On Tusky Rickrolling

An Android app for Mastodon, Tusky, no longer lets users log on to a particular three-letter platform associated with violent hate-speech. Instead, it rickrolls such a user. Let me begin with extreme clarity here about the users on this platform: this is a platform that facilitates users whose extremism led to mass shootings at a Jewish Synagogue. Of course, there are users on the platform who would not do such things personally but are otherwise OK with associating themselves with this sort of ideology.

Over the course of the past week, I have been party to multiple discussions on the Fediverse that discuss this software change. None of us that have been involved are, as far as I am aware, even the slightest bit sympathetic to the politics of the users on the hate-speech platform in question. Despite being unified in our disgust in hate-speech, there are differing opinions on how to deal with it. Myself and critics have had many repeat discussions. Quite frankly, I am tired of addressing them when they repeatedly pop up so everything is going into this single post. I expect this to be extremely controversial, but hey it is just, like, my opinion, man.

“Tusky Is No Longer Free (Libre) Open Source Software”

The first argues that Tusky is no longer Free (Libre) Open Source Software, or FLOSS. The zeroth pillar of the four pillars reads: “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.” The argument goes that since users who are pro-white-ethnostate can no longer use the app to log into their favorite instance, they cannot run the program for the purpose they wish, and therefore this pillar is violated.

This line of thinking stems from a misinterpretation of the zeroth pillar. The misinterpretation is that “as you wish, for any purpose” means “as you want the functionality to be.” But that is not the case. In the elaboration on this pillar, it says the opposite: “This has nothing to do with what functionality the program has, whether it is technically capable of functioning in any given environment, or whether it is useful for any particular computing activity.” What use is the zeroth pillar then? DRM: “The freedom to run the program as you wish means that you are not forbidden or stopped from making it run.” Tusky’s rickrolling change is not a DRM-like capability.

As for the other three pillars, they are not relevant for Tusky’s change. The first pillar is around the modification of software. The second, around distribution of the software. And the last pillar is about distributing modifications. Since Tusky is still GPLv3 licensed and the patch in question doesn’t touch any of these pillars, Tusky is still just as much Free Software as before.

People who disagree can fork.

“This Is A Deliberate Bug”

The second argument goes that Tusky is deliberately adding a bug to its software. Since there is no technical reason to block connecting to this particular domain, disallowing it is therefore a bug. Furthermore, it is going out of its way to do more than keep its head down, not attract attention, and just code, which is the morally right thing to do in software. This is an argument rooted in technological idealism.

I believe this line of “technological idealism” has an implicit ethical system ingrained in it, that I won’t be able to convince adherents to reconsider. Instead, I will just say that I believe the patch is indeed a feature. Users who are at-risk of becoming violently radicalized in an extremist community are instead ushered into non-violent communities where the community can help them and their would-be-victims avoid a tragic situation involving death. That, to me, sounds like an amazing feature. Sure, it is not strictly a technological feature, but lies at the intersection of humanity and technology. And to some, that lack of idealism is unacceptable. But I think limiting features of an application strictly to the technology loses sight of why we have technology in the first place. It isn’t to ultimately, at the top of the chain, serve other technology. It is there to serve humanity.

So there are two competing ethical systems. There is the technical idealism one that is the source of this argument against Tusky, and there is one that considers both technical and human factors. I do not know the ethics of the developers. I am not trying to put words in their mouth. However, if I follow the latter ethical system, it looks to me like Tusky’s developers did keep their heads down, just code, and develop a feature. The controversies only arose because of this clash of ethics. The fact that a feature is controversial is not itself a good justification for not implementing the feature.

“This Violates Free Speech”

The third argument is touted by naive free speech-ers, who state that “this code change is censorship” and “this code change violates free speech.” They state that this will cause people to not be able to talk with the rest of the Fediverse. Furthermore, some have gone so far as to suggest this code change builds a Trump-like wall between the hate-speech Fediverse and not-hate-speech Fediverse.

There are two problems with this line of argument.

Mass-Censorship Misunderstanding

First, arguers are prone to great over-exaggeration for dramatic effect. This damages their credibility that they actually understand what is at stake.

Let us clearly state what the change is: Tusky, one client for Mastodon, is preventing logging into a Mastodon instance if it is hosted at a specific domain. That’s it.

When looking at the big picture, there are tons of other clients for Mastodon. Mastodon even ships with a web client. There are also tons of other kinds of software on the Fediverse, Mastodon is just one. There are plenty of different instances of all of these different softwares, and they are all federating with one another.

So when putting that change in perspective, it looks like this:

Tusky And The Fediverse

Now let us state what the change is not: it does not affect the ability to run instances; it does not affect federation; it does not affect other clients communicating with the affected instances; it does not affect a user’s ability to choose other clients.

The cries that the code change is a ploy for mass censorship are, quite frankly, unbelievable.

Lopsided Balance of Liberties

Second, arguers are quick to claim that this code change “violates the principle of free speech.” This is a problematic claim, because proponents are quick to come to the defense of the users’ free speech and totally ignore another party who has a right to freedom of speech: the developer.

Do we settle this with legal terms or ethical ones? The legal question of whether code is protected speech is still open and is not settled in US case law. There is careful consideration about how much of the code and under what conditions they view such code as speech versus action. And even though a federal district did, in Universal City Studios v. Corley, establish that code can enjoy protections of speech, the verdict was careful to also note that it can be subject to regulation like existing forms of speech.

Ignoring the law, what about the ethical distinctions to consider between two peoples’ free speech: a developer and a user? The naive free speech-er’s viewpoint is black-and-white and not nuanced enough to even make this sort of distinction, which is just one of the many problems when naively tending towards free speech extremism.

Speaking generally, I don’t have answers to these questions I pose. But I do think the shouts about “violating free speech” are generally made with extreme prejudice against developers and undue consideration of their rights. It isn’t much of an argument in the first place, just a filler phrase for an argument that should be there, but isn’t. And I cannot refute an argument that isn’t there.

However, more specifically to this case, with the context of Free Libre Open Source Software, the four pillars can be seen as a levelling of the “free speech” playing field. This is because FLOSS generally treats users and developers as one and the same person, eliminating my philosophical ethical question earlier. On a slight side note, this erasure could be problematic depending on your intersectional viewpoint. For example, how does one account for the rights of people who cannot afford code changes and do not have the knowledge in their communities?

Back on track, FLOSS levels the “free speech” playing field because the code – speech – can be modified and redistributed freely with no special benefits or harms for the originating developer nor for the forking developer. In this context, the cries of “violating free speech” are laughably lazy; an unhappy user can fork it and have their speech – code – compete fairly. It isn’t censorship of the user, because once more the user – who has developer-like capabilities in the FLOSS world – can fork and compete on a level playing field.

So for the Tusky case, the misunderstanding of mass censorship and ignorance of developer liberties in context of FLOSS make cries of “censorship” and “violates free speech” a strong signal for lack of sincere thought.

“But This Is A Slippery Slope!”

The fourth argument is that this introduces a “slippery slope” where Tusky now has to police all the instances being run across the Fediverse by deciding whether to add every single one to its list.

This is not a new argument and certainly not unique to this situation. This is an argument in bad faith. Every moderative decision – whether it is a Tusky developer or an instance administrator – will have to balance and make due consideration what to include and exclude from their moderative actions. Since it is a universal task, bringing it up for this specific case and painting it as a slippery-slope problem is simply trying to brute-force bludgeon the defender into submission in every single individual case. If a proponent thinks “well, now you have to decide on a case-by-case basis so you don’t go down a slippery slope” and decides to not participate in this process but instead argue against the process, they are implicitly conceding they would not be able to argue the merits of the case at hand. That is, the specifics at hand are so solidly not on a slippery slope, the only way they can argue for it is to argue against the process, not within the process. They don’t really believe the process they are proposing everyone else has to follow, even if everyone else is willing to follow it!

So this argument is a true statement commonly disguising intentions to subvert the case at hand – Tusky rickrolling violent hate speech users – because even the arguer does not believe the case at hand is on a “slippery slope.”

In my book, Tusky development is free to continue to take a pragmatic case-by-case approach and develop self-governing principles as they see fit. People who worry in good faith about a slippery slope will join them and collaborate.

“Rickrolling Is Unprofessional”

The final “argument” I have seen is not an argument. It is simply calling the developers “unprofessional” because the feature results in a rickroll instead of an error message.

I am going to assume such folks do not understand the long history of using humor and clowns (even in my hometown) to protest far-right extremism that calls for the systematic and violent eradication of people groups. The reason is simple: the idea that we should systematically eradicate people groups is a silly and stupid one, much like a clown. It is an idea that does not merit a sincere response.

Therefore, before calling this form of protest “unprofessional,” it helps to understand the historical context. Having to make sincere protests instead of goofy protests is itself a signal that we are slipping down a slope into a pit where the idea of systematically eradicating people groups is no longer taboo, when it should be. This follows one implementation of the paradox of tolerance where the intolerant ideas are tolerated but given no credibility.


I believe Tusky developers are well within their right to make the change they did. And the change they made is one that will morally benefit the Fediverse, even if only by a small amount. The software is Free Libre Open Source Software with a feature that reflects the free expression of the developers while respecting the rights of their users. There are many criticisms of their actions and I believe each are flawed for very different reasons. I do not expect to change minds, but I hope it causes people that still disagree with me to, at the very least, hold themselves responsible in creating better arguments.

Created: Jun 19, 2019 15:39:27 EDT
Last Updated: Jun 19, 2019 17:17:32 EDT
By: Cory Slep

Fediverse Comments

@cjslep Nicely written. Thanks !

Commented on: Jun 19, 2019 22:34:45 UTC
By: https://anticapitalist.party/users/kropot