By: Andrea O’Sullivan
September 9, 2020
Innovation is the best critique. Anyone can sit around and complain about something they don’t like. If you have power and influence, you might even be able to get the government to do what you want—for better or worse. But building something that makes the existing reality obsolete is a surefire way to affect the change you want to see. Well, that’s the theory at least.
In practice, much possible innovation is preemptively forestalled. This is obvious in the case of government regulation. When you ban or control something, you will probably get less of it. But the government is not the only entity that gets in the way of innovation. Our norms and cultural attitudes have a lot to do with it, too.
No one knows this better than dissident developers in tech. While commentators like yours truly snipe about policy and politics, these peer-to-peer pioneers set out to build the tools that route around frictions in connectivity. They know the innovation-killing pain points firsthand. Many times, these frictions are so far upstream of popular consumer-facing technologies that they attract little mainstream notice.
Actually, there are already many good alternatives to the centralized services that draw so much ire in media and government circles. They’re not very popular right now, but they work. If they gather enough steam and support, they could one day become a new standard.
For example, many people worry that Google could opportunistically manipulate search results (and therefore society) since it routes so much of the web’s traffic. These critics could use and promote an alternative like searx, which is a free software metasearch engine with multiple instances that allows users to select their own search sources and preferences. Even better, these search alternatives are privacy-protecting, and do not collect and store user data like today’s leading services.
Then there is the question of speech on social media. Many people don’t like the content moderation policies of third-party platforms. Depending on your persuasion, moderators either censor important political speech or allow hate speech to run amok online. The problem is that a one-size-fits-all moderation approach will never make everyone happy.
Enter the Fediverse: an assortment of federated (get it?) software and servers that provide a more customizable web experience. Fediverse apps assemble the protocols to support standard web activities—things like social networking (Mastodon), vlogging (PeerTube), and file hosting (NextCloud). But rather than being hosted and run by one central party like Facebook or Twitter, Fediverse apps and servers can be launched and maintained by anyone. Each of these “instances” can choose their own content policies and decide which other instances they want to engage with. If one instance disagrees with another’s moderation policies, they can opt to not connect with them. And of course, users can choose whatever instance they please. It’s a cool working experiment in voluntary association online.
The Fediverse is very innovative, and it’s exactly the kind of peaceful non-government challenge to market incumbents that libertarians champion as an alternative to clumsy regulation. It’s true that decentralized alternatives have a long way to go before they will have the numbers and user-friendliness of the big guys. But recent setbacks for user accessibility could make this all the more difficult.
Last week, Mastodon developers reported that they received warnings from the Google Play Store that they must change their apps or risk being delisted within seven days. Specifically, the Husky, Fedilab, and Subway Tooter apps received notices, but as of this writing they have yet to be taken down. It appears Google has been unresponsive to media and developer questions.
Google’s notice states that the apps violated the Play Store’s User Generated Content (UCG) policy that prohibits “apps that promote violence or incite hatred against individuals or groups” based on characteristics that are “associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization.” Huh? Those Mastodon apps don’t host any content at all—they just allow users to connect with instances of their choosing. How could they be in violation of the UCG policy?
To put it in context, it would be like if major app stores decided to cut off an alternative browser like Brave on the pretext that it allows users to route to websites that the app stores don’t like. But it would not be like Brave itself was creating that content or even allowing users to create that content. A browser is a passive conduit, just like Husky and Fedilab. (Actually, it’s worse than that, since centralized hosting platforms like Twitter and Facebook have their fair share of UCG policy-violating content, too.)
Imagine if your choice of browser was constrained by whether or not it blocks the right websites! It sounds like something from beyond the Great Firewall, but this appears to be the dilemma facing Mastodon developers.
It’s true that some Fediverse instances are less censored than others. The most infamous is Gab, which has made a reputation as an alt-right hangout. But Gab is kind of the exception that proves the rule, since most Fediverse actors have cut off all contact with Gab (and vice versa). Some app developers go one step further and prevent access to Gab at all on their platform. But either way, should neutral conduits be proactively punished for the content that a user may (or may not!) decide to seek on their own?
The social effects of app store policies have been in the news lately. Apple’s colorful skirmish with Fortnite creator Epic Games has prompted conversations about platform market power and even geopolitics. But at the end of the day, both Apple and Epic have a lot of money, lawyers, and users behind them. They will both get their days in the courts of law and public opinion.
The Fediverse, on the other hand, is something of a mute David facing a busy Goliath. Few people know what Mastodon even is, let alone the fact that Mastodon apps could be preemptively snuffed out with inappropriate UCG reprisals.
I hope that Google will have rescinded its nonsensical policy strikes against Mastodon apps by the time this article is published. These apps host no user content and therefore cannot be in violation of policies regulating user submissions.
Still, this incident illustrates just how vulnerable innovation can be. Our laws and norms have created a culture that tends to “take down” first and maybe ask questions later. If trends continue, and Fediverse apps face resistance on mainstream app stores, they may be pushed to alternatives like F-Droid, which are non-standard and attract far fewer users. But even this is not a great long-term solution, as it could one day be harder to install things like F-Droid on proprietary hardware, which is a whole other story.
Innovating around a problem is not as simple as just creating a new technology. As the troubles facing the Fediverse demonstrates, the social context in which alternatives are produced can matter just as much, if not more, for an innovation’s odds to take root. Those who champion innovation as a solution to social problems should not only use and promote the kinds of alternative technologies that can decentralize computing, we should speak up for them when they run into these kinds of cultural pitfalls, too.
is the Director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. Her work focuses on emerging technologies, cryptocurrency, surveillance, and the open internet.