“Local-first approach is the future of software” - an interview with Holmes Wilson
Tue, Feb 7, 2023 •10 min read
In one of our previous posts, we described how to build an app without servers and used Quiet as a perfect example. Today, we talk with Holmes Wilson, the Founder of Quiet, to divę into the topic of mesh infrastructure, peer-to-peer apps, and internet freedom a bit deeper.
You’re the co-founder of both Fight for the Future and Quiet. Let’s start with the former. Can you please tell us more about its goal?
We started Fight for the Future because we saw an opportunity to change the course of the laws and policies that affect the internet and to guide the development of the internet in a better direction by engaging large numbers of people in the process through which those laws and policies get made by organizing large scale activism campaigns. And so the first thing we did at Fight For the Future was that there were two proposed laws or bills in the US that would have would have given any copyright holder including some of the big media companies the power to essentially censor any site on the internet in the United States. Those laws were written so broadly that sites could be censored not just for stuff that they posted, but even for content posted by users. So a single copyrighted photo or a meme or a video of someone singing a song, you know by a pop star that was technically under copyright could have potentially been grounds for taking down an entire site like Reddit or Tumblr or Twitter, for example. So it was these laws would have really damaged the development of the internet because they would have made it so that the sites people love to just be taken down randomly and then in order to defend themselves against that prospective user sites that allowed users to post things would have had to become so strict about what users posted that you wouldn't be able to have the kind of open spaces for expression and discussion that are what the most fun part of the internet. So we organized people to fight these laws in the US by giving them tools they could use on their websites to join in protests and organizing a day of protests where people would all take some step to alert the world about the fact that this was happening and then to get people to call their members of Congress in the US.
So the first step is to create awareness of the threatening policies to come, and then let people know how they can fight back?
Yes! Usually what we would do is find a way to explain these issues which are often very complicated in a way that people would be able to understand and then motivate people to take some kind of action to do something and give them an action that they could take, whether they were a website or an individual or a business or whatever, give them something meaningful they could do that actually exerted some kind of power over the system that had a plausible chance of actually achieving the result people wanted. If you can explain an issue to people in a way that's clear and meaningful to them and give them a path and motivate them to move down that path together, then you can achieve really surprising victories In this case in the US these bills were proposed for internet censorship and they had the support of some of the biggest lobbies in the US - drug companies, large movie or music production companies, even some tech corporations. The drug companies' angle was they wanted to be able to censor websites that were selling generic medicines from countries outside of the US.
But the problem is whenever you start down that road, there are all kinds of collateral damage that you're doing because you're building a censorship machine that could get used for all kinds of things and it's unpredictable what it will get used for. So despite these bills having massive support from these huge industry lobbies that were extremely well connected and they have the support of both parties and everyone expected the bills to sail through, we were able to organize the part of the public that really understood and cared about the internet to stop these bills alongside organizations and tech companies and public intellectuals and this whole raft of voices. Because we were able to organize them so well, we stopped the bills, and not only do we stop the bills, but we stopped them so effectively that they never came up again. And we made the idea of censoring the internet in that way so unpalatable that 13 or 11 years later still has not come up again.
Okay, censorship is one thing but what are other threats that come with the development of the internet?
Another big issue we worked on was net neutrality. Which is a set of policies that guarantee that the companies or institutions providing your internet access do not have the power to decide what sites you visit, what apps you use, and what apps work. This was a fight both in the US and the EU where internet providers like telecom companies and cable television companies wanted to be able to make some sites go faster than others and charge websites or app developers for the privilege of being one of those non-throttled.
Another thing that they wanted to do was to be able to block competing services. For example, if a cable company has an internet television service they might want to make that work really well and at the same time, make let’s say Netflix work poorly. In the US cable providers were intentionally not upgrading the routers and or the interconnection points that were serving traffic from Netflix just to let Netflix service degrade in order to push people to use their services that they made money off.
To give you another example, when Facetime first came out for the iPhone, the mobile operators in the US said ‘okay fine but you can't use that on our networks’. And they blocked Facetime and they also blocked Skype for a while because it was over the internet and they wanted people to use phone minutes and not use internet calling.
So we were able to get strong net neutrality rules in the US and then later and we helped with the effort in the UE. And the net neutrality rules in the EU are actually now better than the ones in the US.
It all ties in with what you guys are doing in Quiet. Let’s talk about this a bit.
So Quiet is a peer-to-peer communication app that syncs messages between users directly, there is no need for a server, we’re using Tor instead. What Quiet does is it lets people control their own data and communicate and work together without depending on a server at all. We build private networks for people in a given community which could be a workplace, it could be a group of friends or it could be some type of organization, or just some type of online or offline community.
We create a private network for them where their devices are connected to each other's devices. We connect those devices together over Tor and then we use some cool technology from a project called IPFS and OrbitDB to sync all the data relevant to their communication and collaboration between their devices in real time. And so for example when you're in a quiet community and you send a message it's getting added to a database and it's getting broadcasted out to the devices of other people in your community.
Quiet is an example of a local first and peer-to-peer app and I think this approach is going to become the new open source.
You decided to build Quiet with Rumble Fish’s team. Can you tell me a little bit about our cooperation?
We've been working together since the very beginning of 2019 or the end of 2018. And at the beginning when we started, it was kind of a research project of mine where I wanted to make progress on it, and investigate, but I wasn't working on it full time. And when we were in that mode, my relationship with Rumble Fish was very much like, okay, this is a dev team. But over the past few years and this has happened in some leaps, but mostly just gradually it's become more like we're a team working together and I'm working on this full time. I'm the product manager and in more of a full-time founder role and then Rumble Fish is a team of colleagues and the management team., They are very technical and bring senior-level development guidance. They are also being a technical adviser to me in terms of what decisions make sense or don't make sense at different stages in the project.
To get a closer look at what we’re building together with Holmes, see our case study.