In January 2021, Poland proposed a law requiring social-media companies to restore any posts that the platforms had deleted, as long as the posts weren’t unlawful. This came days after several of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts were suspended.
The Polish government also established the Freedom of Speech Council which consists of five members elected by a majority in the Lower House of Parliament, tasked with monitoring and reviewing complaints submitted by social media users whose posts or accounts had been censored.
Individuals who had their posts deleted would be able to lodge a complaint directly with the platform, which would then have to respond within 24 hours. Failure to do so could result in a fine between 12,900 and 12.9 million USD.
Reporters Without Borders has criticized this move, postulating that the Polish government has designed this council to be used for self-serving political purposes, in part based on Poland’s history of propaganda use.
Suspending the social media accounts of an incumbent head of state drew criticism from both ends of the political spectrum worldwide, with Trump’s supporters and detractors alike raising concerns over the outsized influence of Big Tech. At a time when censorship of voices across social media continues to gain momentum, we take a look at alternative, free, and open social platforms.
What are distributed and federated social networks?
Traditional social network platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram are run on centralized servers. Companies that own these networks build their services around a single server, set their own codes of conduct that can remove your posts at their discretion, and collect copious amounts of data on its users.
Distributed or decentralized social networks, on the other hand, are operated across multiple independently run servers by absolutely anybody. Some examples of this include: Mastodon (a Twitter and Tumblr analog), diaspora* (a Facebook analog), and PeerTube (a YouTube analog).
Taking this one step further, federated social networks are a collection of multiple distributed or decentralized networks that employ technologies such as a network federation. A notable example being the Fediverse, which is a collection of interconnected servers that can be used for social networks, blogs, micro blogs, and websites.
How do they work?
Where traditional social networks are owned and run by single parties, anybody can start their own server for a decentralized social network, complete with their own rules and codes of conduct. These are called “instances.”
Users within an instance can communicate with and follow each other, but also have the ability to communicate with those outside of their communities by utilizing the same communication protocol. The most common of these protocols is ActivityPub. This would be, for example, similar to WhatsApp users having the ability to communicate with WeChat users and vice versa. Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko described it best by comparing the concept of sending emails in that Gmail users can send and receive messages to Outlook users and vice versa.
What does this mean for privacy?
It means a more private social experience! As these social networks are open-source, their codes are able to be openly scrutinized and adapted. Users have the ability to create their own instances—private or otherwise—where they can easily set their own rules, privacy options, and moderation guidelines.
What does this mean for free speech?
Federation and distribution by design aims to provide open and free outlets for social-media users to share ideas and opinions.
In 2019, controversial social platform Gab switched over to a fork of Mastodon’s software. This came after losing its hosting at GoDaddy and being banned from accepting payments through PayPal. It essentially, overnight, became the largest Mastodon instance.
Shortly after, other instances began blocking Gab from being able to interact with them. Mastodon only lists instances on its site’s directory that abide by the Mastodon Server Covenant, which has clear rules around racism, sexism, and homophobia, among others.
Even free speech isn’t a free-for-all.
Read more: Top video-sharing alternatives to YouTube