a silo can never provide digital autonomy to its users

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about various silos and their activities, notably GitHub and an up and coming alternative to Tumblr called Cohost. I’d like to talk about both to make the point that silos do not, and can not elevate user freedoms, by design, even if they are run with the best of intentions, by analyzing the behavior of both of these silos.

It is said that if you are not paying for a service, that you are the product. To look at this, we will start with GitHub, who have had a significant controversy over the past year with their now-commercial Copilot service. Copilot is a paid service which provides code suggestions using a neural network model that was trained using the entirety of publicly posted source code on GitHub as its corpus. As many have noted, this is likely a problem from a copyright point of view.

Microsoft claims that this use of the GitHub public source code is ethically correct and legal, citing fair use as their justification for data mining the entire GitHub public source corpus. Interestingly, in the EU, there is a “text and data mining” exception to the copyright directive, which may provide for some precedent for this thinking. While the legal construction they use to justify the way they trained the Copilot model is interesting, it is important to note that we, as consumers of the GitHub service, enabled Microsoft to do this by uploading source code to their service.

Now let’s talk about Cohost, a recently launched alternative to Tumblr which is paid for by its subscribers, and promises that it will never sell out to a third party. While I think that Cohost will likely be one of the more ethically-run silos out there, it is still a silo, and like Microsoft’s GitHub, it has business interests (subscriber retention) which place it in conflict with the goals of digital autonomy. Specifically, like all silos, Cohost’s platform is designed to keep users inside the Cohost platform, just as GitHub uses the network effect of its own silo to make it difficult to use anything other than GitHub for collaboration on software.

Some have argued that, due to the network effects of silos, the only thing which can defeat a bad silo is a good silo. The problem with this argument is that it requires one to accept the supposition that there can be a good silo. Silos, by their very nature of being centralized services under the control of the privileged, cannot be good if you look at the power structures imposed by them. Instead, we should use our privilege to lift others up, something that commercial silos, by design, are incapable of doing.

How do we do this though? One way is to embrace networks of consent. From a technical point of view, the IndieWeb people have worked on a number of simple, easy to implement protocols, which provide the ability for web services to interact openly with each other, but in a way that allows for a website owner to define policy over what content they will accept. From a social point of view, we should avoid commercial silos, such as GitHub, and use our own infrastructure, either through self-hosting or through membership to a cooperative or public society.

Although I understand that both of these goals can be difficult to achieve, they make more sense than jumping from one silo to the next after they cross the line. You control where you choose to participate – for me, that means I am shifting my participation so that I only participate in commercial silos when absolutely necessary. We should choose to participate in power structures which value our communal membership, rather than value our ability to generate or pay revenue.

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