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What We Can Do To Prevent More Online Censorship

Encrypted email can be an end-around social media companies' monopoly of free speech
arroba Email

With all the concern about major social media companies deplatforming those they disagree with, there is a concern that these companies’ monopoly on social media will eliminate free speech. New social media platforms such as Gab, Parler and MeWe have popped up to offer freer alternatives. Yet even that is not without peril, as deplatforming can happen lower down the technology stack. Parler was recently kicked off AWS (Amazon Web Services).

However, in the midst of all the hubbub we’ve forgotten the original social network: email. Email is still here. The distance between email and modern social media may be smaller than it first appears. Lets make a short list of the perceived differences between social media and email, and see if these differences can be resolved.

News feed with a very user friendly interface

This is perhaps the #1 difference between email and a social media service such as Facebook. Whereas with email there are a number of knobs and buttons you need to just send a simple email, with Facebook, as soon as you see an interesting message, you can join in the conversation. But you can still email a friend privately. The news feed is the big difference with Facebook, as it is a many-to-many messaging model, whereas email is based on a one-to-one or few-to- few model.

Yet, this is one of those differences that is bigger than it appears: we can easily replicate the news feed using mailing lists in email. The only difference in this case is the mailing list will be maintained on your personal computer instead of an invisible Facebook server.

As for the interface, email clients are currently created with the assumption of few-to-few communication, and to reply to a mailing list, you either have to manually create the list or rely on a third party list server. Remedying this problem is largely a user interface design problem, and a bit of a model switch. For instance, the client, instead of accepting any and every email sent its way, would operate with a whitelist; only allowing through emails on the friends list. The interactive portion has been solved by Facebook and the other social media companies, and their design patterns can be reused.

Why does encryption matter?

Encryption is a benefit offered by chat clients such as Signal and Telegram. While message encryption will not solve all problems because a lot of information can be gained from the social network structure, message encryption is itself an easy problem to solve with a technique known as asymmetric encryption.

With asymmetric encryption, each user has a private and a public key. A message encrypted with the public key can only be decrypted with the private key, and visa versa. To establish a trusted communication system, users exchange public keys and can thereon send each other highly secure messages. There are numerous publicly available open source crypto libraries that can perform high quality asymmetric encryption. In addition, for higher bandwidth needs, symmetric encryption keys can be exchanged through asymmetric encryption.

The difference multimedia makes

Nowadays social media is much more than text. Users exchange video, audio and money through social media platforms. Back at the advent of email, bandwidth and storage was much less than is available today. In addition, the compression algorithms were less advanced. But with the wealth of new technologies now available for transmission, storage and compression, email can be just as multimedia-enabled as social networks. As for the financial side, crypto currencies are quickly gaining traction and remove the need for establishing an interface with banks.

So in summary, an easy way to make an end run around and social media censorship and even cloud providers deplatforming alternate social media, an enterprising individual merely needs to write a social media client that uses email as the communication protocol.

Further reading: Many are questioning the sudden shutdown of Parler. Opponents see the move as an attempt to enforce a social media monopoly.

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

What We Can Do To Prevent More Online Censorship