Innovation

Innovators Are Crafting Decentralized Social Media Alternatives. Will App Stores Pull Them Down?

How can we build a culture that welcomes alternative tech?

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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.

NEXT: Poetry Wednesday!: "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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  1. Jesus Christ, Reason is finally writing about Mastodon and F-Droid, too?!

    You don’t have to shop at Amazon. You don’t have to shop at Google either.

    And if we’re mentioning Mastodon, let’s not forget about Parler.

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      1. The last thing we need is the Nazis telling us they have to take over because there isn’t anywhere for them to exercise their free speech rights.

        Yeah, they have options, too.

        1. The worst part of progressive arguments for cancel culture and censorship may be that they turn nasty people into legitimate victims. It’s like when the photos from Abu Ghraib came out. I didn’t think it was possible to make the world feel sympathy for terrorists at the time, but the Bush Administration found a way. Tell anti-fa the same thing: Has anything in recent memory made average Americans sympathize with right wing activists more than anti-fa?

          Same thing here, except I don’t feel sorry for the racists, anti-immigration people, etc.–since they do have places where they can go to express themselves. If the rest of the world doesn’t follow them over there because they don’t want to hear what the racists and anti-immigration people have to say, well that’s just too bad.

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        1. MacKKK then. Good Scottish Protestants.

        2. The 2nd Birth of a Nation-inspired KKK was anti-Catholic because they didn’t have enough darkies to hate on up in Pennsylvania and Indiana.

    2. Jesus Christ, Reason is finally writing about Mastodon

      Just in time, they have a new album coming out in a few days!

      1. That’s a different Mastodon.

        P.S. I think metalheads are the only people on earth who still buy albums, and aren’t all the hip metalheads mostly on Bandcamp?

        Seems like all the hip kids are gravitating to smaller, targeted forms of social media.

        1. All of my favorite bands are on MySpace.

          1. Your favorite old bands are on MySpace, but they’re on Bandcamp, too.

            https://relapsealumni.bandcamp.com/album/leviathan

            All your favorite bands–that you’ve never heard before–are on Bandcamp.

            You want to check that out, and you want the app.

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    4. social media has a network effect though. the first mover gets the most accounts, and newbies want to join the social media site where everyone else gathers. they have to be really bad (think MySpace or Yahoo bad) to F it up and let someone supplant them.

      shopping sites don’t have network effects. Amazon wins because they have better service and lower prices and better selection. you don’t have to shop there, but the alternatives are worse. If you go to a Facebook alternative, it might have a superior layout and superior privacy policies, but it also has a lot fewer people.

  2. This seems to be more egregioius behavior than what led to Microsoft’s loss in their monopoly case.

    1. This should probably be seen within the context of what Apple is doing with Fortnite, too.

      “Everyone is mad about Apple’s App Store guidelines right now, especially when it comes to cloud gaming services. Microsoft isn’t bringing Project xCloud to iOS. Google’s Stadia app can’t let iPhone users actually play games. Facebook also had to axe the ability to play games for its Facebook Gaming iOS app to be allowed in the App Store. And that doesn’t even take into account the number of smaller, non-gaming app developers who have had their apps kicked out of the App Store after seemingly arbitrary enforcement of Apple’s guidelines. But Fortnite developer Epic Games took a bold step toward telling Apple what it thinks of the company’s App Store policies, possibly attempting a loophole to get around things. Fortnite has now been kicked out of both Apple and Google’s stores, and Epic is now suing Apple.”

      https://gizmodo.com/fortnite-may-have-just-laid-the-perfect-antitrust-trap-1844714297

      I find these arguments far more compelling than people complaining about social media.

      1. I find these arguments far more compelling than people complaining about social media.

        Why? Seems to me you’re saying violating the 1A/committing fraud to the tune of $1, 100M times is OK but $100M, 1 time isn’t.

        1. If the government is stopping someone from using their monopoly status to extract rent, that may be (with the emphasis on “may”) a perfectly legitimate use of government.

          No one has a right to “speak” using someone else’s property.

          1. If the government is stopping someone from using their monopoly status to extract rent, that may be (with the emphasis on “may”) a perfectly legitimate use of government.

            No one has a right to “speak” using someone else’s property.

            So Epic doesn’t have a right to “speak” on Apple/Google’s platform/ecosystem or are some breaches of contract/undue exercise of influence more equal than others?

            I mean, it’s just really bizarre because your bulk standard retort for the average conservative Twitter user is “Go build your own Twitter.” while here we have an app store “user” that is not only more capable of shopping around for another service but, indeed, capable of building their own ecosystem from the ground up and, suddenly, you take a “The situation is nuanced and the government *may* need to get involved.” stance.

            It’s almost like you don’t believe in the principle of section 230 unless it defends your preferred parties/businesses. I don’t have a problem either way, I just wish you’d quit being like all the other low-brow dickheads who want to pretend that playing favorites is free speech and that the rest of us dullards should recognize the obvious pro-liberty position and play along.

            1. There isn’t anything bizarre about exercising your rights on your own property and NOT assuming ownership of other people’s property in the name of free speech.

              There also isn’t anything bizarre about noticing the problem of monopoly rent–and suggesting that there maybe could be a role for government in addressing those problems.

              If antitrust law has a legitimate purpose, after all, it isn’t to guarantee free speech. If antitrust law has a legitimate purpose it’s to address problems like monopoly rent.

              . . . and I’m hardly the first libertarian capitalist to think that. There isn’t anything bizarre about that either.

    2. The Microsoft monopoly case was brought on because they included an internet browser for free with windows. The actual case was brought by prodigy, and Netscape navigator. Congress called Bill gates in for questioning (at the time Microsoft had a near $0 lobbying budget) and told congress do what you want my job is making software. Then the monopoly case started. Microsoft learned good and hard that if you don’t give money to the swamp you get attacked

      1. And years of expensive litigation over something that didn’t matter. Yay! I can ‘uninstall’ Internet Explorer 4.0 from my desktop computer sitting in the corner of my livingroom like so much 1930s radio gear.

      2. “Microsoft learned good and hard that if you don’t give money to the swamp you get attacked”

        And now we have MSNBC.

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  4. See, this is the answer to online censorship. It’s decentralization and innovation. Not government regulations.

    1. Then why do you support government regulations and government privileges that enforce and perpetuate online censorship? Oh right, because you’re a totalitarian Marxist fucking cunt, that’s why.

      1. Fuck off, Tulpa.

        1. It’s hilarious that you run at least 4 different socks and still can’t differentiate between me and Tulpa after,what, 4 years now?

    2. Right on, Jeff.

      1. He’s not gonna fuck you bro. He can’t. The Canadian borders are still locked down.

        1. And he’s obese. Could bring the rona on.

    3. So you ignored the actual headline: Will App Stores Pull Them Down?

      This the problem, collusion. It isn’t enough to create an app. Next they have to create an app store. Then a domain server. Then anti DDoS software. Then a payment processor. Then an ad network. etc etc.

      But you never think your arguments through do you.

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  6. Will App Stores Pull Them Down?

    If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem, does it matter?

    My Android and Windows devices don’t go out of their way to prevent side-loading.

    1. If you’re willing to live in a swamp of malware, choose android and windows all you want.

  7. This is one reason I’m still on the desktop. I don’t want a monopoly on the Apple side or a monopoly on the Android side telling me what apps I can or cannot use. And they absolutely do this, because the only “legal” apps are those that are approved to listed in their stores.

    It’s those stores that are the problem. It’s not that they want to squelch free speech, quite frankly they don’t give a damn about that. it’s that they want their cut of sales. Every pay-for app on an iPhone sends a cut to Apple. Every pay-for app on Android sends a cut to Google. Apple’s threatening to delist incredibly popular Fortnite unless it gets it cut. Crazy.

    But on the desktop not only do I get a bigger screen and a full keyboard and mouse, I also can pick and choose whatever applications I want to install and ain’t one thing anyone can say about it. I can go all the way to the dark web if I want. But realisitically it means my choice of browser, my choice of social media site, my choice of forum, website, game, text editor, etc.

    People whining about China and TikTok, but Apple and Google are just as problematic. And thanks to Stephen Elop, there are no competitors in the smartphone space.

    So yeah, I have a smart phone. I use it for listening to podcasts and making… phone calls. But I don’t have many apps on it. I use and will continue to use my desktop for non-phone stuff.

    1. “Phone calls”?

      *pulls encyclopedia off shelf to look up ‘phone call’*

      1. *googles ‘encyclopedia’*

        1. What better place to look up anachronisms than in an anachronism.

        2. We used to have a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was a kid. When they sold it to us, they told us we can read whatever we want, but under no circumstance were we to ever open the page to the “encyclopedia” entry. One time, my brother told me jokingly that he was gonna do it. That’s the last thing he ever told me. We never saw him again. All we found was that his room was full of tiny paper doll cutouts scattered everywhere.

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    2. For what it’s worth, Signal’s desktop app just added the ability to do video conferencing.

      Signal is about as secure and private as anything can be, and now you can get your texts and do videoconferencing from your desktop, too?

      I just got the update in Manjaro Linux a couple days ago. Just tried it yesterday on desktop, and it’s easy and works great.

      1. Signal is about as secure and private as anything can be

        LMFAO. Ken. You’re really fucking stupid on a while variety of topics. But of all the topics on which you are really fucking stupid, technology is probably the single topic on which you are comprehensively the most really fucking stupid. Please stop making shit recommendations and saying stupid things based on your complete and total lack of comprehension of how security, privacy, and software works.

        Signal is among the least secure messaging applications. Not only does it require the registration of your fucking phone number to use, but messages bounce through Signal’s servers; “end-to-end” encryption with a server between the two clients means precisely fucking dick if the central server gets compromised. It’s also been backdoored (search “About backdoors in Signal and other apps”). Overtly, not just secretly like the other commercial messaging apps. And that’s leaving aside that man in the middle attacks haven’t been an attack vector in a decade or more. End to end encryption doesn’t help you if the device you’re running the program on is compromised. And every mobile device running Android or iOS is compromised by design.

        1. Only the end users have access to the decryption keys. For the most part, Signal doesn’t even know who is contacting whom. Their servers apparently keep little or nothing but the date you joined the service.

          Meanwhile, your reference seems to be to “About backdoors in Signal and other apps” appears to be to a Reddit thread from three years ago–from before when the EFF wrote this guide (which appears to still be their primary recommendation even today):

          https://ssd.eff.org/en/module/how-use-signal-android

          I maintain both that Signal is about as secure as anything needs to be and that no one does or should care what you have to say about anything, you vile troll.

          1. I maintain both that Signal is about as secure as anything needs to be and that no one does or should care what you have to say about anything, you vile troll.

            I don’t disagree with some of his assessment, but his lack of recommendation about any competitive or superior services/setups/solutions does make him seem pretty kooky.

            1. “Developer Open Whisper Systems responded to a grand jury subpoena saying it could only produce the time an account was created and the most recent date that a user’s Signal app connected to its servers. The court had asked for significantly more detail like user names, addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses. Signal had retained none of it.”

              https://www.wired.com/story/encrypted-messaging-isnt-magic/

              The claim that there’s a backdoor or that the server may be compromised is odd–considering that there isn’t anything of interest on the server. The keys all stay on the users’ devices.

              1. Not the part I agree with.

                Compromising servers managed by large teams of professionals who stare at them every day is not nearly as easy compromising devices, potentially thousands of them, all carried by morons. And, if so compromised, E2E encryption does (or could) mean precisely dick. See hacked/leaked celebrity photos/messages.

                1. Well, disappearing messages can help with that, but, no, there isn’t anything software can do about people not taking proper precautions. Like I said, nothing is 100% private. Signal is just about as good as it can be and about as good as there is. If people are sharing your messages with others on purpose, you’re screwed.

            2. “By design, Signal does not have a record of your contacts, social graph, conversation list, location, user avatar, user profile name, group memberships, group titles, or group avatars,” Joshua Lund, a Signal developer wrote. “The end-to-end encrypted contents of every message and voice/video call are protected by keys that are entirely inaccessible to us. In most cases now we don’t even have access to who is messaging whom.”

              https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/12/signal-to-australia-good-luck-with-that-crypto-ban/

            3. The other encrypted video conferencing software that’s easy to use from a desktop like that is Wire, but they aren’t even pretending to be about privacy. They care about security–making sure your communications aren’t being hacked or listened to by other people. If the FBI comes with a subpoena, they’ll give them everything–and they probably have plenty to give them, too. Wire is basically for corporate customers–people who may even want to be tracking who their employees are talking to, for how long, etc., etc. It’s not really intended for individuals although they have a free version. Nothing is 100% guaranteed private, but Signal is about as private as any app can be or needs to be.

    3. It’s not that they want to squelch free speech, quite frankly they don’t give a damn about that. it’s that they want their cut of sales.

      That’s why they removed revenue-generating apps purely on the basis of the speech of the people who produced them, right you stupid Marxist fucking cunt?

    4. So yeah, I have a smart phone. I use it for listening to podcasts and making… phone calls.

      Just use a feature phone or the Light Phone then. Or if you only need 3 hours a day of battery life, look into the PinePhone and Librem5 (“they run linux, they must be secure!” – Ken the fucking Retard). Since 1/3 of the population accesses the web exclusively through a smart phone it’s hardly an option for most people.

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  10. 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

    And here is where most fucking morons who don’t understand how web businesses actually generate revenue expose their ignorance.

    Google’s customers are not people who want to find things on the web. Those are Google’s users. Google’s customers are advertisers. And Google enjoys almost 90% market share in search display advertising. Because of that market share and Google’s databases built over 22 years giving them unprecedented user and correlative data there is absolutely no incentive for advertisers to waste money on non-targeted ads on other platforms. There’s no demand for search advertising that provides LESS data to the advertiser.

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