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IndieWeb and Respect Network: Two roads to decentralizing the network
by Scott Rosenberg | July 3, 2014


The Respect Network tackles the whole "take back the Web" idea from the opposite direction of the IndieWeb's grassroots-developer tinkering. The project actually emerged from the community around the Internet Identity Workshop - a gathering very similar to IndieWeb Camp in spirit, and that has been around longer. But the Respect Network is much more conventional and institutional in its approach.

That's understandable, given what it's trying to accomplish: It aims to engineer an alternative financial and data infrastructure built on personal ownership of data and shared principles of trust; the model seems to be Visa/Mastercard, but where you own your data. (There's a detailed "Trust Framework" that participating businesses must adopt.) The key elements here are:

  • "Cloud names" - global personal (or business) identifiers that use an equal sign rather than, say, email/Twitter's "@" sign or the domain-name system to represent an individual user (for example, I am "=scottros").
  • Cloud service providers - companies that provide cloud name registration and personal/business data storage under Respect Network principles.
  • A single sign-in button (like the ubiquitous "sign in with Facebook/Twitter" buttons) for sites to deploy so users can log in to multiple services using their cloud names.
  • All of this works under a technical standard called XDI, which should allow for the emergence of a system of competing businesses all sharing the same infrastructure. XDI has been worked on for some time now but there isn't a ton of actual services and products using it today.

(More details at GigaOm)

The Respect Network founders have assembled an alliance of infrastructure companies, service providers and creative thinkers - people like Doc Searls, Phil Windley, and Jerry Michalski - and begun to sign up partners and customers. Tuesday was launch day for the network in San Francisco (it's in the middle of a global road show).

It was clear at the event that, right now, there isn't a huge amount of Respect Network services that anyone can yet use: About all you can do is reserve a cloud name. The network's goal is to sign up a million people for this at a special $25-for-life introductory rate. You can go today to providers like Emmett Global and do this, as I did. But you can't do much with it yet. Eventually, the idea is that this name will serve as the address for all your data, and when you interact with businesses and other people you'll be able to set the terms.

Respect Network is trying to bridge the worlds of privacy activism and Internet marketing, and that is unquestionably a tough challenge: The company's leaders need to persuade the business people that they mean business, while demonstrating to the idealists who will be their first participants and customers that they are not sell-outs.

It's hard to say how far they'll get. On the one hand, the free/ad-supported model is powerful and everywhere today. It's not going to just wither and die. On the other, the logic of the simple "you should own your own data" principle is potent; the world of advertising keeps finding new ways to overstep public tolerance; and the keepers of corporate silos keep stepping into their own booby traps.

Emmett founder Lionel Wolberger gave his pitch at Monday's event with a memorable joke, envisioning what phone calls would be like if they were ad-supported the way so many web services are. The idea of companies listening in to our phone calls so they could break in and pitch products sounds ludicrous, unimaginable - yet somehow we are willing to tolerate this same dynamic in our online communications. The Respect Network will test our appetite for alternatives.

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