Reimagine the Internet Day 4: Building Defiant Communities

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 fourth day of talks, following my previous post.

Today’s session was on building platforms in hostile environments, and community-building while facing censorship and dire consequences if deanonymized.

MidEast Tunes

The first speaker, Esra’a Al Shafei had spent some time building news and chat sites in Bahrain (which has a very restricted press), but quickly and repeatedly fell afoul of censorship via ISP-level domain blocking. This was before widespread use of proxies and VPNs, so even if the service could have stayed up hosted remotely, the userbase would be cut off.

Instead, she settled on a music site, sort of indie-west-african-eastern-asian-spotify, MidEast Tunes. Music streaming was harder to justify blocking than text news sites, but still provided an outlet for political speech. This grew into a collaboration system, sort of a web-based GarageBand, where users could supply samples and work together to create tracks. This spawned cross-cultural, international, feminist connections.

Ahwaa

Years later, now that proxies are prevalent and domain blocking is more challenging, she’s returned to making an LGBT+ positive forum. While the censorship evasion is easier, the site still faces many problems, from anonymity concerns to trolls.

Anonymity is secured by forbidding most/all photo posts, representing each user with a customizable but vague cartoon avatar, and providing only the broadest user profiles, like “lesbian in Saudi”.

Infiltration is discouraged through a Reddit-like karma system. Users receive upvote hearts from others for each kind message they post, and site features like chat are restricted based on total upvote hearts. In the opposite case, sufficient downvotes lead to shadowbanning. Therefore, infiltrating the platform to engage in harassment requires posting hundreds or thousands of supportive LGBT-positive messages, and harassers are automatically hidden via shadowbanning. Not a perfect system, but cuts down on the need for moderation dramatically.

Switter

The second speaker, Eliza Sorensen, co-founded Switter and Tryst, sex-worker positive alternatives to Twitter and Backpage, respectively. After FOSTA/SESTA, many US-based companies banned all sex workers or sex work-related accounts to protect themselves from legal liability. Others aggressively shadow-banned even sex-positive suggestive accounts, hiding them from feeds, search, and discovery. Not only is this censorship morally absurd in its own right, but it also took away a valuable safety tool for sex workers. Open communication allowed them to vet clients and exchange lists of trustworthy and dangerous clients, making the entire profession safer. Locking down and further-criminalizing the industry hasn’t stopped sex work, but has made it much more dangerous. Hacking//Hustling has documented just how insidious FOSTA/SESTA is, and the horrible impacts the legislation has had.

Fortunately, Australia has legalized, although heavily regulated, sex work. This makes it possible to host a sex worker-positive mastodon instance within Australia, providing a safer alternative to major platforms. This is not a “solution” by any means - FOSTA/SESTA criminalizes a wide variety of behavior (like treating anyone that knowingly provides housing to a sex worker as a “sex trafficker”), and that social safety net can’t be restored with a decentralized Twitter clone. Nevertheless, it’s a step in harm reduction.

Conclusions

Both speakers stressed the importance of small-scale, purpose-built platforms. Creating platforms for specific purposes allows more care, context-awareness, safety. Scalability is an impulse from capitalism, stressing influence and profit, and is often harmful to online communities.

This seems like a potential case for federation and protocol interoperability. Thinking especially of the Switter case, existing as a Mastodon instance means users outside of Switter can interact with users on the platform without creating a purpose-specific account there. It’s not cut off, and this helps with growth, but the community on Switter is specifically about sex work, and can best provide support and a safe environment for those users. In other cases, like Ahwaa, complete isolation seems mandatory, and reinforces context-awareness and multiple personas. Click here for my notes from day 5.

Posted 5/13/2021