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The Sad & Strange Case Of Parler: A Lesson For Those That Seek Escape From Censorship

Southern WolfJan 27, 2021, 8:03:27 AM

Background - Lessons From Gab

A little over two years ago, I posted a blog detailing the troubles that Gab, an alt-tech social media website, was facing at the time. At that point, they already had their web hosting revoked, their domain name services pulled, and faced near total extinction on the open internet. All of this stemmed from them being a haven for exiled users from Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit who were banned for one reason or another, usually related to political views. Some of the users of the platform did hold rather extreme, mostly right-wing views and were vocal about them, as would be expected of a free speech platform. There were several events that led to a wider and more robust reaction from the Mainstream Media (which I discuss more in depth in my blog post, linked above, where I also explain how some of the issues were indeed Gab's fault, while others were not). The end result of this was the aforementioned banishment to the edges of the internet. At the time of writing that post, it did indeed seem like Gab may be permanently done for, however, this would turn out to not be the case.

In the two years since that time, Gab found a new home on the federated network called the Fediverse, using a fork of Mastodon. The result of this move from a proprietary, centralized setup to an open-source, federated model was quite the change for Gab. There are some issues it did not solve, primarily the issue of how to naturally filter better content from worse content, as is seen on some blockchain-powered networks like Steem or Hive. However, moving to this model helped ensure that the censorship and deplatforming issues which plagued them before this move were much harder to achieve. 

After the January 6th protests that involved protesters breaching the Capitol building, a very large wave of bannings and permanent suspensions began on other social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The events of that day were used as a coordinated pretext to remove all of those found to be politically deplorable, ranging from President Trump and sitting senators, to well known media personalities and independent commentators. The results of this were an almost unfathomable amount of growth on alternative, free-speech oriented platforms. At its peak, Gab was gaining 10k new users an hour, and experiencing daily growth approaching 1000%. Although there were growing pains, Gab's systems, servers, and network held up, demonstrating that a federated model can work, even for very large networks. An important fact to be remembered shortly...

Parler - A Candle In The Wind

Parler is an alt-tech, free-speech centered social network founded in 2018 by John Matze, with guidance given by such individuals as Amy Peikoff. Parler had begun to gain traction through 2018, 2019, and through 2020, finding itself home to many well-know conservative, right-leaning, and libertarian voices facing censorship on other platforms. After the 2020 US Presidential Elections, Parler saw a surge in usage, with its mobile apps hitting the number 1 downloaded app status on both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

However, trouble arrived for that platform in early 2021. After the January 6th Capitol incident, Parler saw an extremely large surge in new users as a result of mass-bannings on Facebook and Twitter. It was rumored that President Trump was readying to move to Parler after having been banned on Twitter. However, at the same time, a coordinated mainstream media campaign began to paint Parler as the cause of the Capitol incident due to, mostly unsubstantiated claims, that Parler acted as a recruitment and organizing hub for the protesters. The first result of this media putsch was Parler having its apps swiftly banned from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store with little to no warning. Following this, Parler faced a new issue when Amazon Web Services (AWS) threatened to suspend their hosting of the network. Despite negotiation efforts, Amazon pulled the sites hosting, giving them just a few days notice. Parler went offline on January 10th, 2021 and has been offline since, as of the writing of this. 

The static webpage seen at Parler.com, as of January 22nd, 2021

Efforts are underway to find a host for the website and get services migrated over to new servers. As of the writing of this, Parler was potentially using the same host that Gab uses for its website, called Epik. Currently, the website shows a static page giving sporadic updates on their efforts to restore service. The founder and developers of Parler seem determined to restore services by the end of January. Whether they are successful or not, I wish to offer this cautious word of advice for them going forward.

Federation - A Proven Model

The Suggested Logo For The Fediverse - An Ensemble Of Federated Servers

In order to avoid becoming a victim of a censorship and deplatforming purge, a network must make itself harder to be hit in one large attack. This means that fully-centralized systems are very easy to take out in a censorship purge, as most of their required resources exist on one, or perhaps a small few, platforms. Parler was taken offline by Amazon through the revocation of their AWS hosting alone. Gab faced this issue as well, as have other alt-tech platforms. Even if the central hosting is not taken down, the service can still have its apps revoked and its API access to other, larger outside services severed. This was seen with the removal of the Gab and Parler apps from the Apple and Google app stores, and the numerous reports of services, like Mailchimp, severing services with websites and users it "disagreed" with.

Enter The Fediverse and Mastodon. With the Fediverse, because it is an interconnected web of servers working on the same (or similar) protocol, it allows for more access options for users. Namely, the fact that apps can, and are, made to access the Fediverse universally, not just tailor made for one service. This means it becomes nearly impossible to remove an Apple or Google Android user's app access to a "forbidden" service, such as Gab. Typically it comes down to the app owner to decide if they wish to blacklist a service. This happened with Gab, as many Mastodon app clients on the Apple App Store blacklisted the service, preventing users from reaching it with their apps. However, many chose not to do so either, meaning smartphone users could still natively access Gab. Having these routes open also means that a service still has other alternative ways of reaching their users, circumventing blacklisting by large Silicon Valley companies. 

The ability for federating to alleviate many of the issues plaguing alt-tech platforms today is quite impressive. The Fediverse is not just limited to Mastodon alone. Pleroma is an alternative to Mastodon, with a very similar set of features, except that Pleroma is light enough to be run from a Raspberry Pi if desired. Pleroma also has the specification of fully implementing the universal protocol of The Fediverse, ActivityPub, with no reliance on proprietary extensions, something Mastodon has not done as of yet. There are Diaspore and Hubzilla, two services providing a wide range of blogging and social media content. There is Pixelfed and Friendica, alternatives to Instagram and Facebook built on the Fediverse. Then there is PeerTube, a decentralized video sharing site where users can control their own hosting containers that allows for Peer2Peer video sharing.

With these services, some aspects are also interconnected with one another. Views from PeerTube can be viewed on Mastodon, and soon on other Fediverse services as well. Image posts from Pixelfed should show up in a Mastodon users feed. Pleroma can view, like, retoot/repost content, and follow users on Mastodon instances. Using the common ActivityPub protocol, there is, in theory, no limit to the integration possibilities between Fediverse services.

Not All That Glitters Is Gold

Federation provides a potential wealth of benefits over a singularly centralized service. From interconnected services and user access options, to more privacy focused options and small, more intimate communities, what the Fediverse can provide is quite an achievement. However, it is not a fully viable solution on its own for some issues. 

Firstly, with regards to censorship, federating alone will not save you if you are at risk for losing your server hosting or DNS provider. Gab ran into these issues. They managed to solve it by going through the Epik hosting provider. This is also likely where Parler will find a new home too. However, this is not a perfect solution, as should Epik decide Gab or Parler is too much trouble to deal with, they could kick them off as well. Further, Epik Hosting is based in The Russian Federation, which raises more than a few privacy and security issues, as well as broader, state-censorship questions.

The second issue is that just because you have moved to operating on the Fediverse, does not mean you won't also face criticism and network-based censorship by other instances. This was the case for Gab, which had many other instances on Mastodon ban content and access to the Gab instance. There was even talk at one time of implementing a hard-coded censoring of Gab within the software code for Gab as well, though that ultimately went nowhere. This would not have affected Gab, given they use a fork of Mastodon, but it would have had the effect of cutting Gab off from the rest of Mastodon, making them effectively an island in the Fediverse. Parler could very well face such actions as well, though ultimately it would cause little harm to them.

Thirdly, Federating alone will not solve other issues with a given platform. In Gab's case, this was how to organically filter content to allow good material to be seen more and poorly made material less. Before Gab's move to the Fediverse, they had nerfed the up and down voting system, to basically make the downvote button a "dummy button" that had no affect in the trend-ability of posts. I am unsure how their current system operates on the Fediverse now, but it seems to just be a "like" system, like that employed across most of Mastodon and used by other sites like Twitter. In Parler's case, I am unsure how their visibility system worked, but I assume it was their own custom algorithm to achieve this.

There are other issues with federating as well. For Parler, it would require a complete reworking of their internal systems. Though given the fact they were completely thrown offline, now would be a good time to work towards this. I personally think that, though this would be the equivalent of a short-term loss, it would be a long-term gain for Parler to make this move, as it would ensure their long-term survival. 

Federated Parler - A Consideration

A Potential Future?

To John Matze, Amy Peikoff, and the others at Parler working to bring the site back online, I wish to ask you to consider what I have written about here in this open letter. For Parler to survive, both now and in the future, the service must be prepared to harden itself against potential censorship that is to come. Federating would help alleviate more than a few of these issues, just by the very nature of federation. Parler could, once again, be accessed natively from smartphones by general purpose Mastodon or Fediverse apps. Parler's content could be more easily discovered across other parts of the Fediverse, and vice-versa. Parler could work towards integrating services like PeerTube into their platform, enabling native video uploads in a P2P way. This also goes for other services available on the Fediverse, both now and in the future.

Yes, this move would entail more work for the developers to get everything moved over. Yes, this would not be a guarantee of survivability, nothing ever will be. But, out of this move would come a permanence that is hard to find in a purely centralized service alone. 

It is in my own honest opinion that for Parler to survive, it must seek to limit the effects that a censorship and deplatforming purge would have against it again in the future. Whether that is federation, decentralization, or a distributed model (perhaps even on a blockchain), ultimately they are better options than a purely centralized model. For Parler, federation seems like the most suitable option, and the Fediverse would be the most optimal option to investigate.

Please consider these suggestions and look into how Parler can benefit from such a move.

Southern Wolf

#ThinkFreely, #SpeakFreely


Update 1: Fixed spelling and grammar issues pointed out to me. Fixed some factually incorrect statements about Mastodon. (Credit to Arcanicanis for pointing out these issues to me)


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