My Content is Mine: Why I Unikernel, Part 2

Having a machine capable of executing arbitrary instructions on the public Internet is a responsibility, and it’s a fairly heavy one to assume just to run a blog. Some people solve this by letting someone else take care of it – GitHub, Tumblr, or Medium, for example. I’m not so keen on that solution for a number of reasons, almost none of which are Internet-old-person crankery.

First, and most emotionally: as dumb as my thoughts are, they’re mine. Not GitHub’s or Medium’s or any other group’s. Most entities on the web don’t host user content out of the goodness of their heart; they’re getting something out of it, and it’s likely that they’re getting more out of it than the user is. I’m reminded of the old MetaFilter maxim: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product.” Either someone’s making money off of you now or they plan to do it later. I don’t want to encourage that kind of behavior. I just want to write things that people can read about how to make stuff work.

Moreover, if I let someone else host my content, I’m not in ultimate control of whether it stays there. Content disappears all the time – companies fold and take your data with them, they decide they’d rather not provide you a mouthpiece because they don’t like what you’re saying, or they may decide to start charging you for the privilege of putting your stuff on their site (sometimes without letting you get your data out first, if you don’t like the fee structure). Companies that initially offered open access to content turn into walled gardens, possibly with terms for signup that are onerous to folks who want to read your content. When you put your content in someone else’s hands, you have no control over any of this.

There are even worse possibilities for user content. Signing your name to an article, then posting it on a content platform, signals a high level of trust in the platform not to edit your content after you’ve signed it. In most cases, there’s nothing technical stopping the content platform from doing so. In many cases, there’s nothing in the terms of service or any official policy preventing the content platform from editing your content, either. I’d be rather piqued, personally, to discover the sentence “State surveillance is not a public good” edited to “State surveillance is a public good” after I’d written and posted it.

Keeping even innocuous content safe from modification (and as a consequence, authenticated and encrypted, something in the works for Mirage unikernels) is vital for keeping all content safe from modification. If all content that Medium will accept is hosted on Medium, content hosted elsewhere automatically becomes suspect. Worse, access to content elsewhere may be restricted by network gatekeepers, be they well-meaning or otherwise; it’s already possible to get a Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, or Pinterest-only data plan. What does that imply about content hosted in places other than Facebook and Twitter?

The ability of content creators to self-host is a fundamental requirement of a free and open Internet, and I think that my own participation in such an Internet requires that I host my own content. I didn’t think it was possible to do so responsibly, and with a minimum of cognitive overhead, until I started running my blog as a unikernel.

This part of my online presence isn’t the only thing about my Internet use that could be made safer, and more ethical, by controlling it myself - there are many services that I, and others, could certainly use a safe, secure, unmonitored, and tamper-resistant interface to. I would love to have a highly-available virtual machine that answered and anonymized my DNS queries. I’d like to run my own mail server again – a prospect currently much scarier than running a web server. I’d love to have an IPSEC tunnel, for which I controlled both endpoints, to route all of my traffic over. I’d love to have a ubiquitous, reliable mesh network available in my home, so all this self-hosting I’m doing didn’t rely on a data center to Do The Right Thing. I’d love for my artist and activist friends to be able to have these things too.

I’m looking forward to helping make more of these things possible.