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Instances in the free fediverses should consider "transitive defederation" from instances that federate with Meta

Two disconnected networks of multi-colored dots connected by lines.  The network on the right has a big Meta logo.

Part 7 of Strategies for the free fediverses.  As the first post in the series discusses, the "free fediverses" are regions of the fediverse that reject Meta and surveillance capitalism, and these strategies position the free fediverses as an alternative to Threads and "Meta's fediverses".

Join the discussion in the fediverse:
on Mastodon and on Lemmy!

In Why block Meta?, FediPact creator Vanta Black highlights that one of the main reasons is to "protect the existing communities of marginalized people on the fediverse, many of whom rely on it to survive."  With today's software, transitive defederation – also blocking any instance that federates with an instance hosting harassers and hate groups – provides even stronger protection. Derek Caelin's Decentralized Networks vs The Trolls, for example, quotes's admin Ash Furrow describing a transitive defederation of far-right social network Gab as "a necessary step, since through them negative content might seep into the instance he maintains."

That said, Meta isn't Gab, so there's a lot less agreement on whether or not to block Meta than there was with Gab – and transitive defederation is always controversial.  Two things are true simultaneously:

  • Plenty of people and instances that are likely to wind up in the free fediverses have important relationships with people and instances in Meta's fediverses that they will want to keep.
  • Unless and until software evolves significantly – and there's a detailed threat model looking carefully at other potential avenues for indirect harassment – it's likely that many instances in the free fediverses are likely to choose to transitively defederate for safety reasons. And even if the software improves, many instances may still want to transitively defederate because they want to keep their fediverse as far away as possible from white supremacists and hate groups.  

So even in the free fediverses transitive defederation from Meta's fediverses isn't likely to be an all-or-nothing thing. Tradeoffs are different for different people and instances. Especially if the software improves, some instances in the free fediverses are likely to decide that the federation with well-moderated instances in Meta's fediverse outweigh the risks. Others want to be as far away as possible; transitive defederation is always going to be safer for them.  In Untangling Threads, Kissane suggests that operating "from a server that federates only with servers that also refuse to federate with Threads" is one way to get "the nearest thing to reasonably sturdy protection for people on fedi who have good reason to worry about the risk surface Threads federation opens up." 1  

At the end of the day, each instance in the free fediverses will make the decision on their own.  So the key recommendation here is that instances should consider transitive defederation: discuss it, and decide what to do.

I've got some thoughts below on how to have the disucssion but first I want to emphasize that from a strategy perspective, partial transitive defederation is a very good thing for the free fediverses.

A few thoughts on strategy  

Since there's a range of opinions and tradeoffs, the most likely outcome is that we'll see multiple subregions of the free fediverses:

  • Some will transitively defederate
  • Others will continue to federate with some instances in Meta's fediverses.  

To me this is a strength of the fediverse: different people can get more of what they want. Of course, it's also kinda imperfect and messy and complex.  For one thing, many people on transitively defederated instances will have accounts on more-connected instances: subregions of the free fediverses that federate with some instances in Meta's fediverse, Meta's fediverses, Threads. Hopefully tools will improve to make it easier to deal with that, and we may well see other ways emerge for people in transitively-defederated instances to communicate with people in Meta's fediverses ... at least in the short term, though, it'll be a hassle. Still, however much transitive defederation there winds up being, I see it as overall as a positive thing.

Then again, opinions differ. In Getting Tangled Up in Threads, for example, Sean Tilley of We Distribute notes that many people see these concerns as "hysteria" that could lead to a massive fragmentation of the Fediverse, "effectively doing Meta’s job for free."   It's a good observation, but the people who think that are wrong on both fronts. The concern isn't "hysteria" – and it's anti-LGBTQIA2S+ for cis people to describe it that way. And from a strategy perspective, to whatever extent transitive defederation happens, it's likely to help the free fediverses more than it helps Meta:

  • It sharpens the distinction between the free fediverses – instances prioritize safety over "openness" and reach – and most other social networks today
  • It puts the free fediverses on a path for being the best place for LGBTQIA2S+ people and others at risk from hate groups, vigilantes, and stalkers on Meta

A lot of the strongest langauge about (and fear of) transitive defederation come from people who a "bigger is better" view of the fediverse and generally dislike the idea of communities setting their own norms.  As Kissane observes, many people see an allow-list approach (consent-based federation, which is necessary for transitive defederation) as controversial and less "open." It's a good example of Christina Dunbar-Harris's point in Hacking Diversity that the "interpretations and norms of openness on which open source rests" often run counter to the goal of providing more safety.

It's true that a lot of people prefer what they see as "openness" to safety, and Meta's fediverses may well be a better option for them than the free fediverses. But there are lots of people who don't prefer that, and right now they don't have a lot of other options.

Have the discussion!

Just to reiterate, the recommendation here is to consider transitive defederation: discuss it, and decide what to do. And as you're having the discussion, pay a lot of attention to what voices you're hearing – and what voices and perspectives you aren't hearing.

Cis people, white people, guys, and people who work for or Meta or other big tech companies are likely to have different perspectives than trans, queer, and non-binary people, BIPOC and other people of color, women, and people who have (or have friends or relaties who have) been harmed by Meta or other big tech companies. Of course no commuity is monolithic ... opinions differ!

So it's critical to listen to diverse voices and taking those perspectives into account when a discussion needs to be made. It's hard to know just when that will be – a lot depends on how quickly Meta provides federation more broadly and what if any agreements they put in place once two-way federation starts – but in any case, now's a good time to start the discussion.

Where to discuss?  On the fediverse, of course! For global discussions, the hashtag #TransitiveDefederation is long but a decent starting point. Start up a community on Lemmy and magazine on Kbin, start having video discussions on PeerTube and schedule them as events on Mobilizon, and instances across the fediverse could get involved.

And it's also something instances should discuss amongst themselves.  Local-only posts are great for this if you're on an instance that runs Glitch, Hometown, Akkoma, Friendica, Misskey ... if your instance uses Mastodon, you're out of luck, now's a good time to ask your instance admin to shift to a fork that does support them and try to convince the main Mastodon software team to provide this functionality.

A lot of instances also have a non-fediverse discussion and decision/making platform: on Matrix, Discord. Loomio, Github discussions, whatever. Those are better in some ways for some kinds of discussions so if they work well for you instance then by all means keep using them – but they are also potentially exclusionary, so make sure to have a lot of discussion and allow participation in decision-making for people on the fediverse as well.

Now's a natural time for federations of instances to emerge and as that happens they will probably want a space where they can discuss among themselves. A federated private group could be a good answer for that but alas this isn't something that exists on most fediverse platforms today.  Longer-term, this points for a way for the software to evolve (a new visibility level scoped to a federation of instances is another example) but in the short term options like a new instance that everybody gets another account on (sigh, I know) or a non-fediverse platform that everybody gets another account on will fill the gap.

Stay tuned for more!

The next installment in Strategies for the free fediverses will discuss the importance of reducing the free fediverses' dependency on Mastodon, and suggest several different paths to accomplishing this.  And there's a long way to go after that, so stay tuned!

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1 Why just blocking Meta’s Threads won’t be enough to protect your privacy once they join the fediverse and the (much longer) Threat modeling Meta, the fediverse, and privacy (DRAFT) come to similar conclusions about the value of transitive defederation with current software – and the latter has suggestions about how to improve it.

Image Credit

Originally from Penny graph 11 nodes.svg, by Syp, via Wikipedia,  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.