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This paper, ‘Decentralized Social Networks and the Future of Free Speech Online’ explores the potential of decentralized social networks like Mastodon and BlueSky to enhance free speech by shifting control from central authorities to individual users. The author, Ted Huang, examines how decentralisation can promote the free speech values of knowledge, democracy, and autonomy, while also acknowledging the inherent challenges and trade-offs in practical implementation.

Huang highlights that decentralized networks face significant challenges in knowledge verification, effective moderation, and avoiding recentralisation. He notes that the ideal of decentralization often conflicts with practical needs, which necessitates some centralised mechanisms for such things as content moderation and cross-community communication. So, Huang argues, to truly empower users, we need inclusive design processes and ongoing policy discussions.

The decentralized social network has been widely viewed as a cure to its centralized counterpart, which is owned by corporate monopolies, funded by surveillance capitalism, and moderated according to rules made by the few (Gehl 2018, 2-3). The tremendous and unchecked power of those giant platforms was seen as a major threat to people’s rights and freedoms online. The newly emergent decentralized social networks, through infrastructural redesign, create a power-sharing scheme with the end users, so that it is the users themselves, rather than a corporate body, that determine how the communities shall be governed. Such an approach has been hailed as a promising way of curbing the monopolies and empowering the users. It was expected to bring more freedom of speech to individuals, and the vision it underscores – openness rather than walled-gardens, bottom-up rather than top-down – represents the future of the Internet (Ricknell 2020, 115).


The discussion of the decentralization project is trending, but it is too limited because there lacks systematic and critical review on the project’s normative implications. In particular, the current debate is mostly restricted to the technical circle, without sufficient input and participation from other fields such as policy, law and ethics. So far, researchers on the decentralized social networks mainly focus on their technical difficulties and features, rather than its social implications (Marx & Cheong 2023, 2). Lawmakers and regulators in the world have paid little attention yet to regulating this new technical paradigm (Friedl & Morgan 2024, 8). For decentralized networks to serve as the desirable future of online communications, we need to know why this is so and how it can be achieved. Will decentralized networks better facilitate the free speech online than the centralized platforms? How to design the new space to make it really fit with our value commitments? All the utopian and dystopian analyses of the decentralized future are only possibilities: what matters is the choices we make about how these technologies are designed and used (Cohnh & Mir 2022). Value commitments must be carefully examined and considered in the design process.

Source: arXiv

Image: Omar Flores