Loadsharers: Funding the Load-Bearing Internet Person

The internet has a sustainability problem. Many of its critical services depend on the dedication of unpaid volunteers, because they can't be monetized and thus don't have any revenue stream for the maintainers to live on. I'm talking about services like DNS, time synchronization, crypto libraries—software without which the net and the browser you're using couldn't function.

These volunteer maintainers are the Load-Bearing Internet People (LBIP). Underfunding them is a problem, because underfunded critical services tend to have gaps and holes that could have been fixed if there were more full-time attention on them. As our civilization becomes increasingly dependent on this software infrastructure, that attention shortfall could lead to disastrous outages.

I've been worrying about this problem since 2012, when I watched a hacker I know wreck his health while working on a critical infrastructure problem nobody else understood at the time. Billions of dollars in e-commerce hung on getting the particular software problem he had spotted solved, but because it masqueraded as network undercapacity, he had a lot of trouble getting even technically-savvy people to understand where the problem was. He solved it, but unable to afford medical insurance and literally living in a tent, he eventually went blind in one eye and is now prone to depressive spells.

More recently, I damaged my ankle and discovered that although there is such a thing as minor surgery on the medical level, there is no such thing as "minor surgery" on the financial level. I was looking—still am looking—at a serious prospect of either having my life savings wiped out or having to leave all 52 of the open-source projects I'm responsible for in the lurch as I scrambled for a full-time job. Projects at risk include the likes of GIFLIB, GPSD and NTPsec.

That refocused my mind on the LBIP problem. There aren't many Load-Bearing Internet People—probably on the close order of 1,000 worldwide—but they're a systemic vulnerability made inevitable by the existence of common software and internet services that can't be metered. And, burning them out is a serious problem. Even under the most cold-blooded assessment, civilization needs the mean service life of an LBIP to be long enough to train and acculturate a replacement.

(If that made you wonder—yes, in fact, I am training an apprentice. Different problem for a different article.)

Alas, traditional centralized funding models have failed the LBIPs. There are a few reasons for this:

  • LBIPs don't tend to be visible to funding organizations, which generally lack the expertise and on-the-ground connections to identify and evaluate them.
  • Most LBIP projects don't exist as legal entities, and LBIPs are poorly positioned to deal with bureaucratic overhead or reporting requirements.
  • Funding organizations near this space are notoriously prone to capture by corporations, political factions and internal vanity projects. The money tends to run out before it gets to the LBIPs who actually need it.

Some of you might think "But what about The Internet Society?" or the "Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII)?" Unfortunately, those organizations turn out to illustrate the problem perfectly. Funding LBIPs isn't in ISOC's charter at all. For every high-visibility infrastructure project like the Linux kernel where CII can satisfy itself there's a need, a dozen others never even make its radar.

The prospect of being flat broke with treatment for a serious injury unfinished concentrates the mind wonderfully. I've invented a solution not just for my own troubles but for LBIPs in general. It's the Loadsharers network.

Loadsharers is a social network that has agreed to fund LBIPs through remittance services like Patreon, SubscribeStar, Liberapay and PayPal.

People with the most direct incentive to join Loadsharers are those in the tech industries and adjacent who have some grasp of how dependent their jobs and their nice lives are on critical open-source infrastructure. If you are one of those people—and, as a reader of LJ you almost certainly are—you should consider Loadsharers to be not mere altruism but a kind of risk insurance.

Loadsharers take the following pledge:

"While I am gainfully employed, I will remit at least $30 a month to one, two, or three LBIPs, preferably three." (It is understood that $30 may need to be inflation-adjusted in the future—it's the cost of one moderately priced restaurant meal.)

Because discovering where to direct support most efficiently isn't easy, the Loadsharers network has a tier of advisers (experienced LBIPs themselves) who collect information on worthy people and projects from the network and make recommendations about good targets.

Distributed discovery means that as many eyes as there are Loadsharers are on the problem of identifying potential LBIPs; the advisers then can apply their expert knowledge to suggest priorities. Three-way fanout should avoid the problem of having all the funding be captured by a few high-visibility people.

Every Loadsharer has total control of where his or her money goes at all times, and loadsharers can choose which advisers to follow (or to follow none). This avoids the organizational-capture problem.

As I write this, the Loadsharers network is still small. At present growth rates, it's likely to be in the low three digits when you read this. That's only a start; it needs to scale up from there by about a factor of a thousand, which, actually, should be readily achievable.

Here is how the numbers look. 160 Loadsharers can cover $5K per month basic maintenance for one LBIP. That means the need for Loadsharers should start to top out at about 160K. But in the US alone, there are around 7 million people with jobs in the technology sector that are directly dependent on LBIP work. That means we just need less than 3% of US tech workers to become Loadsharers to cover the problem, even leaving out the rest of the world.

Now consider the social and political effects if Loadsharers scaled up fully. Wouldn't you like to have an internet that's less beholden to the mercy of large corporations and governments? Loadsharers would create a tier of maintainer/engineers answerable only to the individuals who might choose to fund them. A second-order effect would be to create a counterweight against special-interest domination of organizations like ICANN and the IETF.

Even if you don't care that a lot of LBIPs are hardship cases, that might be a sufficient reason to join up right there.

Here's how you can help. Go to loadsharers.net, read our goals and FAQ to be sure you agree, and then, take the pledge. Find three LBIPs through our advisor pages and start funding them immediately.

Some optional things:

  • Join the feeds of one or more advisers, on whatever remittance service they're using, so you can use their on-the-ground knowledge to identify worthy LBIPs.
  • Identify a potential LBIP so we know who to fund. Or you can update our information on candidate LBIPs. Tell an adviser so he or she can spread the word.
  • Send me email telling me you're joining up, with a link to your contributor page or pages. I'm keeping an honor roll of early contributers.
  • Explain to your friends why they should become loadsharers too.

That last part—getting the word out to others—is really important. Until we've scaled up enough to support multiple LBIPs, Loadsharers will be a cute hack but not yet a solution. But pulling together, we can make it work. And, the civilization you save might be your own.

Eric S. Raymond is a wandering anthropologist and trouble-making philosopher. He's been known to write a few lines of code too. Actually, if the tag "ESR" means nothing to you, what are you doing reading this magazine?

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