The Rise of Deplatforming and the Decentralized Web


The past week saw the highest-profile online “deplatforming” yet: Twitter banning Donald Trump, with follow-up actions by other major online services. What does this mean? What are the implications for the future? What should be the response, if any, from those of us who are not Donald Trump or his followers?

Understanding Deplatforming

It is essential to understand that this action did not come out of the blue; “deplatforming”, the belief that those with objectionable views should be excluded from using various services, has become more and more mainstream. The charge has been led not by tech companies but rather by universities and various social-justice-oriented activist groups, but within corporate America the conversion to the pro-deplatforming view seems to be most advanced within major tech companies.

It is by no means confined to the tech sector, however, or to corporate America. Major publishers famously have “gone woke” in recent years and as part of that have cut ties to various authors for political reasons; Simon & Schuster essentially banning Josh Hawley in the past week from using their services is now perhaps the most famous case, but it’s far from the only one.

It’s worth noting that “deplatforming” is distinct from “censorship”, at least in the true sense of the word, because deplatforming excludes people from property owned by others that is provided to them at the pleasure of the owner. As such deplatforming does not violate individual liberty; indeed, criminalizing the practice would violate platform owners’ right to use their own property as they see fit and to associate or not associate with whoever they please, both of them fundamental bedrocks of human freedom. Censorship in the true sense, on the other hand, involves initiating violence against others’ bodies or property to suppress objectionable views.

The Deplatforming Movement is a Censorship Movement

That said, the deplatforming movement as it exists is not an innocent attempt to exercise individual liberty in the same way a host may throw badly-behaved-but-not-criminal guests out of a dinner party. Rather, it is an expression of a change in sentiment among the ruling class toward favoring censorship more broadly. The reason force has not been widely employed is because the censorious movement enjoys enough support to get their way at specific companies but not in government; not being able to get away with outright censorship, they have to settle for deplatforming as a half-measure.

The logic of deplatforming is not only being applied to the odd organization or two, not only being applied to market-dominant organizations, but is also being applied to organizations that actually are government-granted violently-enforced monopolies. Perhaps the most striking, and revealing, incident of this is on August 5, 2020 when Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, threatened to permanently sever access to municipal water and power utilities to customers who were hosting large gatherings. Notably this denial of access to a monopolistic government-run service was to be done extrajudicially, with no due process required, let alone a conviction. According to one report from December 2020 Garcetti has made good on his threat since.

How long before the same logic is applied to people with political views those in power object to? Business licenses have also been revoked from people who have defied orders to close or police the behaviors of their patrons. I have not heard of occupational or professional licenses being revoked, but weaponizing them to control behavior as well is likely only a matter of time. Notably all this has occurred in the absence of any actual laws passed by an actual legislature that requires such behaviors as a condition of having a license.

It wouldn’t even surprise me to see driving licenses be weaponized as well, as they already have for offenses like failing to pay child support, stealing gasoline, or even skipping school, none of which have anything to do with driving. Passports have also been weaponized to a lesser extent.

Applying any of these forcible measures to dissidents would constitute true censorship, and have been a staple of authoritarian regimes since at least the twentieth century. Note, however, that one thing that driving, access to Twitter, and access to utilities have in common is that they are all viewed by the statist ruling class as “privileges” and not “rights”.

Notably, all these measures have been on a secular uptrend for decades; the conditions attached to driving licenses, occupational licenses, and passports are becoming steadily more restrictive, and it’s likely not a coincidence that this has risen in parallel with the deplatforming movement.

“International sanctions” have also exploded in prevalence over the past few decades, with the current sanctions regime against Iran in particular being unprecedented in scope and severity. Notably, crossing an international border to do business is thought of by the ruling class as a “privilege, not a right”.

Hate speech laws, the most overt form of censorship in the Western world, have also exploded in prevalence and restrictiveness over the past several decades. First appearing as a brief (and, considering the subsequent Nazi takeover, failed) experiment in Weimar-era Germany, they reappeared in the 1960s and have steadily encroached on freedom of speech ever since, to the degree that people in the United Kingdom are now being arrested and tried for teaching dogs Nazi salutes and sending racist messages on Twitter. The former was actually convicted! The latter, yes, included “threats”, but the police statement on the boy’s arrest said “Racism won’t be tolerated”, indicating what they thought the real offense was: his views.

It’s no coincidence that the same people who push for deplatforming the most are also the ones most likely to say “hate speech is not free speech” and to lie about there being a “hate speech exception” to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, because they wish to enact violent censorship by government.

Considering that the United States Supreme Court unanimously affirmed as recently as 2017 that hate speech is protected by the Constitution it seems unlikely they will get their way anytime soon. It is for this reason that the United States stands as the global stronghold of the deplatforming movement: what the censors cannot accomplish by censorship, as is done in other countries, they hope to accomplish by deplatforming.

Even then, the lawless abuse of utilities and licensing suggest that true censorship may be on its way. That is what the effort to repeal Section 230, a law that establishes that legal liability for online content rests with the authors rather than the distributors, and “regulate social media” is all about, once the vast web of lies and propaganda the ruling class have spun around it is stripped away: legitimizing government censorship of the Internet. FOSTA-SESTA, which was passed in 2018, stripped Section 230 protections from content that promotes prostitution, and successfully intimidated major online service providers into censoring sexual content and banning sex workers from using their websites. Censorious politicians are looking to use that as a model for future Internet regulation.

What deplatforming Trump means

It is within this vast web of the censorship movement that the deplatforming of Donald Trump lies, standing as the culmination of their efforts to date. Twitter up to now has resisted deplatforming political office-holders even when they break the “rules” (which are selectively enforced to begin with), due to the public having an interest in seeing what they have to say, but that policy has now been abandoned amid the hysterical condemnations of his supporters rioting at the Capitol as a “coup attempt” and an “insurrection”, with Trump having already been accused, tried, and convicted in the court of elite opinion of “inciting violence”.

My purpose here is not to defend Donald Trump or the rioters, but rather to enlighten you on what deplatforming Trump means: it means that the tide of censorship continues to rise, and it means that censors in major tech companies have gotten a big strong taste of real power. With each major deplatforming event their views are normalized and mainstreamed further within these institutions, so we can expect it to get worse in the near future. We know that because it’s already happened several times before.

Alex Jones was deplatformed in the same way Trump is being deplatformed now in August 2018, about two and a half years ago. In October 2018 Gab, a Twitter-like social network heavily populated by far-right users, was deplatformed as well. More recently, in August 2019 8chan was deplatformed. The first major victims of this trend were the neo-Nazi websites The Daily Stormer and Stormfront in August 2017.

In 2017 the purge was (mostly) limited to content that the vast majority (at least claim to) find objectionable, such as Nazism and racist hatred and bigotry. Even as the deplatforming trend expanded beyond those realms of the political discourse in subsequent years, even to far-left voices in addition to the far right, many doubted the warnings that more mainstream right-wing voices would be purged by major tech companies in the near future.

Among those doubters seem to have been the people behind Parler, a Twitter-like social network that is mainly populated by conservatives and Republicans, as opposed to the far-right population of Gab. Well, as it turns out the purge this week came for Parler as well. Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores, and Amazon will terminate Parler’s hosting with Amazon Web Services, the web hosting provider they were using, at midnight tonight. When the calendar turns to January 11, 2021 at Amazon headquarters it is very likely Parler will be offline.

What is to be done? Are we doomed to be at the mercy of tech companies and their masters in government for all eternity, until all online discourse consists of nothing but anodyne content that wouldn’t look out of place on a woke corporation’s Twitter feed? Hardly.

Resisting Deplatforming successfully

As it turns out, every single one of these websites has resisted the assault, resurfacing after being kicked offline. An interesting reflection of how far ahead the earlier victims are in their evolution into more resilient forms is Gab versus Parler this week. As Parler faces the prospect of being kicked offline for the first time, Gab is exploding in growth; Gab itself was kicked offline in 2018 and soon thereafter resurfaced with its own servers and much friendlier service providers. The Gab of 2021 is much harder to kick offline than the Gab of 2018 was.

It’s worth noting that since 2019 Gab runs on a fork of Mastodon, free and open source software that anyone can use to create their own Twitter-like website. The distinguishing feature of Mastodon, when compared to software like what Parler or Twitter uses, is that it is “federated”, able to communicate and seamlessly interface with any server, any website, using any software that runs the ActivityPub protocol.

This includes not just Mastodon but Pleroma (another Twitter-like piece of software), PixelFed (designed for photo-sharing), PeerTube (designed for video sharing), Funkwhale (designed for audio sharing), and Friendica (a Facebook-like piece of software), among others. Instead of going to separate websites for all these things, you can interact with all that through one account on one website. All the websites that use ActivityPub are collectively known as “the Fediverse”. I myself am part of the Fediverse, running my own Mastodon server, styled an “instance”.

The Fediverse is the Answer

Just imagine if Donald Trump, when he first started running for President, or when calls to ban him from Twitter started to appear in 2016, had set up accounts on alternative platforms such as Gab or, better yet, a Mastodon instance on his own website, and had heavily promoted them on Twitter, telling his followers to also get onto those platforms and follow him on there.

After four or five years he would undoubtedly have quite a following on the alternative websites, and the ban from Twitter, while a hindrance, would not have been devastating to his ability to reach out to his supporters and talk to the world. Better yet, the alternatives to “Big Tech” would have gotten far more recognition in the public mind, driving people to engage with alternative and decentralized platforms and protocols, and to set up their own instances and servers. An influential celebrity like himself could have effected much change in the online social landscape, change that if he had followed would have been for the better.

That would have done far more to counter online censorship than all of his calls to repeal Section 230 put together. Giving the government, which is under the more or less complete control of the same people who hate the very dissidents that are being banned from social media, more power over websites is precisely the opposite of what achieving a free and open Internet demands. Once the principle that the government cannot interfere with the Internet is conceded, the specter of true censorship will loom even larger than it already does.

Some have objected to the proposed solution of turning as individuals to decentralized alternatives, saying we will then just be deplatformed from the Internet’s infrastructure itself. This is a valid concern; The Daily Stormer had its domain name registration terminated in 2017, a step that was, and remains for now, rare and freakish.

As I point out in my blog post on decentralizing the web from January 2020, once the Social Web becomes resistant to deplatforming at the “webmaster to user” and “web hosting to website” levels, the censors’ next resort will be domain name registrations, so such deplatformings will become more common. The wide variety of domain name registrars, however, makes such an occurrence much less likely than being banned from all the major social media websites; notice The Daily Stormer even now has a domain name registration, because they were able to find a new registrar within a matter of weeks.

The Dark Web: the free Internet’s ultimate Weapon

Nevertheless, there are ways to counter even domain-name deplatforming. The most obvious way would be to set up a Tor onion service, which can be accessed only through the Tor network, the largest of the anonymous encrypted networks that comprise the “Dark Web”, and has a “.onion” domain that is assigned randomly by the Tor software itself. No permission or registration from anyone is needed to have a domain name on Tor, or any part of the Dark Web, thus it is censorship-resistant.

A bonus of using a Tor onion service is that the encryption makes it as or more secure than HTTPS by default, without any need for third-party security certificates. Another crucial feature is that it makes the onion service anonymous, masking its location and ownership.

This means that even governments have a hard time censoring Dark Web sites. Applying pressure by sending mobs and thugs to assault dissidents with the understanding that prosecutors will not pursue a case, the likeliest way of enforcing “hard” censorship in the United States given the current jurisprudential environment, has a virtually zero chance of working against an anonymous Dark Web webmaster or user, because the chances they even discover who they are are virtually zero.

Another feature of Tor is that the Tor network encrypts all traffic, being end-to-end encrypted in the case of a Tor Browser user connecting to a Tor onion website. Therefore even the tactic of ISPs and utilities conspiring to cut off power, water, and other services to dissident web servers, hitherto unheard of but readily imaginable, won’t work.

Operation Choke Point: the Tip of the Regulatory Intimidation Iceberg

The only remaining card in the censorship deck at that point is cutting off payment processing, and there the true cost of government regulation reveals itself. The financial industry is so regulated it’s virtually impossible to build your own bank or payment processor; the few that do exist tend to have a particular point of view, and even if they don’t they’re easily threatened into compliance by government regulators.

Operation Choke Point was an Obama administration initiative to impose extrajudicial and lawless punishment upon pornographers, gun shops, gambling operations, sex workers, tobacco sales, and many other kinds of businesses the government bureaucracy considered undesirable, by threatening to flood payment processors with “subpoenas, civil investigative demands, and other burdensome and costly legal demands” if they didn’t terminate services to (“deplatform”? Hmm…) those industries.

Officially at least, Operation Choke Point was terminated by the Trump administration, but I suspect that is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s really going on behind the scenes; for every initiative like Operation Choke Point that’s uncovered, there could easily be dozens that no one outside the labyrinths of the government and bank bureaucracies knows about.

Regulatory Intimidation: not so Hidden

You don’t even need to speculate about cloak-and-dagger operations! In April 2018 Andrew Cuomo intimidated, through threats to put them under regulatory scrutiny if they did not comply with his demands, banks and other financial firms into terminating services to the National Rifle Association, and even bragged about it on his own government’s website as part of his gun control initiative.

Notice that the language of “corporate responsibility” is similar to what’s used to justify deplatforming, and also notice that the idea of using the power of the regulatory state to suppress political opponents is already normalized enough to be an active initiative of the New York state government. An Operation Choke Point directed against a wider array of the regime’s political opponents is very likely to start in the near future, if it hasn’t already.

Regulatory Intimidation against Social Media

The general program of regulatory intimidation is even overt and active within the social media space. In virtually every one of the show-trial-style “hearings” Congress has conducted on the topic of social media in recent years, politicians have threatened businesses with being “regulated” further if they don’t comply with their demands. Mark Warner, a Senator, even sent out a memo in 2018 listing all the ways “Big Tech” could be punished if they don’t comply with his demand that they deplatform more dissidents. And lest you think it’s limited to “the left”, none other than Donald Trump has played the “threaten social media companies” game, at one point in May 2020 threatening to “regulate” or even “close down” social media platforms unless they comply with his demand to not censor conservatives.

Chris Murphy, another Senator, tweeted in 2018 after Alex Jones was deplatformed that “These companies must do more than take down one website”. As José Niño has pointed out, much of the pressure for major websites to censor has come from overt government-sponsored intimidation.

Most recently this week Joe Manchin, yet another Senator, demanded Trump be banned from Twitter for more than the 12 hour initial ban, and he got his wish shortly thereafter. Or was it compliance with a threat? Appetite for “regulating tech” appears to have increased in Washington after the riot at the Capitol, and it would be surprising, given the history of initiatives like Operation Choke Point, if the threats aren’t more sweeping and vicious behind the scenes than they are in public.

Much of the censorship wave we’re seeing, therefore, is directly caused by government regulation. If they cannot intimidate platforms into compliance, assuming it’s a decentralized network run on anonymous servers, then the next resort is to intimidate payment processors into compliance.

Cryptocurrency: the Vanquisher of financial Censorship

Fortunately we have cryptocurrency, a digital form of cash that is censorship-resistant. A blockchain, unlike a bank, cannot be threatened. The only resort left is to threaten the fiat-to-crypto gateways, i.e. the exchanges, into compliance, but that issue has already been solved by peer-to-peer decentralized exchanges, which have such a multitude of participants behaving so covertly it’s virtually impossible for any government to suppress them all. Even the desperate last resort of trying to trace the travel of Bitcoins is blocked by the advent of cryptocurrencies like Monero, which have strong privacy and anonymity features that make the coins untraceable.

Toward a censorship-resistant Social Web

All this combined together leads to the free and open Internet’s ultimate weapon: a social media ecosystem that is a peer-to-peer or federated decentralized network of anonymous participants hosted on the Dark Web and financed through anonymity-friendly cryptocurrency.

Such an ecosystem is invulnerable to deplatforming and even outright censorship. Doesn’t that sound much better than trying to repeal Section 230 or otherwise regulate social media so dissident voices aren’t silenced? Which world you rather live in: a world where we have built and all use a new Social Web that is censorship-resistant by design, or a world where we all use the same few centralized platforms and have to depend on the right people always being in charge of a government with the power to decide what you can and cannot say on the Internet?

Our choice is clear: those of us who love freedom must reject any pleas to abandon our principles. Our choice must be to build a new decentralized Web, and eliminate the specter of censorship once and for all.

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