The Current State of Alt-Tech

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The oligarchs of Silicon Valley — Facebook, Twitter and Google — have pursued and continue to pursue policies of censorship and demonetisation of controversial personalities who use their platforms. They don’t have your interests at heart, only their vision of a world under their thumb.

Last year, the Alt-Tech promised a revolution. These platforms aimed to disrupt and replace the legacy platforms, placing the rights and freedoms of users first. One year on, how well did they fare?

Infogalactic

Infogalactic is an unqualified success story. Beginning as a dynamic hard fork of Wikipedia, it strives to be more objective and informative than its predecessor. In line with its Seven Canons, Infogalactic maintains a strict non-ideological position for all facts — but in the future, it will introduce Context and Opinion levels to its pages, allowing greater depth of content.

Every time I compared an Infogalactic page to Wikipedia, I found the former to be more informative and accurate. The only major knock against Infogalactic is its load time, and even that is improving by the day. In the beginning, it took long minutes to load a single page. Today, it is only slightly slower than Wikipedia.

I use Infogalactic exclusively these days. Wikipedia’s explicit left-wing bias means it is no longer a neutral source of information. Infogalactic has demonstrated itself to be a viable and sustainable alternative to Wikipedia, and in the long term I suspect the disruption and replacement of Wikipedia is inevitable.

Gab

Gab was supposed to be the Twitter killer. A platform dedicated to free speech, it has survived allegations and lies about it being the haven of the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazis. Apple and Google have repeatedly prevented Gab from publishing its app on the iTunes Store and Google Play Store respectively for spurious reasons. Gab brands itself as a proponent of free speech — but that is also its undoing.

Gab’s key weakness is its inability or unwillingness to moderate posts. While it is unwaveringly committed to free speech, freedom is not and cannot be unlimited. As the old adage goes, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Harmful speech — speech that incites violence or compromises the privacy and safety of individuals — is not protected speech. Gab must be able to moderate harmful content to preserve the continued health and safety of its users, and it has failed the test.

Over the past week, blogger Vox Day noted that a handful of Gab users have defamed him, and requested Gab to provide their private information so he could take appropriate legal action. Gab refused, prompting Vox Day to send in the lawyers. This catalysed a drawn-out campaign on the Internet, with Gab founder Andrew Torba upholding his position on free speech and Vox Day maintaining his stance on moderation and legal consequences. Since then, other users have continued to defame Vox Day, and threatened to dox him.

At the same time, Asia Registry, Gab’s domain registrar, dropped Gab because one of its users posted hate speech. Gab also allowed users to post home addresses on its site, in clear violation of the law and its own terms of service. Gab has banned the user who posted the offended content and took down the post, but left the other users who conducted defamatory and doxxing activities untouched. Gab has also since secured a new domain registrar.

These controversies expose Gab’s core weakness. As Gab refused to moderate harmful speech, Gab users have no choice but to lodge complaints with the domain registrar, who will inevitably respond by ordering Gab off its platform. Like the Daily Stormer, I foresee Gab migrating from registrar to registrar, virtually guaranteeing disruption of services. Alternatively, these users may turn to the police and the courts instead, which will invite another round of troubles.

Free speech ends where harm begins. Incitement to violence, exposure of confidential information, and lying about someone to smear his reputation counts as harm. If Gab will not handle harmful speech in-house, other parties will. To Gab’s detriment. I, for one, cannot in good conscience continue to recommend anyone to use Gab until they fix this oversight, if ever.

Brave

Brave was supposed to offer a happy compromise between browsers that captured your browsing data to deliver ads and a non-stop arms race between ad blockers and advertisers. It blocked unwanted ads while allowing ads on certain sites, allowing you to support your favourite content providers. It also offered channels to send money directly to these content providers in lieu of ads. It sounds like a win-win situation, but execution remains a problem.

I can’t use Brave on my computer for most of my needs. It’s not compatible with many websites I frequent, including and especially those I use for work and business transactions. It’s also noticeably slower than other browsers I’ve used. On my mobile phone, I’ve noticed increasingly frequent failures to load websites, forcing me to use alternatives.

While Brave is promising, it’s at best a secondary browser. I still use Pale Moon for most of my Internet needs, switching to Brave for the rare occasions when it offers better performance. Perhaps Brave’s performance will improve as time goes by. Its founder is Mozilla co-founder and chief technical officer Brendan Eich, and he has the experience and expertise to make this project a success. For now, however, Brave is just not ready for prime time.

On the Horizon

While Alt-Tech tends to refer to the Big Three of Infogalactic, Gab and Brave, on a more general level it can refer to platforms that compete and disrupt legacy platforms that infringe on the users’ rights. If we look beyond the Big Three, there may be other, more promising platforms.

Voat aims to be the Reddit alternative. Reddit is known for censoring entire subreddits whose users hold controversial opinions, such as Donald Trump supporters and Gamergaters. Like Gab, Voat promises freedom for all, with a user interface extremely familiar to Reddit users. Voat’s stated policy is to not meddle with or censor content unless it is illegal in the United States. However, as yet there are no signs of a mass exodus from Reddit, and Voat itself doesn’t seem to offer any tangible differences from Reddit in terms of user interface and operational concepts. For now, Reddit and Voat can coexist, but barring a major change in the way Voat does things to differentiate itself from Reddit, Voat will continue playing second fiddle into the foreseeable future.

DTube is like YouTube, but integrated into the Steemit blockchain. I expect it to be extremely popular with Steemit users… if it can load properly. Ironically, this is one of the few instances where Brave outshines Pale Moon and Google Chrome: of the three it’s the only browser that loads it properly. The concept is certainly fascinating, and I expect Steemit users to use it in the place of YouTube. It won’t completely disrupt YouTube, but being natively resistant to censorship, I expect it will be more functional and rewarding to users poised to take full advantage of its capabilities.

Steemit doesn’t compete with any Silicon Valley oligarch directly. But its hybrid approach of easy Medium-like blogging and Reddit-style commenting, coupled with cryptocurrency incentives, might point the way forward to future crowd-based social media platforms. It can’t, however, replace blogs for everyone just yet, if at all. For professionals who use blogs to drive user traffic to purchase products, Steemit just doesn’t offer the bevy of features they need. That might not necessarily be a bad thing: I’d like Steemit to focus on what it’s good at and leave the beta stage before branching off into new ground.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Reddit started the modern Internet age, but have abused their near-monopolistic powers to the cost of users. The time is ripe for alternative tech platforms to dethrone them and return freedom to the users. Given the current state of Alt-Tech and other platforms, I’m not sure it’ll happen soon.

But I think I’ll live long enough to see it happen.

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If you would like to support my fiction, do check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

Steemit: Liquid Democracy for Social Media

When people think ‘liquid democracy’, they think about politics and decision-making. Steemit, however, offers an opportunity to expand the concept into social media.

A liquid democracy is touted as democracy for the 21st century. Combining the best elements of direct democracy and representative democracy, a liquid democracy allows people to delegate their votes to a proxy who votes on issues for them — but individual voters are also free to withdraw their votes from the proxy if they feel the proxy is voting against their wishes.

This video provides a fuller explanation of the term:

 

Individual Steemians are free to upvote or flag any post at will. They may create bots to automate the voting process, or delegate their votes to curators. Guilds have their own systems of discussing which posts to upvote or flag. Instead of deciding on policy, though, Steemians collectively decide and reward what they believe is the best content on Steemit.

Lessons for Liquid Democracy


I can vote, you can vote, everybody can vote!

As a model for real-world applications of liquid democracy, Steemit has much going for it. People are rewarded for participating in the platform with tokens that can be exchanged for real currency, incentivising future participation. Instead of outright censoring controversial material, people can simply ignore the post and the writer; the lack of payment tells the writer what the marketplace of ideas really thinks of his content. For abusive content, voters can hide the content through coordinated flagging (‘nuking’). This will not make the content disappear, but flagging does massive damage to the user’s reputation, signalling him to either shape up or get out. And if a rogue users abuse the flagging, other accounts exist to counter these flags.

Steemit is a user-driven platform. Solutions are organically developed from the ground-up. Instead of relying on the mercies of an unaccountable development team, Steemians are free to identify and resolve issues through the platform’s tools where possible. The blockchain prevents content from being arbitrarily removed — at least not without someone noticing — which defeats attempts at government censorship. Unlike other social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, where censorship of dangerous ideas is celebrated, the hand of the dev team or moderators is little-felt at the day-to-day levels.

Social media doesn’t translate cleanly into policymaking. But there are three key lessons from Steemit that apply to liquid democracy.

The first is user empowerment. Steemit is designed around the user, empowering and incentivising participation in the platform. While Steemit’s model allows for weighted votes, in a state or organisation run by liquid democracy every user should only have one vote. This prevents powerful oligarchs from dictating terms to the rest of the nation. However, in a liquid democracy, people are free to delegate that vote to proxies, as in the case of Steemians empowering curation guilds to curate posts on their behalf. This frees people from the need to invest enormous amounts of time and energy into researching topics, and creates opportunities for people with the ability to do so to rise from the crowd. At the same time, voters are also free to vote according to their conscience instead of delegating their vote to a proxy who may not be aligned with their beliefs.

The second is protection of the marketplace of ideas. For a liquid democracy to work, free and fair debate is critical. All ideas must be allowed to participate in the marketplace of ideas, no matter how heinous they may seem to people. Censorship destroys and distorts the marketplace, driving targeted ideas underground but not obviating them. On Steemit, people are free to engage or ignore poor content and conceal abusive ones through flagging; in a liquid democracy, citizens should likewise be free to defeat bad ideas in the cut and thrust of debate, or simply ignore bad ideas into oblivion. The only place for censorship in a liquid democracy is to guard against a greater harm, such as preventing the disclosure of details of a criminal investigation.

The last lesson is decentralisation and division of labour. Nobody can be an expert at everything. In Steemit’s larger curation guilds, different subgroups handle specialised subjects. Steemtrail, for example, has multiple trails dedicated to topics like alternative energy, beer or fiction, operated by curators interested in them. Likewise, in a liquid democracy, political parties may form different subgroups to become the face of the party on topics like the economy, national security and so on. This allows political parties to deploy the best candidates to handle specific issues. While each subgroup would drive the party’s policy with respect to their area of focus, other party members are also free to join in if they are willing and/or qualified to do so. Party members and ordinary voters are free to delegate their votes to these experts. But they are also free to delegate their votes to someone else, or vote directly on the subject. This approach allows everybody’s views to be represented, while creating the environment for subject matter experts to tackle issues they are qualified for.

Lessons for Steemit


Sometimes, you have to be that guy.

Steemit also has a major lesson to learn from liquid democracy: transparency.

In a liquid democracy, proxy voting is supposed to be completely transparent. This ensures voters know how their proxies will vote. The proxy’s voting behaviour is also recorded, letting voters check the proxy’s voting record. Blockchain technology makes this possible by creating a permanent record of a proxy’s voting behaviour and how he intends to vote in the future. Politicians and proxies can count on the media to tell the world where they stand on certain topics and why. Steemit doesn’t offer the same capability.

Users normally trust curation guilds to vote in line with their tastes, but this may not always be so. Using Streemian, users may empower curators to vote on their behalf — up to a point. They may require the curator to vote on certain topics with specific tags, like writing or fiction, or to deny the curator the ability to vote on posts with other tags. This allows users to decide just how much power they wish to give curators. But even this is not sufficient. Here are two examples.

Alice wishes to promote science content on Steemit, so she requires her favourite curator to vote on posts tagged ‘science’. The curator follows her wishes by voting on all posts with that tag — even posts that contain erroneous facts or psuedoscience disguised as proper science.

Barry decides that he will vote on all police-related content himself, so he prevents his curator from voting on posts tagged ‘police’ and ‘crime’. The curator then upvotes and resteems a specific post that makes a false allegation of police brutality. Barry knows for a fact that this allegation is false and would not have upvoted or resteemed it. But as that post is tagged only as ‘writing’ and ‘blog’, Barry’s wishes are not acceded to. He only discovers the curator’s actions only when that post appears on his feed — and wonders what else the curator has voted on without his permission.

Users, curators and writers may do their best, but there will always be gaps not covered by filters. When faced with such scenarios, the easy option is to simply shrug and let the vote stand. Nobody is harmed by the upvote, so why bother? Besides, the user stands to gain curation rewards, and rescinding the vote will reset them.

However, the blockchain makes no distinction between curator and user. A curator may vote on behalf of a user, but on the blockchain the vote is recorded as originating from the user. A person cannot in good faith be expected to be recorded as having voted for a post that goes against everything he stands for, especially since with every vote drains an account’s voting power, reducing the curation reward. Further, should a curator choose to flag a post, there will be negative repercussions for the targeted user. Should a user believe that the target is not guilty, he should be free to cancel his own flag.

In a liquid democracy, every vote belongs to the user, to be given away or taken back as he sees fit. For a direct democracy to work, proxies must be transparent. Their votes and rationale for the votes must be known to all.

As we can see here, Streemian doesn’t do a good job in making votes transparent. The user must first log into Streemian, go to the curator trail and select a specific curator before he can see the voting history. And even that, that history is limited to the last ten votes. This is troublesome for a user, and inadequate.

Going forward, Steemit should introduce measures to enhance curator transparency. At any time, Steemians should be able to quickly access a curator’s voting record with a minimum of clicks, either in Steemit proper or on a third-party platform. The voting record should cover the curator’s history for at least the past twenty-four hours. Curators should justify every vote they make on the public record. When examining the record, users may choose to filter the record by tags for easier reading. Should they discover that a curator has voted against their interests, users are free to cancel their vote at any time. And of course, if a user feels a curator is no long aligned with his interests, he is free to drop the curator and vote manually. Finally, if the platform allows it, users should have the option of recording curator-delegated votes on the blockchain as such (i.e. User delegated Curator to upvote Post X) to distinguish them from manual votes.

Social Media for the 21st Century

Going forward, Steemit is primed to revolutionise social media. It natively encourages users to invest in the platform for the long-term through cryptocurrency. Through the adoption of the blockchain and empowerment of curators, Steemit is now a social media platform that runs along principles of liquid democracy. Steemit’s main stumbling block is lack of curator transparency, underscoring the importance of proxy transparency for policymaking. Should this obstacle be overcome, Steemit could serve as a model for the political evolution of democracies.

The Ethics of Piracy in the Digital Age

Ebooks, digital downloads, torrents and the Internet have fundamentally altered the nature of commercial transactions, but definitions of ‘piracy’ remains stuck in the 17th century, in the heyday of pirates at sea.

Maritime piracy is clearly evil. Maritime merchant shipping transfers goods from a supplier to a buyer. The supplier expects payment and the buyer expects goods. By attacking ships at sea, pirates deny the buyer his goods. If the buyer doesn’t receive his goods, the supplier either will not receive payment or will lose future customers. Many pirates also take the opportunity to rob the crew and passengers, and sometimes kidnap them for ransom.

Software piracy is far more ambiguous. It is the act of illegally reproducing a work of intellectual property. No physical goods are stolen; rather the original is cloned. No goods are stolen, no payment denied. No middlemen and no innocents are harmed.

The primary argument against digital piracy is lost sales. After copying the IP to physical media, the pirates sell the media at much lower prices. This undercuts the original merchant, translating into lost sales. The pirates are profiting from the creators’ efforts at almost no cost to themselves. The creators are not rewarded for their work, discouraging them from future work.

This argument might be true in the era of CDs, DVDs and printed matter. But that era has passed.

The Reality of Digital Piracy

Torrents and download sites are everywhere. If you have an Internet connection, five minutes on a search engine will turn up plenty of pirate sites. The authorities might squash one or two every now and then, but more will inevitably pop up. The cost of hunting down pirate sites, identifying the owners, obtaining court orders and serving warrants is far greater than setting up anonymous sites and obtaining proxy servers. And there will always be demand for piracy. Further, pirated digital goods — music, movies, games, ebooks — are freely available. There is no reason for consumers to buy pirated material if they can download them from the Internet for free.

The pirates do not normally profit from sales of software. Many pirates do not even sellsoftware to consumers. This indicates that the people who pirate software are people who would not have purchased anything from the creators. No sales are lost. This undercuts the primary argument against piracy.

If no goods are physically stolen, if payments are neither intercepted nor prevented, if no innocents are harmed, is piracy still unethical?

The Ethics of Digital Piracy

Here we see manga in their native habitat: a bookstore in Japan. Many Japanese manga are not translated into English, and will never be. Even if they are, the salacious covers of some of these manga will ensure they will never be imported into my home country. These linguistic and legal barriers will prevent the manga from reaching a wider English-speaking audience.

Enter scanlation groups. These groups scan and translate Japanese manga, posting them online for people to read. While many are amateurs, they provide a service professionals do not or cannot. Most scanlation groups do their work for free, covering their costs from out of pocket. Some will solicit for donations, but only to cover operational costs — including purchasing a legal copy of the original manga to scan and translate.

Scanlation groups make Japanese-language manga available to people who speak different languages free of charge. The author loses no sales; his books were never for sale in those languages to begin with. Nobody is harmed and no profits are made. While this is technically piracy — how does it harm people?

What about goods that are widely available, such as computer games? Here, pirates are consumers who do not want to buy a good at a certain price point. This is an argument for proper price strategy, not anti-piracy measures. This is why many game companies run sales regularly on outlets like Steam and GOG. With that said, we can’t expect publishers to constantly set a price that forces them to make a loss, and there will always be people who will never pay a cent for games.

There is no way to extract profit from people who won’t pay for a digital product. If piracy were not available to them, they would simply not consume the good. Going after these pirates would tend to generate bad press for the company, especially if people think the goods are overpriced. On the other hand, if these pirates are left alone, some of them will inevitably talk about the goods, driving brand awareness. So long as the pirates do not resell their copies for profits or attempt to pass off the creators’ work as their own, they are harming no one. Instead of wasting finite time and resources chasing people who won’t give them money, publishers should instead serve their paying customers and make more products.

Piracy doesn’t just affect publishers; it also undermines state power. In 2007, the Media Development Authority banned Mass Effect in Singapore for portraying same-sex relationships — never mind that the relationship in question was between Commander Shepard (who could be male or female) and Liara T’soni, a monogender alien who appears female to human eyes. Elsewhere, Germany bans anything that depicts Nazism in any form, while Australia has a dim view of games with graphic violence or sexual content.

In those countries, piracy of prohibited content is undoubtedly commonplace. If a product is widely and openly available everywhere but in a consumer’s home country, a consumer who wants the product will seek it out through illegal means. It is simply human nature. Since these goods are already banned in these markets, no sales are lost. On the other hand, the creators’ brand name continues to spread — and it is this brand name that makes or breaks artists. Through piracy, state power is undermined — but this is neither an unmitigated positive nor negative outcome.

Consider that Singapore also bans pornography of all kinds. If you believe that pornography is immoral and harms people, then obvious piracy of pornography weakens the moral fabric of the nation, making it evil. If you believe pornography is harmless, than this ban is excessive and piracy circumvents it.

But piracy is not just about immorality and mindless entertainment, either.

Singapore has banned a number of books, including The Satanic Verses. It is illegal to buy or sell any copies of The Satanic Verses in Singapore. But this book can be found freely on sites like Amazon. Similarly, you can find plenty of material on Amazon that would otherwise be banned elsewhere. Not so coincidentally, the Kindle store is not available in Singapore, making it nearly impossible to purchase many ebooks from the Kindle store. More often than not, if you are Singaporean you can only obtain Kindle-exclusive books through pirate sites.

It is easy to claim that piracy performs a social good by defeating censorship and supporting freedom of speech and expression. But consider this: Singapore is a tiny Chinese-majority nation surrounded by large Muslim-majority neighbours. Race and religion informs practically every political decision Singapore makes. By banning The Satanic Verses, Singapore arguably prevented any possibility of a race and religious riot in Singapore andanti-Singapore protests in Malaysia and Indonesia. If censorship could potentially prevent social disorder and unrest, is it necessarily an undiluted evil?

Beyond questions of state power, there is also the question of the publisher’s power. Many digital products come with some kind of digital rights management software. The idea is to prevent unauthorised use, sales or reproductions of the software. While DRM does a fine job in protecting a publisher’s profits at the point of sale, in practice it harms users past the point of sale.

DRM takes away control of the customer’s computer and degrades software performance. It requires the computer to perform actions not ordered by the customer. Unscrupulous publishers can insert spyware into a consumer’s computer under the guise of DRM, allowing them to gather or destroy the user’s private data. DRM that requires a constant Internet connection, especially to authentication servers, make the software fragile: the moment connection is lost or the servers are shut down, the game is gone for good. Ebook DRMs prevent the user from reading the same ebook on another personally-own device – which can be troublesome if you need to convert an ebook into another format before you can read it.

There is also another aspect of piracy: making old and outdated products available. When books and movies stop being profitable, when software is superseded by new hardware, these products are permanently taken off the market or relegated to distant specialist shops. This does not mean that they have no worth, only that they are no longer profitable to be placed in the market.

Piracy makes these products available to a fresh generation and ensures their continued circulation. Nobody makes a cent from this, but more goods that are no longer in the market are created. For companies that have a long and storied backlist, piracy of no-longer-available products allows their fans to see how far they have gone and introduces new ones to the company. While many companies these days are seeing profit in remastering, converting and re-releasing old products, these companies tend to come from the gaming, music and movie industries. Books, instructional videos and obscure artistes get the short end of the stick.

An Ethical Framework for Piracy

With so many issues to resolve, how does one create an ethical and legal framework to handle piracy?

The fundamental principle must be to do no harm. Laws are broad and uncompromising, and are enforced at the point of a gun. The broader a law, the more innocent people will be swept up into jails and morgues. Restricting laws to the harm principle means the state may only prosecute people who have caused measurable harm to a party.

From a digital piracy perspective, this means that publishers and creators must make a strong case for harm. They must prove that the pirate stole goods and profits. They must prove that the pirates discouraged creators from creating new works. They must prove that the pirates have harmed innocent people. If the pirate has not harmed anyone, they must not be prosecuted. This would mean a legal framework that is strongly in favour of individual liberties, freedom of expression and consumer rights.

As for DRM, the answer is simple: no DRM. If a publisher wants to introduce DRM, the onus is on the publisher to prove that the DRM cannot be used to subvert the user’s computer, will not gather private information, and will not degrade product performance. Any DRM that infringes upon the user’s property rights should be eliminated.

What about the individual? If a specific act of piracy harms no one, as we see in a number of cases, then the question is simply a matter of individual conscience.

Photo Credits:

  1. Mass Effect wallpaper by Suicidebyinsecticide
  2. DRM protest by Electronic Frontier Foundation