The following is an edited version of a proposal I wrote for the Bluesky Community, now called the dSocialCommons, back in February 2022.
I'm reproducing it here to make it easy for me to share.
This document lays out concerns for "self hosters" of services that contribute to the decentralised or #fediverse. At present, these concerns are not addressed in any comprehensive manner anywhere, though they have been around for some time.
Discussed here are two areas where help is needed from a properly-resourced organisation for small operations hosting federated services or operating nodes that contribute to the decentralised web.
Governments around the world are passing more and more laws governing how internet services behave. These laws seek to control how certain information can be made available on the internet. Terrorism-related information, child abuse imagery, copyright infringing material, abusive postings, hate speech and data protection are some of the concerns that these laws address, or seek to address (or whose sponsors assert they seek to address).
A review of the news reporting around these matters shows that it's very hard to get the controls right. Many of these laws assume that only large services will be impacted, and some of these laws nakedly target specific companies or internet services, often for nothing more than populist reasons.
Where possible, civil society organisations like the ACLU and EFF, Open Rights Group and Digital Rights Ireland, EDRi, La Quadrature du Net, the FSFE and others seek to influence the laws, either by engaging the the legislative process or – failing that, or when some unanticipated scenario arises – through the courts. However, in the main, these efforts are again focused on the affect that the larger organisations and services have on the rights of internet users as they are thought of as consumers, rather than active contributors.
An example of an exception to this approach was with the EU Copyright Directive that was approved in 2019. During the development of the law, a proposal that risked killing Free and Open Source Software development was eventually removed because the impacts would have had a serious and large negative and real impact on innovation.
In all jurisdictions there needs to be a means for the interests of federated services, and other decentralised operations, to be represented in the legislative process. In particular, the unnecessary negative consequences to the decentralised web and to federated services of new would need to be made known to the relevant parliaments and congresses, allowing them the proper opportunity to address these concerns.
Support for self-hosters
For the purposes of this document, self-hosting is when an individual or small organisation will host a web-based service instead of making use of the larger, more well-known, centralised services. For example, instead of using twitter, an individual may use mastodon, or instead of using WhatsApp, an activist group may prefer the greater independence that a Matrix homeserver offers.
These individuals or groups will rarely be expert on all the laws that apply to them as hosters or operators of such services, and equally rare will it be that they have easy access to well-informed legal advice.
This could have some concerning effects:
- The service may unwittingly be operated or configured in a manner that is not legal in its jurisdiction (or in the jurisdiction of a proportion of its users, perhaps even of just one of the users!), exposing the operator to civil or criminal action.
- The service operator may be aware of the existence of such laws, but not fully appreciate their responsibilities, and therefore will be constantly anxious about the risk of an allegation of illegally operating the service
- And many people may decide that the laws are just too onerous or risky to bother, depriving the ecosystem of a potentially valuable federated or decentralised participant; sending more users unnecessarily to the powerful incumbents.
What help is needed?
A properly-resourced organisation could be a highly valuable resource for addressing these two categories of concern.
Contributing in the policy-making processes
Work in conjunction with other, closely-aligned organisations (such as the Internet Archive, EFF, etc.) to lobby for consideration of federated services. Such work would include activities like:
- Developing policies to promote to civil-society organisations and politicians
- Running campaigns to inform legislators
- Offering representatives to testify at legislative hearings
- Co-singing open letters
In countries where such an organisation doesn't have an official presence, it should build a network of committed, local, campaigners to represent these concerns to legislators and to use its resources (posters, flyers, "talking points", expense accounts, etc.) in public information campaigns.
Helpful resources for self-hosters
Help develop a suite of resources to guide individuals and small organisations hosting federated or decentralised services. These resources would include a run-through of the laws that apply to them (based on the type of service, perhaps, their target user-bases and – of course – their jurisdiction). These guides will offer information such as what's permitted and what's not, what the operator's responsibilities are to their users and to the state, the risks they need to be aware of and, of course, their rights.
It would take some time to put these together and no small amount of access to legal expertise, but such clarity in this area for people who are keen to participate can only serve to increase engagement and more speedily grow the federated and decentralised web.
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