MoodleNet and ‘free speech’

Network

Background

Moodle’s stated aim is to “empower educators to improve our world”. We do this in alignment with our values:

  • Education – We understand that education is the foundation of making the world a better place. We are always learning, improving how we learn, and helping those around us to learn and to teach.
  • Integrity – We employ the highest ethical standards, demonstrating honesty and fairness in every action that we take.
  • Respect – We treat everyone with respect and sensitivity, recognising the importance of their contributions: team members, customers, partners, suppliers and competitors.
  • Innovation – We encourage a progressive culture of data-driven experimentation and research, where entrepreneurship and prudent risk-taking are encouraged, rewarded and incorporated.
  • Openness –  We strive to be open in our goals, our tools, our processes and our results, as much as is practical.  We encourage team members and our community to communicate freely both internally and externally. We promote accessibility and embrace international cultures across all our products.

Context

MoodleNet is a new open social media platform for educators, focussed on professional development and open content. It sustainably empowers communities of educators to share and learn from each other to improve the quality of education. It is an integral part of the Moodle ecosystem.

As a federated social network using the ActivityPub protocol, MoodleNet will be part of the Fediverse. This means that users can follow accounts on other services such as Mastodon, Pleroma, and Pixelfed. This works both ways, of course, so users on any server using, for example, Pleroma as a basis for their social network, can follow and interact with MoodleNet users.

This is a huge step forward for social networking, as instead of having silos such as Instagram and Twitter, you can follow any account on any other network. You can also maintain different accounts for different facets of your personality, so for example mastodon.art is a community artists, and scholar.social is for academics. But what if there was an instance for… fascists? And what if those users went out of their way to harrass and troll other users?

The wider problem

This is not a hypothetical issue. Since the start of the year, the Fediverse has had to deal with a social network called Gab which claims to be focused on ‘free speech’ but actually contains a disproportionate number of users who identify as Nazi sympathisers. It’s blatant enough for both Apple and Google to have banned Gab’s app from their app stores for contraventions of their policies on ‘hate speech’.

In response, Gab decided to fork Mastodon, an Open Source project. This manoeuvre meant that Gab users could simply install any generic app that was compatible with Mastodon without Apple or Google being able to ban it. An article in The Verge explains the headache that this caused the Fediverse. The important paragraphs are quoted below:

Over the past few years, Mastodon has become the model for a friendlier kind of social network, promising to keep out the hateful or ugly content that proliferates on larger and more centralized networks. Journalists hailed it as “Twitter without Nazis” and for years, it’s generally lived up to that promise. But last week, the social network Gab migrated to Mastodon — and Mastodon’s admins have been forced to deal with the internet’s Nazi problem head-on.

[…]

Some Gab content has crossed the line into criminal activity. The UK jailed two teenage neo-Nazis in June for posting terrorist propaganda. Florida police also arrested a user last month for posting racist threats and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. And in 2018, a man posted an anti-Semitic Gab message just before killing 11 members of a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Gab denies that it condones hatred — CEO Andrew Torba says it simply allows any speech that’s “legal in the United States” with a few exceptions. It correctly notes that Facebook and Twitter also contain hate speech and violent threats. Gab is far smaller than these sites, however, and its bad posts are particularly concentrated.

When Gab migrated to Mastodon, that content threatened to spill into the larger platform. Mastodon is organized into a “Fediverse,” which means that users on one instance can follow and interact with users from another. It helps make Mastodon feel like a single community, but by default, it could make users from one instance vulnerable to trolls from another. Fortunately, administrators can block instances, too, keeping out any posts or users from that server.

So far, that’s been the default response to Gab. Mastodon’s official site will only list instances that follow the Mastodon Server Covenant. The covenant mandates “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia” — which pretty much nixes any contact with Gab. For Rochko, it seems like the clearest way forward. “The software that powers Mastodon is released under an open-source free software license, which means anybody can use it,” he says. “And you know, that offers a great number of benefits — but some disadvantages.”

As you can see, there’s no way to remain neutral here. Developing software is a political act. Most Fediverse administrators seem to have blocked Gab instances, and many app developers have blacklisted all Gab domainsSo how is this going to affect MoodleNet?

Our response

MoodleNet is Free and Open Source Software (FLOSS) that we are developing and releasing under the terms of the AGPL. Anyone can use it for any purpose. However, in addition to MoodleNet, and to improve the user experience, administrators running a MoodleNet instance may apply for an API key to connect to the Moodle HQ ‘mothership’. This means that users on their instance can search all other connected instances to discover new content, follow users and collections, and join communities.

Given what has been going on in the Fediverse, we are going to be very careful in terms of who we hand out API keys to. They can, of course, be revoked, but we want to establish minimum standards, especially as we’re planning on creating a MoodleNet equivalent of the join Mastodon page.

With all this in mind, the MoodleNet team has been working with our Privacy Officer to draft two documents and put them out for community consultation. As outlined in an earlier post, the first of these is a MoodleNet User Agreement, which includes six sections:

  1. Terms
  2. Code of Conduct
  3. Contribution, Use, Modification and Distribution Licenses
  4. Disclaimers
  5. Modifications
  6. Instance Rules

The second is a MoodleNet Covenant for Instance Administrators, which also has six points. Admins running a MoodleNet instance who want to connect to the ‘mothership’ (for search and discoverability) must agree to:

  1. Foster an open and welcoming environment.
  2. Actively moderate their instance
  3. Perform daily backups
  4. Give emergency access to the server infrastructure to at least two people
  5. Give users at least 3 months of advance warning in case of shutting down
  6. Make available the source code of any customisations to your instance, regardless how small

The full version of the first point on this list mandates that administrators contribute to “a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of age, body size, disability, ethnicity, sex characteristics, gender identity and expression, level of experience, education, socio-economic status, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation”. The second that they actively moderate against “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, harassment, defamation, doxxing, sexual depictions of children, and conduct promoting alt-right and fascist ideologies”.

The ‘free speech’ issue

Many people who use FLOSS tend to be those who value their independence and liberty. As a result, we’ve received messages expressing concern that we’re taking a “political stance” which might be inappropriate in an educational setting.

Our response has been to remind the people sending these message that our approach isn’t about restricting the discussion of this kind of stuff, but the promoting of it. We’ve cited the Paradox of Tolerance:

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” (Karl Popper)

To reiterate, we are not specifying how people use MoodleNet. We are setting the minimum standards we expect from administrators (and their users) on instances connected to the MoodleNet mothership. This does not contravene the free software definition, as anyone is free to install and run MoodleNet, as they wish, for any purpose. They are also welcome to contribute to the code base subject to our Community Code of Conduct.

We hope that clarifies a few things. If you’ve got questions/concerns about this, please add a comment below, or email: moodlenet-moderators@moodle.com

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