I have been cautiously enthusiastic about Puri.sm. They have done interesting work liberating their own hardware from the clutches of Intel backdoors and are enthusistically creating a new kind of phone. Recently, they figured they would also become a new hosting provider but that not going as well as one might hope. It seems they have decided to rewrite the standard Community Covenant code of conduct and rinse it down to create a absolutist "free speech zone".

This is a serious mistake and will create an escape hatch from mainstream social media for neo-nazis, trolls, masculinists and other scum1 of the internet. Purism should not be part of this, and if they do not revert this stance, I will discourage anyone from doing business with them ever again.

An introduction to the Purism projects

In a private mailing list, I summarized the situation of the Librem projects as follows:

Hi all,

Do people on this list have any opinion about https://librem.one ?

Overall, I think it's a good idea.

Devil is in the details, however. There was some controversy on how Purism has rebranded and forked existing free software projects without giving clear credit in the original announcements. They have responded to this, however, with something I find somewhat satisfactory.

I'm a little concerned about Purism taking on too much: they started by making laptops and ventured into forking Debian to have their own distribution - a common pattern in hardware manufacturers supporting Debian, same happened with System76. But now they are building a phone, and not content with Android, they are building their own OS, based on Debian, and I worry it will not deliver and disappoint a lot of people.

This is another venture that, coming from a hardware manufacturer, I am also somewhat worried about. Launching, simultaneously, an Email, Chat, social networking and VPN provider is a very ambitious goals. Members of our communities have been spending years deploying those services and it's a little frustrating to see Purism just barge in there and offer their services, for a fee on top of that.

But I will be the first to recognize that running services comes at a cost: hardware, cooling, real-estate and especially labor are not free. So I think it's fair they charge a price, and a fair one at that too.

So I wish them good luck and I am curious to see where it will go. At least they picked federated protocols which interoperate with our stuff: that is good. I'm worried they will undercut other community providers like ours, but I guess the more the merrier...

The Purism code of conduct tolerates Nazis

Now something else came up and that's the Librem.one code of conduct which more less says "Nazis are okay, as long as they don't harrass people", a position which I have come to fundamentally disagree with.

This post is what brought the problem to my attention. It includes screenshots2 from a conversation with Kyle Rankin, the Purism Chief Security Officer where he claims that Purism doesn't need to list "bad behaviors" in their code of conduct because "harrassment" suffices. He also argues that control over content isn't required because they don't have a "shared Mastodon3 timeline".

Concretely, their code of conduct states that:

This Code of Conduct is adapted from the Community Covenant, The only change made was to remove the list of examples in the interest of readability.

This seems innocuous enough, but the changes go beyond simply "readability". This is how the Covenant code of conduct actually begins:

Our pledge

In the interest of fostering an open and welcoming environment, we as contributors and maintainers pledge to making participation in our project and our community a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of age, body size, disability, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, level of experience, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation.

In comparison, this is how the Purism code begins:

Our goal

This community is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone. We do not tolerate harassment of participants in any form.

By removing specific the list of unacceptable behavior, they are implicitely allowing it. Purism seem to pivot around "legally protected free speech" and argue that "harrassment is not legally protected" which is why it's not allowed in their code of conduct. Their argument is they shouldn't decide what's allowed on their own server and instead seem to delegate this to the US constitution and law enforcement. Indeed, their FAQ says:

How do I report illegal content?

Any illegal content or illegal acts should be reported to the appropriate authorities who are equipped to handle it.

So it's not just a matter of "readability", but also that they don't actually want to "restrict free speech". This seems to me, at best a cop-out that leaves victims totally on their own, and, at worst, creates a "safe space" for neo-nazis to escape the narrowing controls imposed on larger platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. This is the same position that "big tech" (as Purism calls its competitors) are taking. They are trying really hard to remove themselves from the editorial process and claim they are not responsible for content.

In practice, this is a little white lie: Facebook, Twitter and all those platforms employ armies of moderators that constantly police their network.4 The question, therefore, is what that platform specifically allows and refuses. Pornography, for example, is definitely allowed "legally protected free speech" in the USA, yet it's forbidden on Facebook. Some large providers have also started to crack down on neo-nazis, like Facebook, Youtube, Apple, and Spotify banning Alex Jones from their networks. Twitter seems slower to follow and some claim that's because they might they risk banning Republicans as well because they confuse artificial intelligence (and, arguably, human intelligence as well).

Free speech absolutism and its impacts

The first impact of this is that some Mastodon servers are blocking the Purism instance altogether. This makes Purism's claims of federation somewhat dishonest:

Yes, you can follow and fully interact with people inside or outside the librem.one domain. (not locked-in to one technology company)

Of course, that's the nature of federation, but I am not aware of such a company (especially one which claims to have a social purpose) blocked right off the bat from the federation.

The second impact, of course, is that free speech fanatics, the alt-right, and neo-nazis are soon going to invade that space. The hordes of trolls, tired of getting banned on Twitter, will be happy to find a safe haven on Librem.one, especially since there will be a juicy community of unsuspecting "social justice warriors" like me there to troll and brutalize.

There's a long history of tolerating hate speech in the USA, based on the US constitution, at least from state institutions. As a reminder, the first amendment says that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Free speech absolutits like to read this by disregarding the words "congress", "law" and "government" in there and interpret this as applying to the entire fabric of society. But that's not how free speech works, even in the US. The first amendment concerns Congress and the laws it passes. There is absolutely no law in the US that forbids a private company to enforce contents on its own. It's the editorial right of any content editor (because that's what you become when you start your own twitter) to censor any speech that they like. This is also how XKCD put it:

Public Service Announcement: The Right to Free Speech means the government can't arrest you for what you say.

It doesn't mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it.

The 1st Amendment doesn't shield you from criticism or consequences.

If you're yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an Internet community, your free speech rights aren't being violated.

It's just that the people listening think you're an asshole.

And they're showing you the door.

For the record, I used to be a free speech absolutist myself. But I have since then reviewed my position on this: I think free speech, like any human right, is not absolute, and should take into account political and social dynamics. Free speech, right now, is not in danger, or at least specifically not right wing fear-mongering, racism and sexism. Hate speech is on the rise, and I find it particularly offensive to hear the arugment that it is "legally protected" because it is false and dangerous.

Hate speech was the prelude to the rise of facism in the early 20th century. Those fascists support free speech as long as it serves their purpose, but they are the first to destroy it when they are back in power. Not only figuratively, through censorship, but litterally, by harrassing, beating up, and murdering people. By allowing hate speech, we are paving the way for those people to come out of the closet and pose more daring actions.

We can already see this happening in the US and elsewhere:

This is real. This is now. This is what Purism enables by tolerating hate speech. And it's not right. Free speech should never be an enabler for such horrors. We don't tolerate it for ISIL and jihadist terrorism, why should we tolerate it for the white supremacy groups?

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

For the sake of transparency, I should state that I have ordered a laptop from Purism about a month ago and the machine was "dead on arrival" when it arrived last week. I've also been having trouble getting the machine returned although it seems this will might resolve itself today.

  1. scum, the topmost liquid layer of a cesspool or septic tank, a reprehensible person or persons. Nazi Scum. ↩

  2. The screenshots do not display correctly in the thread, but here are Internet Archive links: 1 2. ↩

  3. For context, Mastodon is a Twitter/Twitdeck clone that implements standard federated protocol and can interoperate with other instances like Gnu Social. It's presumably Twitter done right, like email. In practice, you'll see there are tricky edge cases, naturally. ↩

  4. For a good perspective on that gruesome work, I recommend this article on The Verge and there are also two documentaries I'm aware of that cover the topic as well, The Cleaners and The Moderators. ↩

some updates

First off, a friend referred to me to this great cartoon that should help people deal with idiotic trolls on the internet and real life, if only by bringing a smile.

Exactly. Now read a god damn book.

Moving on.

The other thing that happened is that the founder of Mastodon, Eugen Rochko, announced that he would only list Mastodon servers on joinmastodon.org if they had:

  1. A server policy against racism, sexism and transphobia

  2. Daily database backups

  3. At least one other person with emergency access to server infrastructure

  4. Commit to giving users at least 3 months advance warning before closing down your server

I think that's a great step. I'd be happier if the first point was explicitely set around a specific code of conduct, and why the Covenant one. But it's a great idea anyways.

I'd even go further and say that, like on Twitter and email, it will soon become necessary to share block lists of servers we just can't accept spam from.

Comment by anarcat
Created . Edited .