With the rapid pickup of Mastodon and other ActivityPub-powered federated social media, there has been some movement among those in the media to make better use of the platform themselves. For example, most recently, the German news giant Heise announced it was setting up its own Mastodon server, where it will serve up its own content, and also offer accounts to any of the company’s employees, should they choose to use them. Medium, the publication tool, has similarly set up its own Mastodon server as well. At some point, Techdirt is going to do that as well, though we’ve been waiting while a bunch of new developments and platforms are being built before committing to a specific plan.
However, recently, the Financial Times posted a very bizarre article in which it talks about how it had set up a Mastodon server for its FT Alphaville back in November, but has now decided to shut it down because, according to the headline “it was awful.” What’s kinda bizarre is that they clearly set it up without much thought, and admitted as much in their kickoff blog post, admitting they didn’t quite know what to do with it, and asking people if they had any ideas. They also clearly recognized that there are some potential liability questions about running your own social media platform, because they described it this way (note the strikethrough, which is in the original):
If you have a smart idea about how we could use our newfound
moderation liabilityplatform, please let us know.
Which is kinda why the reasoning for shutting down the platform… is somewhat incomprehensible. They basically don’t talk about any of the problems with actually running Mastodon. They outline all of the stupid policies in place (mostly in the UK) that make it scary to run a social media network. The “awfulness” seemed to have nothing to do with running the server, and a lot to do with how the UK (and other parts of the world) have really dreadful laws that suck if you want to setup a site that hosts third-party speech.
If anything, the decision to shut it down is a primary lesson in how important Section 230 is if we want social media to survive (and allow for smaller competitors to exist). While they say that running the Mastodon server was “more hassle than it’s worth,” what they really seem to mean is that the UK laws, both existing and those on the way, make it ridiculously burdensome to do this:
The legal side is all that again times a thousand. Take, for instance, the UK Investigatory Powers Act 2016. Diligent people have spent years figuring out how its imprecise wordings apply to media organisations. Do these same conclusions hold for a sort-of-but-not-really decentralised silo of user generated content? Dunno. The only place to find out for sure would be in court, and we’d really rather not.
Seems like the kinda thing that, I don’t know, a publication like the FT might have spoken out about in the years and months prior to the Investigatory Powers Act coming into effect?
Then there’s the defamation liability thing. Which, you know, is a big part of why Section 230 is so important in the US. This one paragraph alone should make it clear why the UK will never become a social media powerhouse:
Do Mastodon server owners wear any responsibility for their users’ defamations? It’s unlikely but, because libel involves judges, not impossible. Again, the value in finding out is outweighed by the cost of finding out.
They name some other laws as well:
What about GDPR? Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedowns? Electronic Commerce Regulations? CAN-SPAM? FTAV treats user data with a combination of disinterest and uninterest, but that’s not enough to guarantee compliance with all relevant global laws and regulations.
And laws to come:
And, look, it’s absolutely true that there are legal risks to running a Mastodon instance. EFF has put up a really fantastic legal primer for anyone looking to set up their own Mastodon server. And there are, certainly, some technical and logistical issues in doing it as well. And, basically all that says is that you shouldn’t set up a server on a whim.
But, what this really seems to demonstrate is the importance of good regulations like Section 230 that help make it possible for anyone to set up just such a server, as well as the horrific nature of UK laws like the Investigatory Powers Act and the upcoming Online Safety Bill, and how they make it next to impossible for there to ever be a UK-created social media platform.
But, in some ways, it’s even dumber, because… most of these laws already apply to FT and its website, because the FT… allows comments. Anyone who allows comments on their website already has a kind of social media offering already. And, indeed, some people raised that very point in the comments on this story.
Source: Financial Times Sets Up Mastodon Server, Realizes Laws Exist (Which It Was Already Subject To), Pulls Down Mastodon Server | Techdirt
I disagree with the conclusion of the article as the writer doesn’t realise that adding more stuff to moderate in different systems is a larger pain in the butt than just having one system to moderate.