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
i'm only going to do this once

So I was afraid this article would degenerate in a storm of awful comments. Instead I got one long one, not bad. But I won't go around explaining this a billion times, so here we go.

What do we win by trying to silence them?

They are silenced. They stop existing publicly.

We are acknoledging that, they are "dangerous", and may "convince" people?

Yes. They are dangerous.

I could go full-conspironoic here and say that emotions are injected and amplified by the skilled in communications techniques (and with access to the means), through seemingly innocent content like advertising. Should we censor there, too?

Oh yes. Advertising (public relations, to be more precise) is the word we found for "propaganda" but we were too afraid to use that because (oh yes) the Nazis were using it:

When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And "propaganda" got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words so we found the words "public relations". -- Edward Bernays

[People are upset.] What's the easiest way to buy to them?

More Nazi propaganda.

Violent people don't need the "leader" to say: "go burn that church"[...]

Sure they do. One way those leaders can do that effectively while still being acceptable to liberals (and how Hitler and Trump do it) is to shift the blame ("there was violence on both sides") and legitimize violence. They don't necessarily order the violence at first, but you can be sure that, at the critical moment, they will go burn down that immigrant center, ghetto or else. They rarely burn down churches, by the way, because the church is often the ally of fascist movements. That's what anarchists do, not fascists.

Would censoring you make things any better?

Yes, it will.

"I can read any idea, no matter how far it's from my own, and not feel it has any impact on me"

That is just false. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the most massive social science/psychology researched (also performed at Facebook!) prove that masses can easily be manipulated through what they read, see and hear.

Critical thinking. That's the antidote against hate speech.

So that's the argument that, ironically, was made to allow anarchists to express their anti-war views at the end of the 19th century, from what I understand. Lots of liberals, naturally, were against the idea, arguing that their speech was too dangerous to be let out. The argument is that "we should defeat them in the marketplace of idea".

I have come to disagree with this, as I explained in the article (poorly, it seems). Some speech is hateful and shouldn't be allowed. Many countries, including Canada, have laws against specifically hate speech. Why shouldn't communities have policies, code of conduct and practices against hate speech as well? Why leave speech for those people at all?

If a douchebag comes to a party in my home and starts harassing people, should I "debate him in the marketplace of ideas"? No. Because that's not where the debate is held. I tried that, numerous times. What happens is you get punched in the face. So you overwhelmingly use your power (numbers) to kick those people out of your spaces.

But I'll let Aamer Rahman speak, more eloquently that I ever code:


Not attacking ideas based on pre-assumed truths.

You're venturing in dangerous territory here. What pre-assumed truths? That Nazis are violent, sexist, racist, dangerous murderers that created the holocaust which killed millions of people? This is not going to be questioned here.

People have commited crimes in the name of God. Should we ban God?

God doesn't exist, so we can't ban it. We might consider banning organized religion, like Christianity. But considering the religious wars we have fought (and that's most wars, actually), we have reconsidered and instead established freedom of religion to try to fix that problem.

People have commited crimes in the name of Love, should we ban Love?

We should definitely ban abusive behavior in relationships, yet. Love is a different thing.

You get my point?

Yes, you are making a slippery slope argument.

We have to be smarter than that. Any platform provider should have any conditions they want, of course, so if I don't want to comply with it, I should simply look for another place. That's the idea of internet.

This is what I am arguing for. Purism has a social purpose which states, among other things:

  • The Corporation will prioritize privacy, security, and freedom for its customers
  • The Corporation will design and manufacture hardware that respects users’ rights to privacy, security, and freedom
  • The Corporation will not discriminate against individuals, groups or fields of endeavor

Some of those are in contradiction: for example, to ensure privacy and security of its users, it will need to discriminate against state actors who maliciously try infiltrate its organization to destroy the privacy of their users. I am arguing that by allowing nazis on their platforms, they allow discrimination against individuals, groups or fields of endeavor.

But if we push for making every corner of the internet so politically correct as we think we are, we are missing the point.

I'm not going to every corner. I'm going to this one corner I already was in that I want to make sure has no Nazis. Is that really too much to ask?

Or, to reverse your argument, there will be dark corners of the internet where there are Nazis. Do you want to be one of those corners?

are we punishing lack of inteligence, are we punishing lack of knowledge? So free speech only for the enlightened?

Yes, we are, in a way. Racism, sexism, hatred, those often come from ignorance. We're essentially telling people "go figure it out and come back when you have".

If you want to fight, let's say, "the natzis" you NEED them to exist in order to fight them!

I don't want to fight nazis. I want them to stop existing for crying out loud. This is blaming the victim.

Lets just focus on doing the right thing, whatever we think it is,

Right now, this is fighting Nazis.

You'll thank me later.

PS: I have removed your comment. Before you go crazy and complain about censorship, consider that:

  1. it was almost half as long as my original article,
  2. you deliberately and knowingly made it "polemic",
  3. you seem to question the harmfulness of the Nazi ideology, masculinism, the flat-earthers, anti-vaccination promonents and think we should accept pseudo-science

That has no space here.

Comment by anarcat
comment 3

I just think that censorship doesn't work.

If it doesn't work, why worry about it? Why did nazis and stalinists and americans use it copiously when they needed to? Why does the US propaganda machine work so well when "ideas do not matter"?

The words "Divide et impera" are so true today where divisions are each day more individualized, through internet and "smart"phones.

In my opinion, if there's something to fight, is that.

That's your opinion. I believe in a diversity of tactics and while you can punch a nazi in the face, you can also silence their speech. SO many options.

We have to admit that ultimately, "knowing the history" constitutes an act of faith. We pick the version that best matches the idea we want to justify.

No. History is a science like many others, and it's based on verifiable facts and observations. There is such a thing.

Truth today is irrelevant, sadly.

No. Truth is relevant, and we debate it every day. It's the entire point of speech, after all. "Truthers" and conspiracy theorist certainly care about "truth" anyways, even if they have a blatant disregard for basic facts and can't accept reality.

People ultimately act motivated on feelings, often not very rational.

No, no, and no! While, ultimately, you might be able to say that there's no free will and everything is irrational, we have to behave like we are rational beings. That's one of the cornerstone of living together.

Otherwise we just go to war all the time, because there's no point arguing.

And hate speech may come from any ideology.

I strongly agree with that assertion. I don't see how anarchism or liberation theology lead to hate speech, to pick somewhat unrelated examples.

And utlimately words and opinions dont change nothing. Only actions.

If that would be true, you wouldn't have come back here to put more words.

I have also removed your last post, because it was, again, too long. For what it's worth, it's still availabld in the history of this wiki anyways. :p

Comment by anarcat
Created . Edited .