Protocols Instead Of Platforms: Rethinking Reddit, Twitter, Moderation And Free Speech

from the protocols-not-platforms dept

Right. By now you’ve heard about Reddit’s new content moderation policy, which (in short) is basically that it will continue to ban illegal stuff, and then work hard to make “unpleasant” stuff harder to find. There is an awful lot of devil in very few details, mainly around the rather vague “I know it when I see it” standards being applied. So far, I’ve seen two kinds of general reactions, neither of which really make that much sense to me. You have the free speech absolutists who (incorrectly) think that a right to free speech should mean a right to bother others with their free speech. They’re upset about any kind of moderation at all (though, apparently at least some are relieved that racist content won’t be hidden entirely). On the flip side, there’s lots and lots and lots of moralizing about how Reddit should just outright ban “bad” content.

I think both points of view are a little simplistic. It’s easy to say that you “know” bad content when you see it, but then you end up in crazy lawsuits like the one we just discussed up in Canada, where deciding what’s good and what’s bad seems to be very, very subjective.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, period. No “but.” I also worry about what it means for freedom of expression when everyone has to rely on intermediaries to “allow” that expression to occur. At the same time, I recognize that platforms have their own free speech rights to moderate what content appears on that platform. And also that having no moderation at all often leads to platforms being overrun and becoming useless — starting with spam and, if a platform gets large enough, trollish behavior or other immature behavior that drives away more intelligent and inspired debate. This is different than arguing that certain content shouldn’t be spoken or shouldn’t be allowed to be spoken — it’s just that maybe it does not belong in a particular community. Obligatory xkcd:

Free Speech
So Reddit is free to do what it wants, and Reddit’s users are free to do what they want in response, It’s a grand experiment in learning what everyone values in the long run. People will write about it for years.

However, in thinking about all of this (and the similar struggles that Twitter, in particular, has been having), I’ve been wondering if perhaps the problem is when we put the burden of “protecting free speech” on platforms, when that’s not the best role for those platforms. The various platforms serve a variety of different purposes, all of which seem to get conflated into one larger purpose. They are places to post content (express), for one, but also a place to connect as well as a place for discoverability of the content.

And if we’re serious about protecting free expression, perhaps those things should be separated. Here’s a thought experiment that is only half baked (and I’m hoping many of you help continue the baking in the comments below). What if, instead of being full stack platforms for all of those things, they were split into a protocol for the expression, which was open and distributed, and then the company could continue to play the other roles of connecting and helping with discoverability. This isn’t necessarily an entirely crazy idea. Ryan Charles, who worked at Reddit for a period of time, notes that he was hired to build such a thing, and is apparently trying to do so again outside of the company. And plenty of people have discussed building a distributed Twitter for years.

But here’s the big question. In such a scenario is there still room for Reddit or Twitter the company, if they no longer host the content themselves? I’d argue yes and, in fact, that it could strengthen the business models for both, though while opening them up to more competition (which would be a challenge).

Think of it this way: if they were designed as protocols, where you could publish the content wherever you want — including on platforms that you, yourself, control, then people would be free to speak their mind as they see fit using these tools. And that’s great. But, then, the companies would just act as more centralized sources to curate and connect — and it could be done in different ways by different companies. Think of it like HTTP and Google. Via HTTP anyone can publish whatever they want on the web, and Google then acts to make it findable via search.

In this world that we talk about, anyone could publish links or content via an Open Reddit Post Protocol (ORPP) or Open Tweet Protocol (OTP) and that includes the ability to push that content to the Corporate Reddit or the Corporate Twitter (or any other competitors that spring up). And then the platform companies can decide how they want to handle things. If they want a nice pure and clean Reddit where only good stuff and happy discussions occur, they can create that. Those who want angry political debates can set up their own platform that will accept that kind of content. In short, the content can still be expressed, but individuals effectively get to choose whose filtering and discoverability system they prefer. If a site becomes too aggressive, or not aggressive enough, then people can migrate as necessary.

This isn’t necessarily a perfect solution by any means. And I’m sure it raises lots of other problems and challenges. And the companies doing the filtering and the discoverability will still face all sorts of questions about how they want to make those choices. Are they looking to pretend that ignorant angry people don’t exist in the world? Or are they looking to provide forums to teach angry ignorant people not to be so angry and ignorant? Or do they want to be a forum just for angry ignorant people that the rest of the internet would prefer to, as xkcd notes, show the door.

And, of course, this would eventually lead to more questions about intermediary liability. Already we see these fights where people blame Google for the content that Google finds, even when it’s hosted on other sites. If this sort of model really took off and there were really successful companies handling the filtering/discoverability portions, it’s not hard to predict lawsuits arguing that it should be illegal for companies to link to certain content. But that’s a different kind of battle.

Either way, this seems like a potential scenario that doesn’t end up with one of the two extremes of either “all content must be allowed on these platforms even if it’s being overrun by trolls and spam” or “we only let nice people talk around here.” Because neither is a world that is particularly fun to think about.

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Companies: reddit, twitter

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Comments on “Protocols Instead Of Platforms: Rethinking Reddit, Twitter, Moderation And Free Speech”

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GMacGuffin (profile) says:

Such protocols are just on the horizon

I went to a presentation last night by the guys building It will be a decentralized P2P marketplace utilizing bitcoin (for now). They are building the open source core, that like bitcoin core, can be built upon by anyone. Users download the core program, and they are their own server and can sell anything they want directly to anyone else they want. If they want to use cloud servers to handle load, fine. If they want to build their own storefront on core, groovy, here’s the API.

OpenBazaar’s Brian Hoffman kept being asked if they would be adding this or that feature. Answer, probably not. Let other devs do that. The core features will be pretty standard: ratings, comments, friends. They are specifically staying out of being any kind of middleman in the traditional sense, to avoid any of the liability issues.

AND, if you want moderation, you can pay a bit for a neutral moderator/arbitrator to act as multisig escrow, or resolve disputes, etc. Anyone can do that job too, they’ll be rated like the rest, so reputation matters.

If you want a curated space, they’ll be available. Or build one. If you want to dive into the wild unregulated jungle, that will be there too. If you want to build an ad-based OpenBazaar search engine, awesome. It’s brilliant.

Also there were some folks from, who are building Alexandria — essentially the same concept for digital works, rather than goods.

Decentralized protocols are coming, and fast, because these people really want to build something that the govt. cannot shut down, because it’s nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

(… this question always happens: “Don’t you feel a moral obligation to keep people from using it for human trafficking?” Er, it’s useful software; if others use it for bad, we can’t stop that. [Auto makers aren’t liable for drunk drivers either.])

Aside: Tech issues preclude this working on Tor, so if you’re going to use it for bad, the IP address will be broadcast anyway, for now.

Anonymous Coward says:

When is a "platform" not a platform? ... When it's a partisan blog.

You keep wanting to have everything every way at once.

You want the advantages of neutrality in not being held liable for comments by users, while asserting the “right” to behind the scenes censor deas that you don’t want expressed here.

I’ve complained about uncivil users on Techdirt for years, and you have never ever even scolded a fanboy, only those who dissent. You allow them to openly gang up, even provide them with the “report” button as means to censor.

If you started actual moderating, you would long ago have had to ban your core pirate-fanboy-trolls.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: When is a "platform" not a platform? ... When it's a partisan blog.

…even provide them with the “report” button as means to censor.

It’s only censored if someone doesn’t bother to expand it.

One might also argue that reported comments are more likely to be read, as the forum has decided they should be reported, well, for some reason…

You’re welcome.

Bt Garner (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I was thinking almost the exact same thing. Usenet was the free speech haven [sic] until google somehow ended up controlling it and turned it into groups and drove it into the ground. Irc is still very much alive, but not really the same sort of forum flavor that usenet had (I can still find articles I posted to usenet 20+ years ago).

I wonder if a P2P based usenet could succeed?

Christenson says:

Re: Usenet News

The resemblance seems strong…do tell us how this differs fundamentally beyond a smoother user experience!

Note: The problem of our age, now that we have created a way for almost any speech to reach almost anyone, is how to decide what speech to partake of, optimising your favorite criterion of “good”.

I’ve already come to “not the TV!”, and certain twitter and facebook accounts and webpages like techdirt…but beyond that, ????, especially as my taste is a moving target!

Rapnel (profile) says:

Isn’t the idea of this approach essentially the same as enabling, say, everyone’s home routers to host content (including everything/anything you want, i.e. email, your favorite music, latest vids)? You know, before our lines were completely hijacked by the men in the middle (with limits, split pipes, blocks, rules, etc. etc.) and that essentially pushed these larger “platforms” into existence and relevance?

The protocol angle could definitely assist in tempering this permission ASS-HATTERY taken up by, who else, the mafiaa of culture theft and reset the field back to whence it came.

I like it, I want more. However, the idea of a reddit or twitter or whatever api seems… a little shortsighted, I think, especially if “freedom of voice” is really what’s desired and/or needed.

The Internet is not for middle-men, this much I know, and that needs to stop at almost any cost.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The origin of the middlemen lies in the era of dial-up Internet connection, where people needed someone to provide services that really need a persistent connection like email. It also started the trend to hosted web-sites, as the cannot be run with an intermittent connection. As a result central services were established before always on connection arrived at peoples home. This allowed ISPs to prohibit home servers, and the assignment of persistent IP addresses to home connections.

This situation suites the corporations, and significantly governments, as centralized services make surveillance of communications much easier. Was it coincidental that as soon as Microsoft took over Skype, they centralised the control of is connection?

Toestubber (profile) says:

Re: Re: That PSA is bullshit

I hate it when people smugly conflate the “right to free speech” and the concept that free speech is an incredibly important human value that’s worth defending.

These are two different things. Yes, the first is only concerned with government action. The latter ideal is more broad, and exercising it requires some personal integrity, not simply passing the buck.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: That PSA is bullshit

That’s because telling them not to shit on your living room floor isn’t you exercising free speech, somehow. You may not curate your platform or personal experience to exclude the very important “ideas” they have. (And then in unison, they will accuse you of group think, echo chamber, bowing before one leader, etc., because only they are free rational agents, you sheeple, and you’ll be harassed until you shut up and go away.)

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: That PSA is bullshit

If you want to argue that the concept of a right to free speech can/should/does extend beyond the government, that’s fine. Admirable, even.

But does that make the second frame of the comic untrue? Can/should/is anyone required to listen to you, or required to provide to you a forum in which to speak? I don’t see how. Not only does that make no sense from a rights/freedom perspective, it’s just functionally impossible. It’s not even desirable — should a serious medical conference be forced to invite homeopaths and spirit healers, because failing to do so would violate their free speech? Should it be illegal to turn away Jehova’s Witnesses without first inviting them in and hearing them out?

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: That PSA is bullshit

Sure, and if anyone was talking about building everything to functionally block them out then that’d be bad. But who is suggesting that?

I’m suggesting that within whatever overall global discussion you have, there has to be the ability for people to build and moderate their own communities. That’s obvious. But there are those who cry “violating my free speech!” when any community wishes to exclude them – and that’s idiotic.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Walk-away Power

When people have conversations in person, if one party does not like what is being said, they can walk away. The same holds true in the public square, no one is forced to listen. How would a protocal replicate that behavior?

This is one of the things I like about Techdirt, pushing the report button (enough times) is equivillent to walking away, without abandoning the platform, or silencing any speaker. Even still, one has to read comments in order to determine if the report button should be pushed, and sometimes the button gets pushed too many times, inappropriately. Maybe there should be an unreport button as well (along with the desparately needed edit and sad but true buttons).

Should it be a level playing field, or a ski slope with trails? Some people ski off the trails anyway. Can real life actually be replicated digitally?

Archillies says:

Re: Walk-away Power

“When people have conversations in person, if one party does not like what is being said, they can walk away. The same holds true in the public square, no one is forced to listen. How would a protocal replicate that behavior?”

Seems like you could just stop reading and go on with your life. Black / white lists have served me well over the years.

More thoughts?

ArneBab (profile) says:

Sounds a lot like the community-curated discussions in Freenet

The one thing which really strikes me as incredible is that the decentralized spam protection in Freenet works very well at keeping discussions friendly: If you disrupt communication, you quickly disappear for all those people who trust others who think that you are disruptive. But everyone can make you visible again for him- or herself and it’s always transparent why someone isn’t visible.

It even works with the real anonymity Freenet provides.

For a guide how to test it, see,guWyS9aCMcywU5PFBrKsMiXs7LzwKfQlGSRi17fpffc,AQACAAE/fsng/58/wot_en.html

Devonavar (profile) says:

This is a GREAT idea...

… with some serious challenges towards implementation.

We need to look at examples of existing protocols to see how this can be implemented and what challenged there might be.

People have already mentioned Usenet and IRC as historic examples, but I think e-mail is an even better example (although, technically e-mail is implemented as several protocols, not just one).

Here’s the problem. All of these protocols pre-date the commercial internet. And, only e-mail still has critical mass in its adoption. And we’re not exactly seeing much growth in the e-mail space these days.

I would love to see a public “tweet” protocol, along with a public “like” protocol, a public “share” protocol, etc. etc. I think this would solve some fairly serious openness and neutrality issues that I see on the internet. But, I don’t see how such a thing would get adopted. I don’t see why for-profit internet companies would be satisfied with developing a front-end for a public protocol when they can get more data and more control by making the whole thing proprietary. And I don’t see how a new protocol would gain mass adoption without the marketing and UI resources that a commercial organization can throw at the problem.

E-mail as a protocol is in popular use because it had first-mover advantage; it was developed before the internet was widely used by laypeople, and laypeople adopted it because it was *the* standard for person-to-person messaging at the time laypeople started using it. Laypeople adopted it because there was literally nothing else, and good UIs were developed for e-mail because we understood that laypeople needed to learn how to use e-mail, and we didn’t fully understand how business models worked on the internet yet. Gmail has basically set the standard for modern e-mail UIs, but it’s hardly a profit centre for Google; it’s unlikely gmail would work if it was produced by a stand-alone developer, especially now that encryption is making it harder for Google to snoop on the contents.

I don’t see how a *new* protocol would gain widespread adoption without the support of a very well-developed UI, and I don’t see how that UI gets developed in an open-source context. The track record for good open-source UIs is not very good. There’s a reason why open source’s biggest successes are in the infrastructure that powers the net and not in the consumer software that everyday people use. It’s because open-source design philosophy appeals to techies and tinkerers (i.e. me, and most of the Techdirt crowd), not everyday people who want a “one click” solution.

If we need commercial companies to develop the UIs for mass adoption, how do we convince these commercial entities to develop for an open protocol, rather than one they control completely? There’s an obvious business advantage to developing a proprietary solution that lets them capture the whole ecosystem rather than just a part. I don’t think I agree that just focussing on the UI and community allows the same level of profit as a proprietary protocol, and I especially don’t think it’s easy to convince the VCs and Angel investors who would be funding these commercial ventures.

I hate to throw out problems, because I LOVE the idea of adopting truly open protocols for social media. I’d like to see this become a reality. But I think the fundamental challenges here are marketing and commercial ones, not engineering ones. I’d like to see a case study of successful consumer-oriented open-source projects. I think Wikipedia is one of the only examples I can think of off the top of my head…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This is a GREAT idea... The track record for good open-source UIs is not very good. In general they are no better or worse than closed source UIs. Further there is nothing to stop users politely discussing UI issues with the d

You are ignoring the one big problem to widespread adoption of distributed services, the lack of fixed IP addresses for domestic connections. Without those, their has to be a middleman to keep track of users IP addresses so that others can connect. It is the existence of trackers that allow bit torrent to be attacked.

Ninja (profile) says:

Hmm, a bit late to the article but the first thing that came to mind was a “disqus-like” system that is decentralized. You could rate the users in one determined site and with low enough rating the site itself would filter those users out but if they are good on other subjects then they can participate in other communities. Users with low enough ratings in many communities would end up isolated on those 100% “free” platforms. I have no clue on how this could be implemented…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How would this work? Leaving aside the terribleness of services along the lines of Disqus, this would mean the reduction of useful and insightful comments as people will simply have multiple commenting identities (perhaps one for each site).

If you rank new commenters lower than established ones, this just means that those people will not be able to effectively comment.

datapetrichor says:

Great piece...two questions.

I like this idea about pushing control down to the user but I have two questions:

  1. We’ve seen that editorial algorithms (like newsfeed) which are guessing your interests tend to create echo chambers of thought. Don’t you think that if you gave people similar control or additional control on top of an editorial algorithm, we’d further silo the extreme groups into their own discussion channels where we increase polarization? How would you address that?
  2. We all know that no one reads privacy policies. Indeed, given how numerous, vague and black and white they are (your only option is to leave, you can’t line item edit them), it’s frankly irrational to read them. I want to highlight the numerous part of this, one less discussed aspect of where notice and consent systems break down. I struggle to envision a way that this kind of individualized content moderation would be set up in a way that is actually workable for the average busy person, given how many platforms there are, not to mention that I am curious what you think it would take to stimulate platforms to set up these moderation options in an intuitive and easy to use way (as opposed to purposefully making them hard to use). How do you address the volume problem? What incentivizes companies to do this right?

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