How Decentralized Social Media Can Thwart Canada’s Efforts to Regulate the Internet

ActivityPub, and the popularity of Mastadon could be a sign that Canada’s efforts to regulate the internet with Bill’s C-11 and C-18 may go down in flames.

Over the weekend, we reported on Mastodon reaching 10 million users according to a data tracker. The milestone really drove home the point that decentralized social media is here to stay and that, despite what some critics have said, such a system is, in fact, viable.

So, picture, if you will, the following scenario: centralized networks are under increasing pressure from government and law enforcement. An increasing number of those networks are getting shut down. For the engineer types, this is a problem because it shows that the concept of centralized networks are no longer viable. So, they came up with an innovative solution: decentralize the network. Several servers can come together and hold the network together. This while making it incredibly difficult for law enforcement to shut down the network altogether. You shut down one server, then another server can simply take its place, creating a sort of hydra defence.

Some of you might look at that and think that the above scenario is presuming a lot about ActivityPub and how law enforcement could possibly be involved in shutting down social media platforms. Well, au contraire, I wasn’t actually describing social media with the above scenario. In fact, what I described happened in the early 2000’s with the rise of decentralized file-sharing networks. Examples include the eDonkey2000 network which also, subsequently, allowed for the rise of eMule. At the time, there were other networks such as Gnutella (ala Limewire), Gnutella2 (ala Shareaza), and, of course, BitTorrent which came along a bit later. At any rate, it became clear that decentralization was the future of file-sharing at the time.

For someone like myself, watching social media begin to venture into the world of decentralization, it almost feels like a lifetime of personal experience with file-sharing has offered me a free cheat sheet for what can be expected. The parallels, especially with respect to the eDonkey2000 network, are all too real in observing the rise of ActivityPub and Mastodon. The situation, however, is a bit more disturbing. Rather than thwarting efforts by law enforcement to take on copyright infringement, the decentralization of social media can be used to tackle governments efforts to regulate basic speech online. It’s a very dark turn to say the least, but the evidence does support this observation.

Indeed, Canada provides a very strong example of a governments efforts to regulate basic speech. With Bill C-11 aiming to prioritize government speech over everyone else, Bill C-18 aiming to demand payments for the crime of linking to news articles, and the online harms proposal which will deputize any anonymous user into taking down whole websites for featuring content they don’t like (re: lack of definition of what is considered “harmful”), the crackdown on the internet in Canada is extremely brutal, making it all but impossible for online innovation to find a home in Canada.

To some degree, the rise of decentralized social media couldn’t have come at a better time. While the government aims to try and control huge amounts of speech, users and creators are going to be the ones that will suffer the most under this planned speech control regime. Indeed, centralized platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are all going to have a hard time trying to stay afloat under these new laws. While their business models might get threatened – especially with Bill C-11 and the online harms proposal – decentralized platforms are a different matter entirely.

It all boils down to how decentralized social media platforms are built. No one entity owns the entire network. This is by design and originally a selling point to tell the world a rich idiotic billionaire can’t simply buy the whole network and turn it into his own personal megaphone. Instead, the network is held together by a network of individually owned servers – each with their own separate locations and rules they follow. At the moment, Mastodon has thousands of these servers – known as “instances”. Should a user need to move from one instance to another, they can with relatively little effort.

Put this into the context of enforcing Bill C-11, Bill C-18, and even the online harms proposal, and you immediately begin to see the problem from the governments perspective. At best, the Canadian government can demand that all Canadian instances follow the rules laid out by, say, link taxes. This puts the Canadian instances at a disadvantage compared to other instances on the network. Either they shut down or cripple the attractiveness of their own instances. This while users simply hop from Canadian instances to non-Canadian instances. At that point, the Canadian government would be SOL.

Of course, ActivityPub is a protocol and Mastodon is just one way to use the protocol. There are other ways you can use that protocol as well. One example is PeerTube. PeerTube is for video sharing and users can connect to a server and upload video’s for all to see. Even better is the fact that because PeerTube is part of ActivityPub, it’s easy to integrate your activity on PeerTube with Mastodon as well. So, for users fearing the long arm of the government choking off their reach, there is an alternative that the government likely won’t be able to control so easily.

Obviously, there is the fact that you can’t just automatically monetize your content like on YouTube, however, this also means that there are fewer ads. What’s more, PeerTube is also in earlier stages of development and adoption.

This is not to say that the jump will be pain free. After all, you can’t really expect, at this point, to go from YouTube to PeerTube and expect the exact same following overnight. At the same time, though, if your audience suddenly starts vanishing at an alarming rate on YouTube, it’s not as though alternatives do not exist, either.

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that ActivityPub may soon not even be the only game in town when it comes to decentralized social media. There are other efforts to create a protocol and build the next big thing in decentralized social media. The situation, right now, is a sort of gold rush to get out there and build the next big thing. ActivityPub and Mastodon, along with the pure stupidity of Elon Musk in his handling of Twitter, seems to have opened the floodgates for these efforts.

Should things start getting absolutely real if, say, Bill C-11 receives royal assent with the Senate backing down, there are technological options available. This over top of the idea of lawsuits and international trade retaliation being another possible stopgap in the bills enforcement. If all else fails, decentralization may eventually be the way moving forward, though. It’s sad that there is the possibility that basic speech may need such protections in the future, but if the Canadian government pushes these bills into law and nothing is there to save the Canadian Charter for online activity, there are technological solutions to this as well.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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