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The Deformation of Twitter?

Meta’s Mosaic & Federated Universe Of Apps Silently Revolutionising Social Media


~Raghav Ahooja and Chytanya S. Agarwal*

 

Abstract


In this article, we explore the emergence of the Fediverse as a decentralized network of social media platforms and the implications it has for the future of social media. The article discusses Meta's plan to develop Threads, which marks a potential shift in the social media landscape towards the Fediverse. It examines the advantages of the Fediverse, such as the pro-competitive effects of interoperability, content moderation subsidiarity, and its potential as an alternative to the content curation practices of Big Tech corporations. The article also analyzes the legal implications of the Fediverse under existing Indian laws and provides policy recommendations for its smooth integration into the current legal framework.


I. Introduction


The future is here, and it is decentralised. The “Fediverse,” short for “federation universe,” is a network of social media platforms decentralised across multiple independently-housed servers that use open-access software. It is an alternative to centralised social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. ActivityPub is a decentralised social networking “protocol” forming the backbone of the Fediverse. Simply stated, a protocol is a set of rules to be followed by all the users in a computer network in order to communicate. If the said protocol is closed, only the users with access to that protocol can communicate with each other. On the other hand, if the protocol is open, it allows for communication between all the users. It can be said that the Fediverse is based on open protocols like ActivityPub; so, all the entities can communicate with each other, irrespective of the kind of software used by them.


Recently, Meta announced its plan to develop a decentralised, text-based social media platform compatible with ActivityPub. This Twitter alternative, called Threads, will soon be compatible with ActivityPub. The proposed entry of Meta into Fediverse is indicative of its potential rise. This also marks the demise of Mastodon (a pre-existing Twitter alternative in the Fediverse), which could never successfully scale up, presumably due to its poor user interface, and its law and order situation (see here, here, and here). Upscaling has been a formidable task for Mastodon, given the powerful network effects and massive investments in AI (for personalisation and content moderation) by rival Big Tech corporations. In contrast, Mastodon is predominantly crowd-funded and lacks algorithms for content curation and moderation.


While Mastodon may have been the first Twitter-like entrant in the Fediverse, it would be far-fetched to conclude that it has what economists call the “first-mover advantage.” It refers to a firm’s ability to outshine its competitors just by virtue of being the first entrant in a market with a novel product category. Mastodon is unlikely to realise this first-mover advantage. This is because first movers in markets that are driven by technological evolution and disruption (like the social media industry) face the risk of being dethroned by entrants with stronger R&D, better product development, and bigger pockets. In fact, it is often more beneficial for larger firms to wait until the market evolves and then enter by using their resources. Evidently, while Mastodon took 4 years to build a user base of 10 million but Threads outperformed it within hours.


This blog article aims to be an explainer-cum-legal-primer on the Fediverse. In the first half of this article, we demystify the Fediverse by contrasting it with conventional social media networks; and secondly, highlighting the implications of such differences. By drawing on existing literature, we argue that the expansion of the Fediverse will not just be an inevitability but also a necessity.


In the latter half of this article, we analyse the Fediverse under the existing legal framework in India. In doing so, firstly, we pinpoint some blind spots which make the current laws inapt to regulate the decentralised structure of the Fediverse. These blind spots relate to information technology laws, data privacy, and IPR infringement concerns. Secondly, we conclude by recommending steps that ought to be taken by the government as well as by the platforms in the Fediverse to ensure the smooth flourishing of the decentralised web.


II. Explaining Interoperability in the Fediverse


Put simply, the Fediverse denotes a network of independent servers that host a variety of platforms in the form of Free and Open-Source Software. The Fediverse works on something called the Open Protocol. This ensures interoperability between every server, creating a unified social media network. In contrast, conventional social media (like Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube) are based on closed protocols. These social media platforms are disconnected and closed systems – also called “walled gardens” – and function under the centralised control of corporations. Thus, for instance, while an Instagram user cannot directly interact with a Twitter user; a user of Mastodon (a Twitter equivalent in the Fediverse) can directly interact with a user on PeerTube (a YouTube equivalent in the Fediverse).


The architecture of centralised and decentralised networks. Within this flowchart, the Fediverse adopts the Federated Decentralised Network Architecture.  In federated each user connects to their service provider. Between the providers the network is peer to peer. Best known- Email, internet, phone. In Peer to peer each user is directly connected to other users without any intermediary. Best known: BitTorrent.
Types of Network Architectures

Image: The architecture of centralised and decentralised networks. Within this flowchart, the Fediverse adopts the Federated Decentralised Network Architecture.


Interoperability in digital platforms can be of three kinds: –

Indifferent interoperability (where the manufacturer is indifferent towards the interoperability of its product with other products)

Cooperative interoperability (where the manufacturer cooperates with a third party to create interoperable products)

Adversarial interoperability (where the manufacturer is hostile to the creation of interoperable products)


The idea of Fediverse is grounded on adversarial interoperability because it envisions a unified Web comprising rival online platforms. It must be noted that adversarial interoperability is different from mere “data portability” – which refers to the low-cost transfer of personal data when users switch from one platform to another. In contrast, “interoperability” refers to seamless data integration and communication among different online platforms hosted by different servers.


Moreover, interoperability can function at two levels: –

Vertical interoperability (where users on one platform can use complementary services from third parties without the permission of the platform)

Horizontal interoperability (where users from one platform can directly interact with users from another platform or use the other platform’s components directly)


The functioning of the Fediverse combines both adversarial and horizontal interoperability. This is possible because of the Fediverse’s “federated network architecture” of interconnected servers that can use more than one type of social media software. This can have the following pertinent implications.


1. Competitive effects of interoperability


As mentioned, Fediverse’s promise of interoperability implies that the software hosted by all its servers must be compatible with each other. From an economic perspective, compatibility refers to the ability of goods or services to work together and be combined without any additional costs. In the Fediverse, compatibility and interoperability go hand-in-hand. This benefits the market as a whole by it counteracting the competitive advantage of firms with a larger installed base. It has pro-competitive effects, making interoperability an expedient policy for competition regulation of digital markets. This is because interoperability allows newer firms to tap into the network effects of incumbent firms. Moreover, by reducing the costs of switching services, it increases the competition and increases the efficiency of firms.


In “walled garden” social media platforms such as Twitter, users face limitations in easily leaving the platform and connecting with other platforms like Facebook. Additionally, these platforms have a massive user base, making it challenging for new players in the social media industry to gain traction and meet user demands. Effectively, this huge “network effect” creates entry barriers for new firms and fosters monopolistic practices.


On the other hand, in the Fediverse, the situation is different. For instance, in Threads, users can seamlessly switch between and interact with other platforms within the Fediverse, accessing their various services. This openness also enables new entrants to benefit from the network effects of existing platforms like Threads and Mastodon within the Fediverse, without being excluded from the industry. Overall, the Fediverse breaks up the benefits accruing to monopolies and promotes competition (see here and here). Interoperability also prevents market tipping, which happens when a market leader pulls away from its rivals and gains market dominance. Thus, the rise of the Fediverse has immense potential to reduce antitrust concerns.


2. Content moderation subsidiarity, the moderator’s trilemma, and benevolent dictatorship


Content moderation refers to how an online community governs participation to foster cooperation by preventing abuse. It can, for instance, take the form of platform owners (or ‘moderators’) deleting harmful and objectionable content from their network. In conventional social media platforms, which are closed spaces unto themselves, there exists centralised control of the platform owners. This top-down control makes user-generated content easier to moderate. So, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have their own community guidelines that are enforced in a top-down fashion. Centralised content moderation has its drawbacks. Reportedly, imposing a uniform set of content moderation norms has a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities. Moreover, what is a “justified” takedown for the moderator may be censorship of legitimate free speech for the user. Rozenshtein describes this situation as the moderator’s trilemma. This refers to the trade-off that a content moderator must face between (i) having large and diverse user bases, (ii) centralised moderation policies, and (iii) displeasing large number of users. Fediverse seems to provide a novel solution to the moderator’s trilemma.


In the Fediverse, no single entity exercises control over all the servers, making centralised moderation virtually impossible. In this situation, content moderation decisions have to be taken at the level of the administrators of each server. Such servers may even be owned by private individuals. This concept, called “content moderation subsidiarity,” describes the decentralisation and delegation of content moderation to each server’s administrator. Rozenshtein notes that it is impossible to fully eliminate objectionable content and divides objectionable content into two categories: –


(i) content that can have no legitimate expressive worth (such as child sexual abuse material, criminal communications, etc.) and

(ii) content that is objectionable to one group yet legitimate for others.


While the former can be moderated manually or algorithmically, a user faced with the second type of objectionable content can simply choose to switch servers in the Fediverse. In this way, Fediverse can serve as a marketplace of ideas where users can, by switching servers, avoid the content that they find objectionable and navigate to servers having similar ideological views. This would also promote “agonistic pluralism,” – a realist political philosophy that acknowledges that perfect political consensus is unachievable and then tries to find a middle ground. While this does pose the risk of aberrant servers becoming island-like “echo chambers” (see here and here), it also mitigates the negative impact of centralised moderation (see here and here). In conclusion, Fediverse can foster the realisation and acceptance of inevitable trade-offs inherent to moderation.


Moreover, the unaccountability of server-level moderators and the possible creation of digital echo chambers have the potential to give rise to “digital feudalism” or “benevolent dictatorship” which, need not be bad per se. Nevertheless, in the Fediverse servers, such apparently unregulated and arbitrary power centres depend on democratic support and can also be toppled by it. This is because the users join and stay within such servers based on their own free choice. While this benevolent dictatorship need not be pernicious and can foster pluralism, it has the possibility to create havens for extremist and far-right interchange, as happened with Gab – a far-right server filled with hate speech that had to be de-federated from other Mastodon servers.


Moreover, conventional social media platforms, within their “walled gardens,” hold the alarming potential to become panopticons. In simpler terms, they possess complete surveillance capabilities and control over content moderation on their platforms, granting them monopoly over what Foucault termed “biopower” or the “ability to exert influence over populations.” In contrast, the Fediverse promotes democracy and individual autonomy through interoperability and decentralization. By spreading networks across independent servers beyond corporate control, the Fediverse dilutes the concentration of biopower held by a single social media platform and distributes it among various competing platforms.


3. Alternative to Big Tech’s “Enshittification”


While centralised content moderation has its own shortcomings, content curation by Big Tech social media platforms has not been free from vices. Content curation, or the showing of the most relevant information/posts to social media users, is predominantly based on algorithms and AI. The potential harms of using such algorithms include opacity, indirect discrimination, reinforcing social inequalities, and manipulating users to secure the dominance of social media platforms in their industry. Other side-effects of personalised content curation include the creation of information bubbles, data privacy concerns, and other negative externalities. However, such social media giants, by abusing content curation and personalisation to manipulate users and claw off advertisers/businesses, may end up cramming user feeds with junk content. This process, called enshittification by Doctorow, explains how platforms eventually die – because surplus content in platforms eventually makes them vulnerable to exogenous shocks and disruptions by competitors.


In this context, the Fediverse offers a compelling alternative to such “walled garden” social media platforms. This is because most platforms on the Fediverse lack personalised content curation. Rather, it is designed to promote antivirality. This is because of the lack of invasive data collection and highly specialised algorithms for curating posts to make them viral. For instance, in Mastodon, the Fediverse's counterpart to Twitter, features like quote-tweeting are absent to steer clear of promoting toxic trends. This approach traces back to Mastodon's origins, which initially served as a refuge for marginalized groups seeking to escape the harassment prevalent on other social media platforms. Mastodon’s design makes user’s consent central to the kind of content they see. Thus, the Fediverse is less susceptible to the harms of both content moderation and curation. Instead, it offers a compelling alternative since it gives users greater voice and control over the kind of content they wish to expose themselves to rather than being dictated by algorithms made for profit maximisation. In this way, Fediverse can avoid enshittification and also affirm the agency of individual users as a greater element of choice would determine the content one wishes to see.


III. Connecting the Dots


To sum up, the Fediverse offers a refreshing and democratic alternative to conventional social media, providing users with more freedom and a diverse online experience. Unlike traditional closed social media platforms, the Fediverse embraces interoperability, enabling users to interact across different platforms. This has significant ramifications. Firstly, it fosters competition and makes it easier for new companies to enter the social media market, reducing the dominance of big corporations and breaking up monopolies. Secondly, as shown, the Fediverse’s unique architecture gives server administrators the power to moderate content. This eschews one-size-fits-all solutions and promotes a marketplace of ideas, leading to desirable sociopolitical changes (such as the acceptance of agonism vis-à-vis antagonism).


However, this very inability to rein the unruly horse called the Fediverse brings us to the legal challenges facing its advent. As shown, there is no such thing as centralised control in the Fediverse, making aberrant servers difficult to control. A prime example is Gab, an extremist right-wing Mastodon server that had to be disconnected from the rest of the network (see here, here, and here). However, this server though isolated from the rest of the Fediverse still exists in an unregulated space.


In short, governmental regulation traditionally assumes that social media platforms have complete control over their “walled” networks, but this assumption becomes questionable in the context of the Fediverse. This situation calls for adjustments in both the legal framework and the functioning of the Fediverse to address these challenges.


IV. A Legal Primer on the Fediverse


In this section, we undertake a non-exhaustive review of the Fediverse under the lens of Indian laws governing social media networks. In doing so, we engage with the existing literature and suggest policy recommendations for the government as well as the platforms in the Fediverse.


1. IT Act and the IT Rules


A recent article by Nikhil Mahadeva and Sharath Chandupatla seems to be the only available literature that has grappled with the implications of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (‘IT Act’), and the associated Rules on the Fediverse. Their argument rests on their interpretation of “intermediary” as defined by the IT Act (pp. 14-19) which proceeds as follows:


● Firstly, the IT Act defines “intermediary” as “any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits electronic records or provides any service with respect to that record.”


● Secondly, because creators of networks in the Fediverse only provide free/open access software, they are akin to creators of operating systems who do not receive, store or transmit electronic records on behalf of another person. Thus, they argue that the creators of such software are not intermediaries.


● Thirdly, as a result, only servers owned by multiple administrators/owners can be considered intermediaries. This is because single-user-owned servers can be considered private communications of a person with their following (pp. 18-19).


We seek to differ with this interpretation for the following reasons:


● Firstly, this argument erroneously assumes that platforms in the Fediverse are mere creators of Open-Source Software. In fact, most platforms in the Fediverse have their own official servers that more often than not host the highest number of users in their network. For instance, Mastodon’s main servers, which host most of its users, are owned by Mastodon itself. A similar situation can be imagined with respect to Threads when it enters the Fediverse.


● Secondly, the relevant criterion should not be the number of administrators owning the server but the nature of the service being offered to other users. If a server is part of the Fediverse, it would inevitably render services pertaining to receiving, storing or transmitting electronic records on behalf of another person. Thus, there should be no significant infirmity in covering the creators of the Fediverse platforms and the owners/administrators of servers within the definition of “intermediary.”


With respect to the IT Act and related Rules, it can be shortly noted that they impose numerous obligations on the intermediaries. Non-compliance with such obligations strips them of their safe-harbour immunity under Section 79 of the IT Act. For instance, the IT Rules of 2021 and their 2022 amendments impose extensive due diligence requirements, including timely takedown on receiving information of objectionable content, appointing grievance redressal officers, and enabling identification of the first originator of the information. However, as Mahadeva and Chandupatla rightly pointed out, these laws presume the ability of intermediaries to enforce these obligations. A similar presumption prevails in case laws.


For instance, in X v. Union of India (¶86-87), the Delhi High Court, while commenting on the “indisputably anarchic nature of the internet,” noted that “an intermediary cannot be heard to say that it is unable to remove or disable access to offending content despite such actual knowledge as contemplated in law.” Moreover, court orders mandating content takedowns must have a worldwide effect – an obligation difficult to comply with if the servers not owned by the intermediary are located outside their reach. As held in Swami Ramdev v. Facebook (¶92-96) and Neetu Singh v. Telegram FZ LLC, content takedown must have a global effect in order to be efficacious and there can be no defence that the server hosting such objectionable content was outside India’s jurisdiction. Furthermore, if the intermediary “operates for profit as a business enterprise” (as is the case in Threads), and its functions are “in excess of providing access to a communication system over which information made available by the third party are transmitted, stored or hosted,” it cannot seek the protection of Section 79 according to Snapdeal (P) Ltd. v. Godaddycom LLC.


These legal requirements are virtually impossible to comply with in the context of the Fediverse, where decentralisation prevents the social media platform from exercising control over other servers. The most that can be done for an effective takedown is to de-federate from the aberrant servers. However, this approach might be legally untenable. Thus, the law, in its current state is likely to deter the spread of the Fediverse. Interestingly, Threads has noted that a deleted post may still show up on “other servers that Threads doesn’t control.” This might be understood as an attempt to pass the buck to other servers in the Fediverse, or even the creators of open protocols like ActivityPub (like W3C). For now, it remains to be seen how exactly the Indian law would deal with content moderation in the Fediverse, which seems to be an unruly horse. One potential solution that is being suggested is to relax the more operationally demanding obligations since the very rationale behind safe harbour provisions is to support a nascent Internet. For instance, such relaxations can take the form of making directory (and not mandatory) the requirement of having full time grievance redressal officers. Governments can also participate in the Fediverse as users, server administrators and software developers, to mitigate the risks to public safety. Another temporary solution may be to frame clearer content moderation policies based on the Santa Clara principles on content moderation and mandate servers to de-federate from non-compliant servers.


2. Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 (‘DPDP Bill’ or ‘the Bill’)


Recently, the Union Cabinet approved the DPDP Bill, which is slated to be tabled before the Parliament soon. Chapter 2 of the Bill creates several obligations for the Data Fiduciaries or persons who determine the purpose and means of processing personal data. These obligations are based on certain principles which include the following:


Storage limitation: There should be no perpetual storage of personal data by default.

Right to erasure of personal data: The Data Principal (or the person whose personal data is being stored/processed) is entitled to request for complete deletion of their personal data by the Data Fiduciary.

Duty to prevent data breach: The fiduciary must take reasonable efforts to prevent the unauthorised collection/processing of personal data. For any such processing, the data fiduciary would be liable.


Arguably, these principles are difficult to comply with in the case of the Fediverse. As mentioned earlier, Threads has said that it cannot control the deletion of posts in servers that are not within its control. This means that if a user posts something and it is visible on a server that the Data Fiduciary cannot control, then the erasure of such data is difficult. This also puts limits on the platform’s ability to comply with the requirement of storage limitation. Moreover, in the Fediverse, different parties are involved in storing and transmitting social content, making it susceptible to unauthorised access by attackers.


At the same time, the decentralised nature of the Fediverse also improves data protection. Unlike conventional social media, the user’s personal data is no longer controlled by the centralised platform. Rather, the users themselves manage their own personal data (p. 20). Moreover, because users are distributed across servers, the ramifications of a data breach are lowered, reducing the incentive for malicious attacks. Moreover, the Fediverse offers an alternative to invasive data collection and sharing of personal data with advertisers. In short, even as it poses new privacy-related challenges that are yet to be addressed, the very design of Fediverse furthers data protection.


3. Intellectual property laws and the issuance of a “cease-and-desist letter” to Threads


In a recent development, Twitter issued a “cease-and-desist letter” to Meta. The letter accuses Meta of hiring former Twitter employees to misappropriate Twitter’s trade secrets for developing Threads. Essentially, the letter warns of legal action if Meta continues to allegedly violate Twitter’s trade secrets. While cease-and-desist letters are non-binding, they do have evidentiary value in courts. For instance, Facebook v. Power Ventures (2016) ruled that the moment a cease-and-desist letter was issued, the defendant’s access to Facebook’s pages (over which Facebook had exclusive copyright) became unauthorised, and, hence, constituted a copyright infringement. Similar conclusions have been affirmed in Meta Platforms v. Ates and HiQ Labs v. LinkedIn Corp. Arguably, in the case of Threads, Twitter’s cease-and-desist letter forbids Meta to continue with the alleged IPR infringement and its non-compliance would have legal consequences. It may be noted that both the US and India are signatories of the Berne Convention, and it is possible to have uniformity in the manner in which cases relating to copyright are adjudicated. However, since India does not have a trade secret law, and it is largely governed by the law on contracts, it remains to be seen how the legal developments in this regard pan out. But any legal proceeding against Threads/Meta in the US would certainly have worldwide implications on the growth of the Fediverse because Threads has not yet entered the Fediverse, though it is slated to join the Fediverse soon. As shown in the first part of this blog post, Threads plays a crucial role in the growth of the Fediverse . With over 100 million users, Threads surpasses the currently largest Fediverse platform, Mastodon, which has a user base of 10 million. Consequently, the intellectual property rights dispute between Twitter and Threads could become a significant obstacle in Threads’ progress, and, thereby, in the expansion of the Fediverse itself.


IV. The way forward


The growth of Fediverse has the potential to permanently alter the relationship between persons and processes of production in digital and non-digital contexts. Through decentralisation and interoperability, it seeks to break up the “walled gardens” of conventional social media. Thus, it paves the way forward to promote competition, give social media users greater autonomy over their personal data, and even alter socioeconomic and political consciousness by bringing acceptance for agonism. However, its architecture, which is the main reason behind its advantage, is also the very reason why it poses a challenge to policymakers tasked with framing content moderation and data protection laws. This necessitates unconventional policy solutions, such as the use of plug-ins for detecting and flagging harmful content, greater ex-ante involvement of governments in the development of its software, and regulating connections within the Fediverse. Additionally, amending laws to create a space for server-level moderation, and reducing the more logistically onerous duties can also go a long way in helping the Fediverse revolutionise social media.

 

*Raghav Ahooja is a Technology Law and Policy LL.M. candidate at Georgetown University Law Center. He has been conferred the Westin Scholar Award 2023 for Excellence in Privacy by the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) and Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy. He was also a Digital Defender Fellow at the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC). He is enthusiastic about privacy, digital rights, and platform governance. He may be contacted at raghavahooja2@gmail.com.


Chytanya S. Agarwal is a third-year student B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He may be contacted at chytanya.agarwal@nls.ac.in.

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