The fediverse (a blend made from “federation” and “universe”) is a group of social media consisting of a multitude of platforms and software, each of them communicating with the others using a common protocol. Mastodon is one of the software applications used to offer an instance on the fediverse1More information on the fediverse on fediverse.party.. Last June, Meta announced its arrival on the fediverse, with the launch of a Twitter challenger called Threads, which will eventually be able to interoperate with other instances of the fediverse. For several years now, La Quadrature du Net has been calling for mandatory interoperability for these major social networks. So, is the interoperability of a service from Meta good news? Certainly not.
The fediverse is important
Since 2018, La Quadrature du Net has been defending the virtuous model of the fediverse and calling for an obligation in law for social networking platforms to be interoperable, for example to be forced to join the ecosystem of the fediverse. The primary objective of the fediverse and of our demand for interoperability is to ensure that users of the big platforms are not trapped by network effects, i.e. the fact that certain platforms have become essential because the communities are on them. Interoperability means that people can freely decide from which platform to communicate with their contacts, without being pushed more or less forcefully towards a particular site or application because all their friends are on it.
Interoperability in terms of interpersonal messaging has already existed for decades with email. With an address at provider A, you can write to your contacts at provider B.
Applied to social networks, interoperability means that a person on an instance A can write to a person on an instance B. Above all, this means that you can leave a platform without being cut off from your friends, particularly if a social network is abusing its users’ personal data or has policies on moderation or promoting certain questionable content.
Since 2017, La Quadrature du Net has been promoting the interoperability of social networks. We believe that this is an alternative response to the problem of regulating online content. Given how racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic content is promoted by certain big platforms, allowing their users to leave without being cut off from their friends allows more respectful alternatives to emerge, with a different economic model.
So, since 2017, we have been managing a Mastodon instance, Mamot.fr. With this instance, we are maintaining a small part of the large federated social network that is the fediverse. Our users can communicate with the other instances of the fediverse, without needing to have an account on every other platform, and they can leave at any time if our moderation policy doesn’t suit them. In short, a federated social network gives power back to the user, by taking it away from the platforms.
The beauty of the fediverse is that it doesn’t stop at microblogging. We also have a Peertube instance on video.lqdn.fr, which is also part of the fediverse: anyone can comment on and share our videos without having an account on our platforms, but simply on any instance of the fediverse.
But here comes the giant Meta
Whether you call it Meta or Facebook, it’s the same giant at work. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network has been the source of numerous scandals, including the (mis)management of personal data and failure to comply with the GDPR, as well as the fact that, through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has been used for massive vote rigging campaigns.
Meta is perhaps too big, its dominant and almost monopolistic position in the social networking world today granting it a sort of impunity. It is by bringing together all the users of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. that the group with several billion users can survive its countless scandals.
But today Meta is faced with a double problem. First, social networks don’t last forever and are regularly abandoned as users migrate to other platforms. Facebook is gradually paying the price, facing competition from other platforms such as TikTok, which have been able to exploit the addiction of its users. Second, its size makes it a priority target for various governments seeking to regulate platforms. The Digital Markets Act (DMA), a European regulation which, in tandem with the Digital Services Act (DSA), aims to regulate digital platforms and the digital economy, came very close to imposing an interoperability obligation on social networks. Although France, at the initiative of Cédric O, withdrew the interoperability obligations for social networks from the final text at the very end of the legislative process, it is clear that the idea of regulating the Internet by decentralising it is gaining support among decision-makers and that such an obligation will probably become a reality sooner or later.
Facebook’s arrival on the fediverse looks like a strategy of taking the lead, acting while there is still no framework, in order to cannibalise the fediverse by taking advantage of the downfall of Twitter.
Interoperability is key
In order to promote the virtuous model of the fediverse, we called for an obligation of interoperability to be imposed on the major social networking platforms in the Avia law. By allowing users to leave a toxic social network without disconnecting from their friends, the aim is to break the monopoly that the tech giants have on their communities, and allow users to choose the platform that will host them, according to their preferences, sympathies and values.
Whereas the Avia law proposed control, censorship and consolidation of the hegemony and power of platforms as a way of regulating them, we proposed mandatory interoperability as an alternative model to censorship. If Twitter, Facebook or TikTok are harmful, it is (among other things) because their economic model encourages them to promote problematic, hateful content that will make people react and keep their attention in order to generate more advertising revenue, to the detriment of a peaceful debate and respect for others.
With the DSA and the DMA, we were proposing mandatory interoperability for the same reason: regulating the gatekeepers means taking control of communities away from them. And our efforts, supported by other organisations such as EDRi, Article 19 and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), almost succeeded, because without the efforts of the French government and its then-minister Cédric O, mandatory interoperability of social networks could have become a reality, since the European Parliament voted in favour of it.
Recently, we also criticised the attitude of the French government, which, blind to the social issues affecting the suburbs, prefers to muzzle freedom of expression on social networks with the old cliché of censorship, even though this will not solve the underlying problems. Regulation of platforms would be better achieved through more decentralisation than through more censorship.
Interoperability, yes, but not any old how
So, given the need to decentralise social networks, shouldn’t the fediverse warmly welcome Meta? History suggests it shouldn’t.
At the time of writing, Threads is not interoperable. Meta has announced that its service will be able to communicate with the rest of the fediverse, but at this stage it is only an announcement. It should also be noted that Meta has restricted Threads to users outside the European Union, citing incompatibility with the GDPR.
With this background in mind, we need to go back to the GTalk and XMPP episode to see the big picture. XMPP is an open protocol for interpersonal messaging. In much the same way as email, each user has an account on one service and can chat with friends who may be on other services. In 2005, Google launched its messaging service, GTalk, which used the XMPP protocol, and the following year federation was activated: it was then possible to chat with a GTalk user even if you had an account elsewhere than on Google’s servers. But in 2012, having captured part of the user base, the company announced that it planned to reorganise its products and merge all the messaging products with Hangouts. In 2013, Google announced that Hangouts would not be compatible with XMPP, isolating the community it had built up through XMPP’s interoperability.
As you can see, Google’s size made it possible to enforce this decision. Cutting off users from their contacts outside Google is not a decision in favour of the community. But it was made possible by Google’s power over it.
When the first rumours about Meta’s arrival on the fediverse with Threads (codenamed “Project92” at the time) emerged2Meta approached administrators of Mastodon instances and asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. This kind of improper approach obviously caused a number of administrators to reveal the information, without knowing the content of any discussions Meta may have had with others, but denouncing their approach. As a result, the Fedipact initiative was launched. The principle is simple, with signing parties pledging to block Meta’s services because of the company’s harmful impact on the fediverse: “i am an instance admin/mod on the fediverse. by signing this pact, i hereby agree to block any instances owned by meta should they pop up on the fediverse. project92 is a real and serious threat to the health and longevity of fedi and must be fought back against at every possible opportunity.”
La Quadrature du Net shares the fears but will not sign the pact
Many fediverse instances, both French-speaking and non-French-speaking, have decided to sign this statement. Many arguments in favour of blocking Meta have been developed (see, for example, Ploum’s explanation). Other instances have preferred to wait, not wanting to condemn Meta in advance but not excluding the possibility of blocking it if its service were to create moderation problems.
While we have not signed the Fedipact, we share the fears expressed and the Mastodon instance managed by La Quadrature du Net, mamot.fr, will block Threads and any Meta service that may join the fediverse as long as an interoperability obligation backed up by a regulator capable of facing up to the GAFAMs and other tech giants has not been introduced into law.
We believe that it is possible, and desirable, to have Facebook and the other commercial social networks on the fediverse. This is a fundamental condition for their weakening. On the other hand, Meta’s approach with Threads is anything but a strategy to weaken the company: Meta has no intention of killing itself but rather of invading the fediverse in order to cannibalise it.
We are still calling for these social networks, which are closed by nature, to become interoperable. But not any old how, and not at the price of the existing ecosystem nor, in the end, at the price of users’ rights and freedoms. Such an obligation must be subject to control and supervision, so that Meta cannot impose its choices on the rest of the Internet.
By its size, Threads would automatically become the largest platform in the fediverse, without making any commitment to respect the functioning and sustainability of the interoperable structure of the ecosystem. Meta could, for example, seek to influence the protocol on which the fediverse is built, ActivityPub. It could also refuse to use this protocol, forcing other platforms to interoperate with it. Or adopt the Embrace, extend and extinguish strategy.
In short, without a strong regulator who can prevent Meta from taking what it wants from the fediverse without participating in its development (remember that the fediverse is based on a philosophy that is radically opposed to Meta’s commercial strategy), the fediverse could be killed.
Just as Google took what it liked from XMPP, with no external control Meta will take what it likes from the fediverse and then leave, or cause the interoperable part of its service to decline, for example by reserving certain functions for its users only. As we wrote in the past, “within a few years, the giants closed in on themselves and stopped communicating, even with each other. They no longer had any reason to allow communication with the outside world: “everyone” was already there, trapped and unable to escape without seeing a part of their social life disappear.” We don’t want to repeat this scenario with the fediverse.
We often use the example of email to demonstrate the technical viability of interoperability. But when it comes to email too, tech giants rule. Six years ago, Framasoft wrote that “Being an email giant means making the law…”. And with good reason: by capturing the vast majority of users, the big techs can impose their rules and standards on the smaller ones, forcing the small platforms to adapt to the big ones, rather than the big platforms to adapt to the small ones. The same risk hangs over the fediverse without a regulator to block them.
Consequences for Mamot.fr users
In light of these risks, to preserve our ability to act in the future and to protect ourselves from what we consider to be a real threat, we believe that Meta’s actions should be watched with the utmost caution.
For these reasons, Mamot.fr will proceed, until further notice, with the preventive blocking of Threads as well as any other Meta service that may appear on the fediverse.
Users with an account on Mamot.fr will therefore not be able to be seen or followed by users with an account on Threads, and vice versa. If people you know are on this platform and would like to follow you, we recommend that they put their data in the hands of trusted collectives and associations, in particular the platforms managed by the CHATONS.org collectives, for example.
This kind of blocking is clearly not desirable: in the end, users are the victims of this situation. But it’s the lawmaker’s call. Our position has not changed: we believe that it is essential for the major platforms to be interoperable, on common technical and social bases, which can only be achieved with an interoperability obligation controlled by a regulator with sufficient powers to prevent the big platforms from crushing the small ones. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. The Espace Numérique bill, which was approved by the Senate in July and will be discussed by the National Assembly in October, is an opportunity for the legislator to introduce this interoperability obligation. We will cover this text in a later post. In the meantime, please consider making a donation to La Quadrature du Net, so that we can continue our fight for a decentralised Internet that benefits users.
|↑1||More information on the fediverse on fediverse.party.|
|↑2||Meta approached administrators of Mastodon instances and asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. This kind of improper approach obviously caused a number of administrators to reveal the information, without knowing the content of any discussions Meta may have had with others, but denouncing their approach.|