Enter the Fediverse: Legal Issues for Decentralized Social Media

Franklin Graves presented this week to the ABA IP Section on Mastodon and the fediverse. Read below to find out more!

Enter the Fediverse: Legal Issues for Decentralized Social Media

What is Mastodon? It’s a decentralized social network that operates across independently run servers that maintain an underlying interoperable framework to allow the formation of one global social network. Think of it like this: You live in an RV/mobile home within an RV park. That RV park is connected to other houses by streets and sidewalks. You can control what happens inside your home (your Mastodon account). However, the RV park (the Mastodon server) may have general policies or rules which must be followed for anyone parked there. You can visit other RV parks (servers) and still keep your home in its spot. You could even move your home to another park. If that’s not a helpful explanation, Mastodon is a fediverse (because we all wanted another term for our web lexicon). Think of it as a Twitter or Facebook, but anyone can start their own and they all can communicate with each other (see ActivityPub below).

Who owns Mastodon? No one… kinda. The code for the software is available under an open source license — AGPL v3 to be exact. This means anyone can use it, as well as contribute to and build upon it within the confines of the OSS license terms. The code repo is on GitHub – https://github.com/mastodon/mastodon#license. In reality, it is owned by Eugen Rochko & other Mastodon contributors, but they don’t operate all of the platforms.

What is ActivityPub? It’s an open source protocol standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that allows servers running Mastodon to communicate and exchange data with other platforms (such as Tumblr) using an agreed-upon protocol. 

What other legal elements are involved with Mastodon?

For users, it’s pretty much the same as other social networks – know the rules and guidelines, otherwise, be respectful and have fun!

For server providers, it’s a bit more complicated. In order to run a server, there needs to be a: (1) domain name; (2) hosting provider (typically a virtual private server, or VPS); (3) an email server for sending communications to users; and, optionally, (4) a separate storage server for user files (think AWS). All of these would involve additional contracts with various third-party vendors, as well as contractual obligations that may or may not be appropriate for an individual in their personal capacity to take on. This is when it may be worth considering the formation of a business entity of some kind to help potentially divert liability for being a service provider.

What about user-generated content? Yep, the same rules of internet law apply to anyone hosting a Mastodon server. This includes registering a designated agent with the U.S. Copyright Office to take full advantage of the DMCA safe harbor of copyright infringement claims start coming in.

Also, if running a server, it’s necessary to establish user policies and guidelines. This would include a copyright policy (and repeat infringer policy), a trademark policy, a content moderation policy, and other often basic operational concerns larger ISPs have to deal with… but some may become more important as a server scales.

Want more? Denise Paolucci over at Dreamwidth Studios breaks down even more in this blog post inspired by their original Twitter thread. There’s also a guide for English law.



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