Tech Learning Collective

Technology education for radical organizers and revolutionary communities.

Deplatforming Parler will have consequences for which we must immediately prepare

Two days after the American far right’s failed fascist coup on January 6th, 2021 that left five people dead in Washington, DC, Twitter (finally) permanently banned the would-be dictator responsible for inciting the mob from their platform. Shortly thereafter, the social media network most closely affiliated with the racist reactionaries, Parler, was kicked off its cloud provider’s hosting platform, Amazon AWS. This meant Parler’s servers were shut down, bringing the social media platform down with them, at least temporarily. While de-platforming Trump and Parler is undoubtedly a good thing in the short term (and should have happened a long time ago), the sheer visibility of such high-profile bans is likely to dramatically accelerate the adoption of certain communication technologies that are much harder to shut down the same way Parler was.

If we don’t immediately begin seriously preparing for an Internet in which digital deplatforming will be much harder than it is now, pro-democracy movements and progressive activists will find themselves in the crosshairs of these same Big Tech behemoths even more often than they are now. It will be much harder for the Left to combat the reactionary forces embedded in neoliberal governments and evidenced by the Capitol Riots than it already is. What was once the inherently anti-fascist strategy of deplatforming will be appropriated by the powers that be and used to maintain their power and suppress dissent under the guise of stability and security.

Today, digital de-platforming can take many forms. An individual can become persona non grata and have their accounts banned from one or many platforms, as happened to Trump. A platform’s servers can be shut down by that platform’s own platform (on the Internet, it’s platforms all the way down), as happened to Parler. But many other methods exist as well. A Web site’s domain name can be seized by law enforcement or revoked by the registrar itself to prevent visitors from learning the site’s IP address; distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks can overwhelm a site to make it unable to respond to connection requests; technological censors can intercept Internet traffic intended for a certain destination or originating from a given source based on keywords, addresses, or other metadata; or in the most extreme cases, a target’s physical computing assets can be confiscated.

There are in fact many more pressure points that digital deplatforming campaigns can press on than their campaigners tend to be aware of. This means the success or failure of a given campaign against a target, like Parler, using traditional Web and telecommunication infrastructures, like Amazon AWS, is largely a matter of political, legal, or social prowess. Bring enough pressure to bear against the right people at the right time in the right way, and getting a user or a company deplatformed is not particularly difficult. Yes, it almost always takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and even money for activists to convince the self-interested likes of Facebook to do the right thing by deplatforming hate groups but, once persuaded, all Facebook needs to do is press a literal button. Likewise, it was not a technical challenge for Amazon to turn off Parler’s servers.

But what if there were no servers to shut down? This question is not one of science fiction. The next hate-spewing platform could very easily be one with no servers to shut down given the state of the art in social networking software freely and widely available today.

While most of the people who use the Internet spend all of their time online using “centralized” websites like Facebook, Twitter or, until recently, Parler that are vulnerable to any number of pressures on the availability of the content they host, there have long been alternative networks that are built in entirely different ways. These “decentralized” alternatives are much, much harder to bring down. Some of these alternatives have even been around for much longer than the popular centralized services.

For example, Freenet, a self-described “peer-to-peer platform for censorship-resistant communication,” has been actively and continually developed since March of 2000, making it one of the oldest P2P services on the Internet. This predates even BitTorrent, the technology most famous for being the file sharing protocol of choice for Internet “pirates” and the bane of music and movie copyright holders for decades. Since the place a BitTorrent user gets the data they’re seeking is other users, not a centralized server, “deplatforming” a torrent is not as easy as shutting down a single computer system. Instead, all computer systems sharing a given file (what BitTorrent calls a “swarm”) must be disconnected both from each other and from any other interested peer. Moreover, if any new user obtains and begins sharing that same data over BitTorrent, that user becomes a new “seed” able to re-proliferate that same content across the network once again.

In the 2000s, it was hard to use BitTorrent for anything other than “file sharing,” but a lot has changed since then. Today, a tool called ZeroNet uses BitTorrent under the hood to publish Web sites, replacing the need for traditional Web servers like those sold by Amazon. ZeroNet sites, or “ZeroSites” as they’re called, can also contain user generated content just like more familiar Web 2.0 sites such as Twitter, and its default distribution ships with a list of bookmarks that contain forums and other sites that feature an interface very similar to today’s social media platforms. Since ZeroNet sites are distributed via BitTorrent, there are potentially as many servers as there are users of a given platform at a given time. Good luck digitally deplatforming that.

There are many more tools like these. Beaker Browser is a “peer-to-peer Web browser” that makes it trivial for anyone to clone and re-share entire websites, just this week Brave announced support for loading Web sites hosted on a distributed file system called IPFS instead of traditional HTTP servers, and MaidSafe is a project that combines a cryptocurrency-based economy with an autonomous and decentralized data storage network.

For now, such systems are relegated to the most extreme fringe. However, the more frequent and visible deplatforming actions become, the more attractive these more resilient alternative technologies will be to those who are deplatformed, whether they are on the political Left or Right. That means we need to be ready to grapple with the very real likelihood that deplatforming fascists like Trump and the white supremacists who flocked to Parler will not only serve to oust them from online public squares in the short term (a very good thing indeed), but over the long term will also inadvertently cause the more committed among them to learn to use some of the very same censorship-resistant technologies that were built to protect dissidents, journalists, and marginalized groups from them in the first place.

This has already started happening. In 2017, after neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, white supremacist site Stormfront was brought offline after their domain registrar revoked their domain registration. But it didn’t take long for the site to reappear on the dark Web with an “onion domain,” bypassing the need for a domain name registration by using a feature of the Tor network called Onion services. This is the exact same feature used by the best newsrooms’ online anonymous tip lines enabled by software like SecureDrop, including those of the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Intercept. We at Tech Learning Collective have our own Dark Web site with our own Onion domain, which we maintain specifically to make it possible for those who share our anarchist and autonomist politics to browse our site more privately. We are not advocating for the removal of this capability. Quite the opposite.

The problem at hand is not the availability of censorship-resistant technology—itself a good thing in general—but rather the level of technical proficiency of the fascists relative to the anti-fascists. As social media technologies continue to evolve, they will become increasingly difficult to police, which is worth cheering. But that reality brings with it a profound responsibility for those of us whose actions are guided by humane ethical principles to command the utmost competency with those tools on the level of technical implementation, to understand their societal impact on the level of governance, and to embody the ideals of our principles on the level of our interpersonal interactions. Put simply, we must not let fascists leapfrog us in this way.

A future in which most Left-leaning activists are (still) on Twitter while most right-wing Trump cultists are using next-generation P2P technologies puts the Left, and only the Left, at the mercy of the neoliberal centrist establishment while simultaneously being unable to curtail the deranged misinformation fueling the fascists. That’s not a position from which we can effectively organize against either.

The fact is, the further we are from center along any political axis, the more important it is for us to adopt more technologically resilient tools. This means committing to learning about and using decentralized social media, anonymity networks, and encrypted messengers seriously. To do so, we’ll have to change some of our habits and take the time to practice using some new tools. Thankfully, that task is worth the effort.

We simply cannot be content to merely no-platform racists without also increasing our own telecommunication competencies. Doing so may win us the battle on Twitter today, but it will surely cost us the war they’ll start tomorrow.