In an ideal – or even just a reasonably fair internet world – this wouldn't, and really, couldn't even be an issue.
But in the real – online – world, it seems that the US's Constitution's First Amendment has become a sticking point, and a big one – and for a whole host of digital players, big and small alike.
A sticking point in terms of – “to respect, or not to respect.”
Even if one agrees with the now seemingly set-in-stone defense that moderation, or just plain censorship of free speech is allowed to occur on the US internet because private companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter choose to exercise their right not to take on the principles or free speech – questions still remain.
For instance – although the First Amendment rule is said to be obligatory only for state institutions – is there actually another rule – one against private companies who may decide, of their own free will or conscience, to comply with it?
These are some of the issues arising from the news that the Mastodon self-hosted, federated (i.e., decentralized) open-source social network service has been working actively on suppressing and even removing one of its own participants – Gab – from the Fediverse.
What is Gab – and what's Fediverse?
The primary Fediverse hub that operates Mastodon has blocked Gab's domains and cordoned off their communities while also suggesting others prevent anyone from reaching Gab.
The fediverse should be pretty much what it says on the box: a federated (so – not centralized) online universe of interconnected servers. In other words: a bunch of those publishing social networks, microblogs, websites, or file hosting compatible with the same protocols and open standards. Like those Mastodon is based on.
Gab, for its part, is as of its latest version an open-source fork of Mastodon itself.
However, the fact that the social network has become the refuge of many of those banned and/or demonetized – including prominent US conservatives – from major global giants over the past months and years, has rubbed those with a voice in the Mastodon community the very wrong way.
*We will not call it a slippery slope, we will celebrate our new waterslide*
— Rule 303 (@Veritas303) July 5, 2019
And they are not nearly prepared to let one of their country's founding principles, that of free speech, run its course, and differentiate itself on a free and open platform.
Instead, in a post on Mastodon's blog, this open, decentralized social networking service – that doesn't even have a central server it could control – stated they were “completely opposed to Gab's project and philosophy, which seeks to monetize and platform racist content while hiding behind the banner of free speech.”
That's some heavy words right there – but still well within Mastodon's right to express its opinion.
But then in addition – instead of sticking to Mastodon's mission of providing a self-hosted, open-source decentralized social network – the blog post vows to “remain committed to standing up against hate speech (…) our new server covenant means we only list servers on joinmastodon.org that are committed to active moderation against racism, sexism and transphobia.”
In other words – all you open source, open and free internet kids – get ready, because there's a new covenant in town.
“Android and iOS said so.”
The Mastodon blog post continued:
“Tusky (Android) and Toot! (iOS) have blacklisted Gab's domains from their login screens. Gab users will not be able to use these apps to access or post from Gab. We do not currently know if any other apps are doing the same. Mastodon itself allows instance owners to decide which domains to block. Most servers in the Fediverse are already blocking the Gab domains and we have done the same a mastodon.social.”
All this comes as Gab has tried to work around the blocks it had faced in launching its apps on Apple's and Google's app stores – by releasing a new, open-source, Mastodon-based version on July 4 – and making use of the common protocol underlying the open technologies to allow its users to sign onto the platform and use it on their phones, as well as on the web.
Reacting to Mastodon's restrictive move, Gab's Twitter account said that the Mastodon community was “sabotaging their own app developers with mass flagging/reporting of any app that does not block Gab's domain.”
But apparently pulling the big-money controlled, compromised, and utterly untrustworthy internet back from the clutches of its current centralized owners will not be as easy as adopting a common protocol, or a new, in name at least, politically and ideologically agnostic decentralized service.
In the US, for the time being, at least – ideology and politics seem to squarely trump any argument that technology itself may have, or promise for the future.
And the sad thing for any champion of a decentralized and free internet may be precisely this: that any semblance of consideration of the wider picture of what “Fediverse” even means, or could mean in the future, simply evaporates in the context of the toxic present-day “news cycle.”
Against the backdrop of the globally dominant, massive social media players – who feel powerful enough not to even care to properly explain why they might ban some users, or their content – there appeared Gab.
Hate it or love it – it seems to be living up to its promise of a decentralized social platform respecting free speech – while Mastodon seems to be massively struggling with its own mission statement.