Return to ActivityPub Conference 2019

The case for the unattributed message

This talk is by Caleb James DeLisle, and can be found at https://archive.org/details/apconf-talks/Talk7_Caleb_compressed.mov.

He starts off by noting that his topic is a bit provocative, and that is by design. As Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible,” and Caleb is clearly in that camp. As he says, to find something no one else is studying, just look for something everyone else finds repulsive.

He starts by looking at “free speech” as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and notes that it has become something a lot of people like. But then he notes that the person who created 8chan now thinks it should be shut down since it does no one any good, and is even a complete negative to the users there (though he says they don’t know it).

There have been many experiments in the realm of free speech on the Internet.

  • IRC was originally one single network but fell into trouble when some users set up servers to sabotage other users or servers. This led to a splinter called the Eris-Free network (Eris being the Goddess of discord and strife) while the remaining IRC became A-Net (the anarchy network), which soon disappeared. This then split into American and European networks, then an open source group split off to form Freenode. One constant through all of this was attacks against servers and users.
  • Napster and Gnutella eventually gave way to the relatively more centralized BitTorrent. All of them of course are attacked by the rights-holders of Intellectual Property.
  • Freenet is a peer-to-peer platform for communication that resists censorship, promotes free speech, and provides strong anonymity protection.
  • I2PSyndie is a tool for anonymous communication on cross-platform distributed forums.
  • ZeroNet is a decentralized network of peer-to-peer users that utilizes BitCoin addresses instead of IP addresses.

He then introduces the concept of “Pseudo-Anonymity”, which can happen when your precise identity is not known, but you have a reputation. One example might be the Silk Road in its day. And he says that crypto-currencies are pseudo-anonymous as well. The thing about pseudo-anonymity is that one breach is ruinous. If your real name is linked to the pseudo-anonymous identity you have created, it is “Game over”.

He then brings in the topic, the Unattributed Message, which he says is different from anonymity and different from free speech. So what defines an unattributed message?

  • The message is divorced from the identity/ego of its sender.
  • There is no follower count, no personal gain from boosts or retweets (though he notes an exception for propaganda).
  • No personal brand, no audience expectations.
  • Strong opinions, weakly held. This is a framework created by Paul Saffo that he describes as “Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the ‘strong opinion’ part. Then –and this is the ‘weakly held’ part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.” In many ways this is easier to do when your identity is not connected. Too many people regard a change of opinion as something negative, as in politics where it gets you labeled as a “flip-flopper”.
  • When the identity is removed, the meme takes center stage.

But consider where memes come from. Most of them come from message boards, and original poster is someone unknown to most of us. We just know that Rick-rolling people is kind of fun. There are problems of course. We mentioned propaganda, and we know that Russia is very busy using these techniques to influence voters in various places. And these attacks can be amplified by using bots. And there is a moderation problem. Does the community have a consensus view on what is acceptable speech? Too little moderation encourages bullies, and too much encourages false grievances.

He argues that Federation as practiced by the Fediverse is the best answer to the moderation problem. Every instance has its own policy, as we discussed when we looked at Mastodon. You just join one which matches your choices in the matter. Instances which are too open will end up getting blocked, and those that are too restrictive will become isolated because they will block all of the other instances. It is a market for moderation, and each individual can make their own choice among the options available

Caleb proposes a model for what he calls “Fedichan”. In this model,

  • Messages can be unattributed, that is to say they would show their instance of origin and a per-user-per-thread temporary identity.
  • Abuse reports work as normal
  • The instance moderator can see the account which sent the message (and ban it if need be).
  • Hidden hashtags allow messages to be categorized into “Boards”