March 6, 2022
Image: Thays Malcher and Protocol
Your five-minute guide to the best of Protocol (and the internet) from the week that was, from the rise in decentralized messaging to the latest in tech’s involvement in Ukraine.
Messaging apps have been front and center in the war in Ukraine. At this point, they’re important in every conflict everywhere. Billions of people around the world use apps like Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram and others to communicate with loved ones during crises and to get information from friends and official sources.
In Ukraine, Telegram has been particularly crucial. A number of war-related groups have more than 250,000 users and have become a crucial source for news in a deeply messy information environment. At the same time, scams and fraud are running rampant, and hackers are using the platform to plan cyberattacks and more. Moxie Marlinspike, the cryptographer and Signal co-founder, warned that Telegram could be less private than users think. Everything sent through the platform is stored in a database, and “Every msg, photo, video, doc sent/received for the past 10 yrs; all contacts, group memberships, etc are all available to anyone w/ access to that DB,” he tweeted. Marlinspike, not exactly surprisingly, recommended people use Signal instead.
The importance of truly private messaging is certainly becoming clear to many people, though. It’s also becoming a more urgent priority for companies like Meta, which quickly expanded its test of encrypted Instagram DMs to Ukraine and Russia. (Meta has been working on unifying its messaging apps for a while, with encryption as a core feature.)
There’s another issue at play here, though: Apps like Telegram and Instagram are so crucial to the way people communicate, and simultaneously so easy for countries like Russia to shut down. The Russian government has already blocked Facebook, and is reportedly blocking access to Twitter, app stores and other services as well. It’s not hard to imagine the government shutting off access to messaging apps next. One reason I’ve heard it hasn’t yet is that Russian citizens need those apps, too, but that might not stop the government forever.
That could be where decentralization can actually make a difference. So far, the push toward crypto donations mostly doesn’t mean much; it’s a more transparent system, sure, but it’s not solving a real problem yet. But decentralized messaging apps could be the kind of resilient, unblockable tool that people in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere need to stay online and in touch even in the midst of a war.
Matthew Hodgson, the co-founder of a decentralized messaging network called Matrix and the popular Element app that uses it, said he’s seen a huge uptick in usage in Ukraine over the last couple of weeks: tens of thousands of downloads a day, “enough to push us up the rankings from basically zero to top 10, top 20” in the App Store. Among other things, Hodgson and Matrix have been working with a Canadian nonprofit to set up Matrix servers around Ukraine so users can have what he calls “self-sovereign communication capability.”
Matrix is set up to fail gracefully, so that if the government shuts off a server the network can scale down or shift to another one. And the team is working on peer-to-peer chat, too, so users can communicate even via Bluetooth connections with no internet connection necessary. Operating this way can come with some big sacrifices, particularly in speed and loading times, but the trade-off may be well worth it for users who just need an unstoppable way to talk.
“There by definition isn’t really a single point of control or failure over those conversations,” Hodgson said. It’s not controlled by one company or only available in a single app; shutting Matrix down is like shutting down the whole internet. And since everything is end-to-end encrypted, it can’t be read or censored, either. Hodgson told me he fully expects Russia to block most messaging apps soon and that decentralized systems may be all that’s left. He said Matrix is speeding up its development on practically everything to try and help users in Ukraine. There’s even a new decentralized video chat service; I was Hodgson’s first call after the rollout on Friday.
The push for an interoperable, open-source messaging system has been around forever, but it’s gaining some real steam. The EU is pushing to force large platforms to open up their APIs and interoperate, and Twitter is hard at work turning itself into a decentralized platform. (“They are designing Bluesky on top of Matrix right now,” Hodgson said.) Matrix looks like the leading candidate to underpin some of these new systems, like HTTP does for the internet or SMTP does for email.
Hodgson has been preaching the gospel of open messaging for years and said this feels like an inflection point. “Obviously I wish it had happened during better circumstances,” he told me, “but if it is shown to work, and it’s good enough it can actually be useful, then perhaps that will be a turning point.”
We asked you to tell us your go-to messaging apps, and you responded! As we figured, there were lots of votes for WhatsApp, Signal, Slack and good old-fashioned text messaging. And nearly everyone said they’re stuck on some frustrating mix of a bunch of different tools. Here were a few of our favorite responses:
“My favorite messaging app is Signal! Then I use WhatsApp with some of my friends and family in Germany (with those who don't have Signal). Then with a few friends here I still use text messaging if they don't have Signal. Trying to get everyone on it slowly though :)” — Anna Bolender
“Tbh if there was a Slack equivalent for personal comms I'd probably use it … The one downside: it's too associated with work for me to use casually. I usually turn to either Instagram DMs or SMS outside work.” — Gina Gacad
“My go-to messaging app is Signal. I use it with my wife, children, as well as my extended family. We have several groups, one that is a general one with everyone, along with smaller groups depending on the discussion topic. I also use Signal with friends, individually and groups, to include one that talks all things Yankees. Oh, and I had to look up GroupMe. I had never heard of it.” — Pat Byrne
Gen Z is poised to help everyone - from a rural small business to a tech giant - rethink how their business operations can help alleviate the digital divide. It’s time to give Gen Z a seat at the table for the generation that sees how tech can be a benefit but often is the barrier for advancement.
The war in Ukraine is putting tech — from companies to governments — to the test, by Nat Rubio-Licht, Alex Eichenstein and Sarah Roach
Google’s secret plan to take on AirPods, by Janko Roettgers
Notion wants to tackle the enterprise without losing its cool factor, by Lizzy Lawrence
Move fast and break your company: Lessons from the tech darlings of the pandemic, by Anna Kramer
How Netflix and Uber helped create the data lakehouse by preserving an open-source tradition, by Kate Kaye
Amazon says the success of Lost Ark and New World is proof that live service gaming is the future, by Nick Statt
'My company is not my family': Fed up with long hours, many employees have quietly decided to take it easy at work rather than quit their jobs — Business Insider
A gripping yarn: inside the Knitting.com drama — Input
Twitter wants to reinvent itself, by merging the old with the new — The New York Times
A deepening crisis forces physicists to rethink structure of nature’s laws — Quanta
They spent $3 million on a Dune script bible — now what? — The Verge
Computer Security 161 Cryptocurrency Lecture — Nicholas Weaver
People often think of the digital divide as being just about broadband access, but it is also about understanding the needs and tech literacy levels across roughly six generations. Gen Z could help companies develop products and apps that better serve the needs of our communities, our country and our world.
Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to our tips line, email@example.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.