An approach based on real existing social organizations
What follows is a concept proposal. This is just the preliminary investigation. The idea arose from the realization that the Internet failed to deliver on its promises made in the early 1990s and from the frustration caused by the chaos at the lack of international rules on the Internet? Along with many others, I wrote this analysis about this in which an explanation is sought for the democratic deficit of the Internet. The fact that the EU’s Digital Services Act is now partly meeting those needs is an encouragement
The proposal is to build (1) a decentralized federation or even several decentralized federations, using the same messaging app, with groups and/or channels, using the ActivityPup protocol and an encryption standard to be defined; (2) that start from a real community with a minimum of collective morals (3) solve the problem of switching without losing contacts and (4) set rules for the problem of financing.
The first question is whether there is interest in the concept. It is a modest concept. The main goal is to enable casual digital communication without having to worry about surveillance. So it is not an alternative to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It is also not a platform for political consultations, that would be pretentious, but an alternative to Whatsapp or Signal, but with the intention that it can exchange messages with those messaging apps, as the EU requires in the Digital Markets Act.
Who or what can those real communities be with a minimum of collective morals? I am thinking of trade unions, health insurance funds, youth organisations, certain national NGOs such as The Red Cross, the Minorities Forum, 11.11.11, Oxfam… with a minimum of 2000 members. But I don’t want to pin myself to this number.
An additional advantage of departing from real existing social organizations is that in the event of conflicts you can revert to face-to-face contacts eventually to resolve conflicts.
It is possible to define what is NOT a social network with a minimum of collective morals. It has two characteristics, the management is centralized and two also the moderation is done centrally. If one of those two is present, we fall back into the same trap that Meta and ByteDance have set
Therefore, in our proposal, moderators and system managers within those federations should be under democratic control of all users. The system still needs to be worked out in more detail, but the EU’s layered approach in the Digital Services Act, DSA, can be used as inspiration. See the discussion about it. Limiting the number of users per server also seems sensible to me, otherwise it can no longer be moderated. Moderation primarily takes place on the server, but the federation also has its say in the rules for that moderation. Similar to the structure of the Digital Services Coordinators, DSC per EU country and the European Advisory Council of Digital Services Coordinators. As long as the Federation has less than fourtyfive million members, it does not fall under the definition of VLOP, Very Large Online platform and therefore not under the obligations imposed on it in the DSA. Which does not take away from the fact that this structure is best viewed. The text in which I describe that structure is already there. We also know the minimum of collective morality, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
An option that was not present at Mastodon, and which the EU does not say anything about, is the possibility for users to move from server, possibly from federation, while keeping their contacts. Using a normalized database this should be perfectly possible. Please note, it must meet all the requirements of the GDPR. The intention is to launch this project proposal simultaneously in the Flemish, Brussels and Walloon Regions.
The federations will have to oblige messaging apps such as Whatsapp and Signal to be interoperable with their messaging app. The chances of this succeeding are much higher if it comes from a large organization than from an individual user. They just send them in a mess with an army of lawyers. But the Digital Markets Act supports their demand.
Financing is something each federation must decide for itself, but it must be permanent. Trade unions are already collecting membership fees, which may already be a sufficient basis for financing. But there is a precedent. In the 1980s, long before the Internet, the socialist movement still had its own newspaper, as did the Christian workers’ organizations. When, after a dispute between director Luc Walyn and editor-in-chief Paul Goossens, the socialist movement decided to no longer support the newspaper and Luc Walyn decided to put the books down, there was also a reaction from the socialist union that opposed the decision of the party bosses. The editors, only informed the day before the bankruptcy declaration, nevertheless published a newspaper on October 31, 1986 entitled De Moord. A rescue operation supported by the readers and by the journalists’ association De Onafhankelijke Pers (DOP) offered solace for several years. But what is not in the Wikipedia is that union federations also supported the rescue. You can tell from the tweet below.
As a financial and economic structure I propose to opt for a legal cooperative. A discussion of the various forms can be found in the text by Mayo Fuster Morell, et al.
Maintain a level playing field for everyone
There is also a strange phenomenon with communication online, ambiguity and vagueness win from clarity and openness. Opinion makers who cherish this ambivalence and keep their intentions as vague as possible placate proponents and opponents in any conflict, but do not resolve those conflicts. According to my statement in “Can we resolve ambiguity by email?”, this cannot be done online either, because communication there is contextless, intentionless and emotionless. It is communication without real feedback. People without self-confidence looking for something to hold on to will not find it online, on the contrary.
You can forget the idea that everyone has the same chances and possibilities online. That is not the case in the real world either. Pierre Bourdieu refuted this in his book “Ce que parler veut dire”. The position of someone in society, on the social ladder, determines the influence of what someone says. Governments, politicians and wealthy companies have more resources to get their message across. If they also have the mainstream media behind them, their power is almost unlimited. Possessing strategic skills when using the Internet also plays a role in the unequal balance of power. This is evident from empirical research by Jen Schradie in “The Digital Activism Gap”. Moderation alone will not solve this. Some groups could use some training in digital literacy.
James Muldoon warned for this:
“A change in ownership model is nog guararantee that other forms of social power – from racism to sexism and ableism – will not continue to be reproduced within the space.”
It is therefore also necessary to look for means to prevent this or at least to block it in time. Mostadon thought it was free of that until the fascist network Gap joined the Fediverse.
Issues for a discussion
An example of what looks like a municipalist network but it is not actually, is Hoplr. Both server management and moderation are done centrally. A detailed description can be found here. It is a so-called neighborhood network, and it has been deployed ‘top-down’ in various cities and municipalities. No communication is possible between the individual implementations. They are kind of reserve. In Ghent, Hoplr works together with the Ghent Urban Bureaucracy, Ivago, and so they claim also with the Ghent neighbourhood offices. Due to the years of politics in which the city council pursued a ‘social mix’ and actually implanted it in neighbourhoods, there is little solidarity within, let alone that the inhabitants share a minimal collective morals.
There is majority and opposition. The moderation of the users and the management of the data is central and is done from the Hoplr head office in Lokeren. If you look at the financial structure behind Hoplr and know that Matexi, a conglomerate of project developers, is the largest financier of Hoplr, you can already guess what happens to the data of the users. Matexi has golden data to plan projects. Perhaps it is better to rule out cooperation with the government agencies in Belgium when you see that even a progressive city council like that of Ghent falls into the trap of incorrect use of data. With DSA, Hoplr could probably be prosecuted for unfairly excluding members who are too vocal, which happens regularly.
This is not to say that an independent neighbouring network is not an option. The wireless ‘community’ networks in certain neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, Barcelona and Athens are indeed independent, but they have been set up ‘bottom-up’ by the neighbours themselves or originated from grass roots movements such as Guifi.net, originally an APC node like KnoopPunt at the time. . Problems with internet access also differ from country to country. Where we have broadband internet almost everywhere in Belgium, there are still many areas in the US where this is not the case, partly because of the low population density. This is the last mile problem. The fact that municipalities intervene to solve the last mile problem is positive. But it can also be done without it in other places, like the Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn, and this is only about the physical access, not the logical structure of the Internet.
But in fact this discussion is currently irrelevant and premature to say the least. After all, you can’t stop any group from using the same technologies as the ones you use yourself. But ActivityPup has an answer for that. Within networks that use that protocol, such as Mastodon, you can determine per server which other servers can or cannot contact your server. In addition to connection, there is the possibility of disconnection. Anyway when implementing this proposal, this discussion needs to be taken care of.