Solid, an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web. - Sir Tim Berners-Lee
We have truly reached a critical point, whether it’s privacy or decentralization, we need to relook how the Internet and the Web work if they are to survive and benefit everyone.
Recommended
🎤 President Cyril Ramaphosa will address South Africa’s inaugural 4th Industrial Revolution Summit at the Gallagher Convention Center in Midrand on 5 July 2019. His keynote address will simultaneously be broadcast live in Rusternburg via a hologram. Link
📦 On 5 July 2019, Amazon, the online shopping powerhouse turns 25 years old. A marketing professor looks back on how it redefined retail for the world. Link
👩🏾‍💼 Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa will join the Naspers management team in a newly created position as CEO, South Africa. Her responsibilities will include leadership of Naspers’ flagship South African units, Naspers Foundry and Naspers Labs. She will report directly to Bob van Dijk, CEO of Naspers. Link
🧬 54gene, the African genomics company, announced that it secured $4,5 million in funding to build the world’s first and largest pan-African biobank. The startup is addressing the lack of African genetic material used in pharmaceutical research. Link
Looking Back
This week’s Looking Back feature is not necessarily one person who did something notable in the African technology ecosystem. It is about a specific solution that was used by various people during Apartheid, and this technology solution played a key role in South Africa’s political liberation.
If you are aware of South Africa’s history, especially pre-1990, you’d know that the Apartheid government by the National Party not only oppressed and denied black South Africans basic human rights but that it policed and spied on every movement of political activists and those close to them. As such, it was extremely difficult, near impossible, for anti-Apartheid activists and politicians in and out of the country to not only move without being noticed, but to communicate without their communications being intercepted. As such, it was necessary, if activists, led by the African National Congress (ANC), were to overthrow the oppressive government of the day that they find a different method to communicate.
Enter Operation Vula in the 1980s - an operation and encryption technology solution that many have said played a key role in South Africa’s liberation and bypassing detection by the Apartheid government.
AfricAfrican National Congress (ANC) Vula Communication Network during Apartheid. Source: Ariel Acevedo
For the context of this newsletter, as stated in some previous issues, technology is always defined as a new and improved (efficient) way of doing things. ANC member and freedom fighter, Tim Jenkin, was in exile in London during the 1980s. At the time, the banned political party could not effectively communicate with its leaders inside South Africa without communications being intercepted. Being a hacker, Jenkin developed the Vula Communication System - an encrypted communications network that would go on to allow the ANC’s leaders based in Lusaka, Zambia (and other parts of the world) to communicate, without detection, with underground operatives in South Africa. It took a while to get it up and running but by 1988, two years before the late Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it was fully functional.
The Vula Communication System worked as follows: Firstly, Janet Love, commander with the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) would visit a pre-identified safe house and type a message on a laptop computer that had been smuggled in a few months before by a Dutch flight attendant who acted as a mule for the ANC - only identified as Antoinette in some records. Love would then encrypt the message and them process it out through the computer’s serial port to an acoustic coupler modem. This is where the encryption happened, the message data would then be converted to a sound, and the audio was recorded on a tape casette recorder.
Once that process was done, Love would then dial Jenkin. Jenkin would then play the received audio message back through a similar acoustic modem coupler that Love has. This modem was connected to his computer which would convert it back to digital data. The digital data would then be decrypted and that would result in the plain text message appearing on Jenkin’s computer. The second and critical part of the encryption, outside of the conversion to sound, was that both Love and Jenkin had each a floppy disk that used a form of a public-private key encryption algorithm that was used to encrypt or decrypt the the message after it was converted to or from sound.
This same process would be used to send messages to the ANC leadership in Zambia where another anti-apartheid activist used a network of foot couriers to get it to them undetected.

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