Reimagine the Internet Day 3: Adversarial Interoperability / Competitive Compatibility

This week I’m attending the Reimagine the Internet mini-conference, a small and mostly academic discussion about decentralization from a corporate controlled Internet to realize a more socially positive network. This post is a collection of my notes from the third day of talks, following my previous post.

Today’s session was on platform compatibility as an alternative to regulation, and as a strategy for community bootstrapping.

Protocols, Not Platforms

Users don’t favor competition for idealized capitalistic notions of the “free market”, but out of a desire for self-determination. We generally like having choice about our own experiences; see the complaints when Twitter and Facebook switched feeds to non-chronological, complaints that Twitter doesn’t provide a feed of only people you follow without retweets and likes.

We often speak about the power of the “network effect”: I join Twitter because so many other people are on Twitter, and if you made an exact clone of Twitter’s functionality no one would move there because it lacks the compelling population. This explains why new social media behemoths are so rare, and tend to be limited to ‘one per category’, in that there’s one big Reddit-like platform, one big Twitter-like, etc.

However, even more powerful is the “switching cost”. The network effect may attract users to a new platform in the first place, but the cost of moving to a new platform, losing their social connections, conversation history, and community spaces, is what keeps them there.

The easiest way to create a new platform is therefore to interface with an older platform, lower the switching cost, and make it as easy as possible for users to migrate en-masse. Trivial examples include Telegram and Signal using phone numbers as IDs so your existing contacts immediately appear on the new platform (although this has serious privacy concerns, especially paired with notifications when an existing contact joins the platform). Jabber (now XMPP) is a more complex example: they ran a full network bridge to ICQ, AIM, and other contemporary instant messengers, allowing their users to write to their friends on all other platforms.

Maybe the best example is email, where you’re not firmly rooted to a single email server, but can export all your email, make an account on a new email server, import your mail back in, and continue writing to all the same people. Changing servers effectively changes your username, but otherwise has zero disruption to your social network.

Limits of Regulation

Legislation and regulation move at a glacial pace (see the CFAA), while technology is quickly iterated on. If we legislate social media companies, for example requiring that Facebook expose particular APIs, then they’ll work to undermine those APIs until the regulation no longer has value.

For a very real example, auto manufacturers use a standardized diagnostic port to share information with auto-mechanics. However, manufacturers started extending the protocol, making some information only accessible using custom software, so the dealership had access to more information than general mechanics. They can’t legally mandate that only the dealership be allowed to repair cars, so they made it impossibly difficult for mechanics instead. Eventually regulation caught up and required all information sent over the diagnostic port to be in plaintext via a publicly available API. So auto-manufacturers switched to sending the extra information over wireless diagnostic interfaces, bypassing the regulation.

Reverse Engineering as Praxis

Cory Doctorow suggested legalization of reverse engineering as an alternative to regulation. If mechanics could reverse engineer the secret diagnostic port protocols, then they could continue repairing cars. If the manufacturer changes the protocol in their next model of cars then they need to send updated tooling to all their own dealerships or risk disrupting their own repairs. We’d develop a cat and mouse game between mechanics and manufacturers each year, hopefully with more positive outcomes for consumers.

Returning to the broader topic of social media, we can apply the same logic to Facebook. Rather than mandate that they open APIs to the public, we would be free to reverse-engineer the Facebook mobile apps and web-interface, uncover the undocumented, proprietary APIs, and use them in third party software. This would allow the kind of content-export we’re familiar with from email, contact-syncing with other platforms, even message bridges between Facebook and other social media.

Limitations of Federation

Pivoting topics, let’s talk about some limitations of federated servers that we might link to existing networks like Facebook.

Duplication of labor is hard: if different servers have different content policies then they cannot inherit moderation decisions from one another, and must each moderate the same messages. This is especially difficult in multi-lingual scenarios, where moderators must translate and then moderate messages, and can easily miss cultural subtleties. This is less of an issue in smaller and more purpose-specific communities, which can have specifically tailored content policies with more room for context and less ambiguity.

We often frame censorship or moderation in terms of free speech, and leave out the importance of freedom of assembly. Echo chambers aren’t just where hatespeech and radicalization take place; they’re also where we organize BLM, and LGBTQ+ spaces.

Conclusion

This was a good session for broadening horizons beyond either “reign in Big Tech” or “reject Big Tech entirely and build all-new platforms”. These are good ideas for piggy-backing off of existing large networks to boot up better solutions. There’s also good perspective here on what we’re losing with decentralization. Moderation and scale are hard, and this further amplifies previous discussions on the need for a plethora of small purposeful communities over large homogeneous ones. Click here for my notes from day 3.

Posted 5/12/2021