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Panquake Talks Privacy, Politics and Prepping for Release
How did we end up trading our privacy for social media?
Founded in 2017, influential cybersecurity podcast ‘Firewalls Don’t Stop Dragons’ focuses on the balance between innovation and user privacy. Host Carey Parker is the most recent industry observer to get a taste of Panquake, receiving a demo of the next generation social media web application. He then sat down with Panquake Founder Suzie Dawson, to talk about it.
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“I really, really enjoyed talking with Suzie. You can tell she’s really passionate about what she’s doing.” - Carey Parker, Host of ‘Firewalls Don’t Stop Dragons’ cybersecurity podcast
A full transcript of the interview is being provided here, for our wonderful Substack subscribers!
[Transcript begins from 2:18]
Carey Parker (hereafter: CP): Today I’ll be talking to Suzie Dawson, who is the Founder of Panquake.com - this is a new social media platform, it has not been launched yet, it’s getting close - but it’s honestly trying to get back to what the promise of social media was supposed to have been, or at least in my personal utopian idealized view, the way these things should have worked from the get-go. I literally just prior to recording this interview got a demo from Suzie and Sean O’Brien who I’ve had on this show before, from Yale Privacy Lab, who is associated with this project, gave me a demo of the product. I can’t tell you too much about it, I signed an NDA, but it’s really polished. It’s got some cool groundbreaking features and we’re going to talk a little bit about that today. So I will tell you up front, we’re going to be talking about social media today and a lot of things surrounding social media platforms are highly politicized, that’s sort of unavoidable when talking about a social media platform. Shadowbanning, account suspensions, mis- and disinformation, conspiracy theories, all that stuff. So we will be talking about those topics today and they can be politically charged let’s say. Not just in the US but elsewhere as well. So just a little bit of a trigger warning, we are going to be talking about those things, but just to me, these things go beyond politics. At least in the sense that they’re not left or right things, they’re not conservative or liberal things, these are things that are applied to all of us and affect society and democracy in general. You may come down on some of these issues in one particular way or another but I think we all agree these platforms should be open and fair and transparent and allow us to have conversations - or not have conversations - as we see fit. And they shouldn’t be pushing stuff at us based on engagement algorithms and things like that. I think there’s a lot of common ground to be found here. And technology like any tool can be used for good and for ill simultaneously. So just keep that in mind as we’re having the interview today and try not to look at this through one lens or another. This is really a topic that applies to all of us and really what we want to do is we want to remove all that crap from our discussions of social media platforms. It shouldn’t be the central issue. It should really just be about keeping in touch with and following the people we care about. Now, she also mentions the term ‘FOSS’ quickly in passing - we’ve talked about that before. In fact, we’ve talked about it with Sean O’Brien. It’s the F-O-S-S Free and Open Source Software. And also there are one or two mild swear words thrown in there too. So there are your trigger warnings for this interview. I really, really enjoyed talking with Suzie. You can tell she’s really passionate about what she’s doing. And she’s found obviously a lot of people who believe like she does that we need a change. That we need something different. That we need a new type of social media platform. So with that as your introduction, let’s get to our interview with Suzie Dawson. Suzie Dawson is the Founder of Panquake.com. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. Thanks for coming on to the show Suzie.
Suzie Dawson (hereafter ‘SD’): So happy to be here.
CP: So tell us all - what is Panquake? And what drove you to launch this ambitious project?
SD: Panquake is next generation technology. It’s a short messaging service where users can - through blockchain technology - have the safety and security of knowing that their activity on a platform is not being interfered with by any other party. We provide transparency and we provide a whole suite of new exciting tools to achieve more amplification and circulation of content that you wish to share with the world. With less interference by parties who might want to curtail or manipulate your access to information or your ability to circulate information.
CP: Alright, well there’s a lot to unpack there. We’ll get into that throughout the interview I’m sure. So, social media was supposed to bring us together. Allow us to find and keep in touch with friends and family and I think for a time that worked. I think early days, it kind of met those goals but things obviously went downhill at some point. So when - from your perspective - when and why did that all change?
“Panquake is next generation technology. It’s a short messaging service where users can - through blockchain technology - have the safety and security of knowing that their activity on a platform is not being interfered with by any other party.” - Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
SD: Well I think the commercialization of the internet is the easy answer, right? When the profit motive got introduced and when data became digital gold and when profiling users became an industry. Increasingly the purpose of providing communications platforms has been about collecting that digital gold and being able to on-sell it to other shadowy companies, Big Data companies, in these B2B relationships that users often have very little awareness of. So we’re turning that model on its head. We’re not collecting our user’s data. We’re not monetizing our user data. We’re not profiling our users. We’re not intruding upon their lives or their internet browsing habits or what files are on their phone. We’re not collecting any of that. Instead our commercialization model is based around our users paying a small amount of money per month to help to sustain our platform so that we can provide a service that doesn’t invade their lives the way that Big Tech has been.
CP: Well you’ve said that our relationship with Big Tech - particularly with social media - is like a relationship with an abusive person. What did you mean by that?
SD: There are so many ways that Big Tech has been abusing users. Aside from just the profiling I was talking about. The total lack of transparency about the way that platforms operate has caused myriad damage to relationships, real life relationships between people and also commercial relationships too. We quite often don’t have the slightest clue why certain types of content are showing up and why other types of content aren’t. We submit content into a platform with an expectation that people will see it and quite often people are not seeing it. That leads to all types of feelings of isolation and stress. We’ve had platforms actually removing user actions such as disappearing retweets, disappearing likes, disappearing followers. You follow people and then discover that actually you’re not following them anymore or vice versa. That translates into real world harm as relationships appear to be broken. People just assume that a platform would have a fundamental integrity and facilitate the maintenance of relationships but quite often the platform itself becomes a blocker to those relationships. That’s before we even get into actual outright blatant censorship, often for political reasons or other reasons. For us - we believe in fundamental universal human rights. We believe that technology does give us the ability to bake human rights into the platform. That’s very much what we’re doing with Panquake. Baking in human rights from the base level. Everybody has the right to communicate. Everybody has the right to freely associate with those who they choose to freely associate with. Our platform should never get in the way or in the middle of those relationships. It should exist only to facilitate them.
“We believe that technology does give us the ability to bake human rights into the platform. That’s very much what we’re doing with Panquake. Baking in human rights from the base level. Everybody has the right to communicate. Everybody has the right to freely associate with those who they choose to freely associate with. Our platform should never get in the way or in the middle of those relationships. It should exist only to facilitate them.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: A lot of the trouble people had with social media lately has been around these algorithms. Algorithms have become this boogieman of, you know, all the feeds went from only showing the stuff for the people I followed and only the things that they posted to getting content from other places that had nothing to do with people I followed because it somehow maximized engagement. But many people argue that these algorithms that are used by Facebook and TikTok and YouTube so successfully are really themselves neutral. The fact that they tend to lead to doom-scrolling and radicalization is really just a reflection of human nature. They didn’t do that, they’re just maximizing engagement and it turns out that’s what people want. That’s what they’ll say. What do you think? Are algorithms themselves… are these algorithmic feeds inherently harmful?
SD: Well algorithms don’t write themselves. And the people who write algorithms in some cases may be doing it independently but most of the time are not. They’re employees of companies which have strategic objectives and tactical reactions to events that are going on and sometimes political pressures as well and external pressures. Industry pressures. Regulatory pressures, etc etc. Those agendas feed down into the development layer and alter the contents of the algorithms. So I don’t believe that algorithms are neutral. I believe that the agendas of corporate boards and governmental agencies and other entities do filter into those algorithms. I also don’t believe that in a communications tool you should have some entity be it an algorithm or the people that are ultimately responsible for influencing that algorithm decide what you should see. I believe that you as the user should decide what you see. That’s a major difference with Panquake. We have time-linear chronologically-ordered timelines with no content manipulation at all. That timeline is built off of content submitted by accounts that you have elected to follow because you have sought out that content and chosen to engage with it. Not because we as a platform have decided maybe you would like to see it, or maybe you should want to see it, or maybe someone is paying us to get you to see it. So it’s just a completely different mentality. We’re creating user-driven social media. Rather than social media to drive users.
CP: Well just to play devil’s advocate a little bit. I think you’re absolutely right. Obviously, Facebook and these companies, they’re advertising companies. These products are free because you’re the product. Particularly, your engagement and your attention, literally the amount of time you spend on their platform, is what you’re paying with. You’re paying with your time, with your engagement. So these algorithms are written. I still think there’s a possible argument to be made that somebody says… whatever they like, let’s just give them more of that. Because that keeps them on the platform. And it just turns out that people like really bad stuff. So I don’t doubt, certainly when you’re buying advertising and things like that, that there are other ways that you’re getting fed content that somebody wanted you to see. But just from a pure algorithm standpoint, if I was an engineer writing the software, if I pay attention, well this person looked at this thing longer than they looked at that thing, they spent more time on this or this, they clicked on this but they didn’t click on that, I’m just going to give them more of that. Isn’t there something to be said for the fact that somehow humans tend to draw in like a moth to a flame that they’re attracted to crap - stuff that’s not good for them?
“I believe that you as the user should decide what you see. That’s a major difference with Panquake… We’re creating user-driven social media. Rather than social media to drive users” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
SD: Can you inundate someone with something and cause an addiction response? Yeah, sure you can but unfortunately that’s not the only data that’s being collected by these companies and that’s not the only data that’s being monetized by them. Ultimately, they’re after your location. They’re after your network. They’re after what other networks are in proximity to your network. What other devices are in proximity to your device. What browser are you using? How long are you using it for? What other browsers are you using? What are the fingerprints of those browsers? What is the timestamp on your activity? What hours are you likely to be asleep because you’re not interacting with your device? Where is your device located when you sleep? At what time of day are they most likely to be able to send you a push notification and have you respond to it? They can profile not only your life - you as an individual - but they can profile your relationships. They can track… and this has been proven in study after study after study… the wealth of information that they can get out of a user is absolutely incomprehensible to most people but is something that is critically important for them to understand. And all of those things I listed are pieces of data which Panquake does not collect. We do not fingerprint your browser. We do not retain your session information. We do not profile your network. We do not capture the files that are on your phone. We do not know when you woke up and we don’t want to know when you went to bed. This is a fundamental ideological difference. We do not want to invade our users lives, we simply want to provide them with a service to speak to each other. And that I think is really worth fighting for to be honest with you.
CP: Oh, for sure. Yeah. It’s not that hard for Facebook to figure out who you’re speaking with because there’s another phone that’s running the Facebook app that’s right next to you whose location is proximate to yours. So even if you don’t give that away any other way, it’s amazing how much correlation you can do with that kind of data. And they do it.
SD: And the idea that they have some type of right to collect that information is preposterous. And the idea that users are willingly submitting to it is preposterous as well. It’s ignorance of users, of the extent to which their privacy is being violated, that has facilitated the continuing violations. It’s going to take companies and projects like Panquake, I don’t think we are or should be the only one, actually educating users and saying hey, it doesn’t have to be like this. Actually for $5 a month you can opt out of that Spy-verse. You really can.
CP: So let me flip that on its head though. So the internet… there’s so much information out there. A lot of people would argue, if I can’t get to it from a search engine it doesn’t exist. Because how would I know to find it? So there’s this huge internet haystack. And there are some good needles out there too. So without algorithms and crowdsourced recommendations how do I discover new sources of content? It’s great that I can follow people I know of, but I can certainly argue, there are things out there that I want to discover. How do I discover those things in your system?
SD: Well there are multiple ways. So, if you like cats, you type ‘cats’ into the search and press enter and you get cats. So there’s discoverability in that sense. You have a hobby, you type some keywords in, you find some content, maybe you follow some of those people that look good, maybe you don’t, maybe you put some different keywords in. Yes, we’ll have the typical advanced search functions, Boolean search and whatnot. So there’s that type of thing. Then there’s the fact that we do also allow you to see the actions being taken by the people who you follow, and we even allow you to see actions being taken by people who follow you. So if you want to see, what are the people who follow me interested in? What are they liking? What are they sharing onto their timeline? Who are they following? You can do that as well. So there’s no problems on Panquake finding a rabbit hole to go down. There really isn’t. It’s just that what is retained on your timeline over a period of time is completely up to your own volition to engineer.
“We do not fingerprint your browser. We do not retain your session information. We do not profile your network. We do not capture the files that are on your phone. We do not know when you woke up and we don’t want to know when you went to bed. This is a fundamental ideological difference. We do not want to invade our users lives, we simply want to provide them with a service to speak to each other. And that I think is really worth fighting for to be honest with you.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: That would be a welcome change. Even with all the recent media attention we’ve had with surveillance capitalism people still seem to prefer these “free services”. Which of course are not free, you’re paying with your data, as opposed to paying for these things. And obviously you’re going for a for-pay model. What do you think it’s going to take to change that? Do you think that there just aren’t valid options and therefore people just aren’t choosing them? Or what are the challenges of finding people that will go away from these free models that are based on showing them ads on their behavior versus something that they’re going to have to pay for. That seems like something that is unfortunately going to be a hurdle.
SD: I think that the powers that be would love us to think that actually people just want to be manipulated and abused. I think that is an abuser mentality that serves them. I’ll tell you a little story. Two years ago, almost basically two years ago, I brought an idea to some friends. We had no money, we had no funding, we just had an idea. I said, guys, this is what I want to do, are you willing to help? And over 20 people, nearly 30 people who I knew, said yes, we need this, I want to help! They volunteered their time. They gave their skills and attention. We said, OK, we’re going to borrow $2,000 from my parents to register a domain. And we built a little website called Panquake.com. We set up a crowdfunding page. We went out on our social media accounts and said guys, we’ve got an idea. We’re going to do a livestream and we’re going to tell you about this idea. We did our livestream, we unveiled our idea and we unveiled our crowd-funder. We said, we need to raise $50,000 to establish the business, register the businesses, get an actual proper business infrastructure so that we can then recruit on developers and start to build this idea out. We thought, at best case, it would take 6-12 weeks to raise that $50,000. We got it in 20 days. Then, over the course of that year 3,600 people put money into the Panquake crowd-funder. So that we could hire developers and build this tool. And that’s precisely what we did. We built the tool. We now have gone from an idea and some volunteers to, as you’ve seen recently because we just demo’d it for you, a fully-functional working application, a real piece of software that we can bring to market to change people’s lives with. And our crowdfunding campaign which had a marketing budget of $0, an advertising budget of $0, no PR people behind it, no V.C. behind it, just literally a group of friends, we got over 1 million hits to the Panquake website in the first year of the project. So what that tells me is that there is thirst for this. There is interest in this. People do want to be emancipated from the chains of Big Tech. They do want a different future. And a small group of people banding together and being committed to making some change can do it. Even without the corporate backing. Without the government backing. And we are doing it. Now we’re hiring on service personnel, we’re setting up all of our back-end service infrastructure and we’re actually going to be able to deliver this. And that’s such an exciting thing for us to be a part of and I’m so happy that we’ve come this far on our journey. But I tell that story so that you can see that there really is a thirst out there. If you can get a million hits on your website with a $0 marketing budget - people do care about this. That’s the bottom line.
“These platforms are engaging in real world harms against users every single day and so it’s really important to us to reverse some of that.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: Well, and you’ve done a lot of other market research, and I want to dig into this a little bit because it’s not just this aspect, which is obviously an extremely important aspect of what you’re going to offer and how you’re going to differentiate from the existing surveillance-capitalist system we have now, but you identified several, over a dozen, things that people hate about current social media. Walk us through some of the market research that you’ve done and some of the things that you’re specifically trying to address where a lot of the current systems fall short.
SD: I mean, God, the problems are absolutely endless. The complaints and gripes are widespread and easy to come across. I think the gaslighting is a big one. Not knowing if actions you take actually persist in the network. I talked in one of my very first presentations about how a friend of mine Kim Dotcom, who I’ve worked with for years, had a pinned tweet on his timeline which I had been retweeting and liking literally every single year for five years and yet every time I went back to the tweet it was un-retweeted and unliked. So just having the blockchain proof-of-action… I’ve liked something, there’s now an indelibly timestamped blockchain record to prove that I have liked it and so I now have, conversely, the ability to prove if the platform is manipulating my action because I have this permanent, public record. So that’s the biggest use case for the blockchain from our perspective, is that transparency about user action. But on top of that, the arbitrary banning of accounts was a major for us. An absolute major. Because people put years of their time into building these networks, these communities, these micro-communities. The arbitrary nature of the suspensions and bannings that have been going on… is such that often it happens without almost any warning. There is virtually no due process. There’s no ability to meaningfully defend yourself. You get these stock standard robot emails that quite often have no relation to events that have actually occurred. There’s no one to really complain to and often no way to get your account back. And there’s also a power imbalance. Multiple times in the past I was arbitrarily suspended. But because I was a journalist and I had friends with big platforms, I was able to complain to them. They made a big stink on Twitter. It got hundreds of retweets. My account got unsuspended. But Joe Bloggs down the road doesn’t have an s-show in hell of having that same pull to get his account back. I know of one really sad case where a woman actually had all of her photos of her son - her only son - since he was a baby, stored on a social media account, never thinking that that could be taken from her, lost her account over some nonsense reason and to this day has not been able to recover any of her photos of her child’s life. And that’s exactly the type of thing that I just think is so horrific - and that’s why I say, real world harms. They love to talk about real world harms on social media. Oh, misinformation is a real world harm or such and such. These platforms are engaging in real world harms against users every single day and so it’s really important to us to reverse some of that. And then you look at the more nefarious platform actions like shadowbanning. Which is basically large-scale gaslighting. You think you’re having a conversation and you’re not having it. And Julian Assange actually talked about this. He predicted this. He said in 2016 that Twitter will become a filterverse of one. Where the information coming in to you, or that you have the ability to access will be so manipulated and the ability for you to get information out will be so manipulated - so it’s a two-way control flow; they control what you can see and access, and they control who can see and access what you put out - he said it will be so controlled that we would live in a filterverse of one. I don’t want to live in a filterverse! I don’t want to. I want to know that I’m able to communicate with people freely as is a universal human right.
CP: That term has been thrown around a lot. Let’s understand it. What does it mean to be shadowbanned?
SD: So, as we know from the Twitter Files, this has absolutely been going on. It was once upon a time called a conspiracy theory but it’s actually not. Also, if you go back in time a little bit, Twitter security personnel openly discussed the fact that they may choose to manipulate site statistics in order to give the appearance - actually manipulate metrics - to give the appearance of reach where none existed. So, this is where you send a message out and it says 50 retweets and maybe there actually wasn’t 50 retweets, maybe there was 2. And it says that there is 2,000 impressions, or 20,000 impressions on your tweet but actually maybe there was 20 because they didn’t let anyone see it. Now if you can’t trust in the base statistics provided to you by the platform, that is full-blown gaslighting. Full-blown. It is an abuse tactic, it is a manipulation and control tactic. It just takes it back to why I keep talking about blockchain proof-of-action. I don’t want my users to have to trust what I say as to what they’ve done on the network or who they’ve talked to or who’s seen it. I want them to be able to have an independent method of verification and proof so that they can have total trust in the integrity of the platform. And using technology we can provide users with that. There shouldn’t be an overlord deciding what suits them to be seen and engaged with or not.
“I don’t want to live in a filterverse! I don’t want to. I want to know that I’m able to communicate with people freely as is a universal human right.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: We’ve talked a little bit about bots. One of the terms that is thrown around when we talk about bots is this coordinated inauthentic behavior or automated influence campaigns in general. How do we recognize bots for what they are and how do we find technological solutions that prevent the creation of bots that still respect user privacy. Because one of the responses is KYC - Know Your Customer - like, you can only sign up if we know everything about you. And there might be reasons why you want a pseudonymous account. So how do you handle the issue of creating bots and recognizing automated behavior.
SD: So this is back to the real world harm argument again. I mean - what is more concerning to you? Is it more concerning that you might see some content that is circulated by a bot or is it more concerning to you that your passport or your social security number or some biometric data gets leaked online because these companies are all ingesting massive amounts of what we call “Personally Identifiable Information” because… bots? So, I personally don’t want to ingest Personally Identifiable Information of my users, I want to avoid ingesting that, so that that way I know that there will never be a leak of a Panquake database that contains your social security number or your credit card number in it because I’ve architecturally ensured that that cannot happen - we’re able to engineer deterrents on our platform to make it harder for bots to operate without needing to compromise our user privacy and security. Such as the commercialization model itself. Why is a bot going to pay $5 a month for a fake account on Panquake? They’re not going to want to do that. If you want to create a couple thousand fakes accounts a day that’s going to start costing you a lot of money and there are very few entities that are going to be able to pay that kind of money. And even if they can, based on our model, you would have to actively seek out the content of that bot or go and follow the bot account in order to even see their content. And our gamification and reward models and our new, cool features that we have, have all been engineered specifically in a way which bots could not ever benefit from, because it limits the enhanced amplification to the followers of the account. So a bot could farm up abilities on Panquake to get a big reach - only to the people who have chosen to follow that account. So what you’ll end up with is bots who can only talk to bots and bots who can only circulate content amongst bots and as long as you’re not seeking out and engaging with and following those bots, then you’re not going to be impacted by it. And we can do all of that without asking you to stick your passport in our application! I think it’s about just coming up with smart solutions. This is what we do as technologists. We innovate. We come up with solutions. We don’t just come up with some catchphrase and then hand over our entire lives because of it.
“I don’t want my users to have to trust what I say as to what they’ve done on the network or who they’ve talked to or who’s seen it. I want them to be able to have an independent method of verification and proof so that they can have total trust in the integrity of the platform. And using technology we can provide users with that. There shouldn’t be an overlord deciding what suits them to be seen and engaged with or not.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: So what about the, ok, so in some cases there are going to be brands, for example, that want to be, they want to be verified. They want the blue check mark, or whatever. Do you have a tiny notion of that what so ever? If Nestle or Coke, or whoever, say some brand name wants to be, like have a verified account? Is there a notion of that on Panquake?
SD: We have something we call self-verification. And self-verification allows any user on the platform to become verified. But we don’t decide who gets to be verified or not. Instead, they just follow a simple process to verify themselves. And again, this is about coming up with smart, innovative solutions that other people haven’t thought about to solve a problem. It’s a problem to me that Twitter wants a copy of my passport and to know my date of birth to verify me. I don’t believe that’s necessary. So how do we handle it? We handle it by allowing you to make a post, or to add the link to a post on any other of your established social media accounts that verify to people that you are, in fact, who you say you are on Panquake. For example, if I have a Facebook account and I’ve got a bunch of followers, which I did before I stopped using Facebook, I could go to Facebook and I can say: Hey, I’m @Suzi3D on Panquake, here’s the link to my timeline - go follow me. Then I take the link to that Facebook post and I upload it into myPanquake bio, and now I have a self-verification tick. Users mouse over that tick on my Panquake profile, that shows them the URL to my Facebook.com post from the Suzie Dawson Facebook page, and now people can go out to that link, check it out & verify for themselves that I am, in fact, who I say I am. So you could put a post on your official website, you could put a post on your Twitter, on any other social platform saying: on Panquake, I am this handle. Take the link to that post, stick it in Panquake - voila! You’ve now voluntarily connected yourself to your actual ID. But we don’t enforce that either. If people don’t want to, I mean, people have jobs that, you know, or for different reasons in their life that they don’t want to connect those things, so we’re not forcing it either. If you don’t want to verify yourself, don’t verify yourself. If you want to, go ahead and do it. And we trust in people’s ability to do their own research, look at the link. Is it a legit link? Is it a legit profile? Then they can go, yep, that actually is that person.
“I personally don’t want to ingest Personally Identifiable Information of my users, I want to avoid ingesting that, so that that way I know that there will never be a leak of a Panquake database that contains your social security number or your credit card number in it because I’ve architecturally ensured that that cannot happen.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: So if I own a domain name, for example, could some, the way some people do verification with, I own a certain website, is you’d set up, like, a DNS record or something. So are there ways for me to, like for Coke, if I own Coke.com, is there a way for Coke to put a special something in a DNS record, or some special, they may not have a blog for example, is there a way for me to say I own this website, and that is my verification? Is there a way to kinda do it that way as well?
SD: So impersonation is abuse, and we are moderating on Panquake for certain types of abusive actions, and for content which is completely, just, beyond the pale such as, like, you know, child abuse images, etc. That stuff’s gonna be gone in a heartbeat. So it’s not that we’re anti-moderation as a whole, or that we won’t take action for abusive conduct. We absolutely will. But what we won’t do is censor people, or attempt to control people, and that’s the difference. So the other thing too is, I don’t want corp.. I’m happy to have corporations on Panquake, but they’ll be there on the same terms as everybody else. I don’t believe that corporations have a greater right to speech than individual human beings. And I don’t believe they should be pandered to. And I don’t believe that our system should be engineered for their benefit. I believe that it has to be a level playing field across all users, whether they are Joe Bloggs down the road, or whether they are Shell Oil, they need to be subject to the same rules and conditions. And to have the same opportunities as well. So if a corporation can attract more followers, more power to them. If they can have a bigger voice because they earned that bigger voice, ok, but my platform is not going to lend itself to facilitating them having a bigger voice than anybody else on the platform. Does that make sense?
“I’m happy to have corporations on Panquake, but they’ll be there on the same terms as everybody else. I don’t believe that corporations have a greater right to speech than individual human beings. And I don’t believe they should be pandered to. And I don’t believe that our system should be engineered for their benefit." Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of this is fighting the mindset that we, just, that it’s been beaten into our brains for, for so long on social media, and trying to get back to what, you know, these things were supposed to be in the first place. So yeah, some of this is reconditioning as consumers, you know, how we think about these platforms and what, you know, they’ve gone off the rails, and so we, you know, we have to dial back what we think of, how we should be thinking about these, so some of this is going to be a paradigm shift. A good one, a good one, that needs to happen.
SD: You’re right that it’s a paradigm shift backwards because, you know, I remember the days when people rented some bandwidth from their ISP and made their own homepage. And there weren’t commercial websites. Coke didn’t have a website. Chevron didn’t have a website, but Joe Bloggs down the road had a little website, he had a little web page that he could give the links to his friends, and his friends could come and check out and see what he’d voluntarily posted there. And in those days, generally speaking, we administrated our own data. We were our own Sysadmins. We were in control of our own data, and I believe that that’s how things should be. And that’s why when you use Panquake, we don’t take your account data. We don’t ingest that data. Instead what we do is we store it in an encrypted data store on your own device. And then you get a back up recovery key to that, in case your phone ends up in the ocean, or whatever, you can restore a lot of content from the blockchain, and you can restore your content history, etc., your interactions history, your followers, everything else. But we are not your Sysadmin, you are your Sysadmin, and you own your data. We don’t own your data. And it’s really, it is that mindset, it’s the mind, it’s the pre-commercialization of the internet mindset. And I do believe that we need to get back there again because, frankly, that was a better place.
CP: Absolutely. Alright, so you mentioned moderation, and this has been a huge, huge political football recently in the United States for sure. There’s a lot of effort right now about repealing, or maybe revising this thing called section 230, which was something that came out of, I think, the Communications Decency Act in somewhere about the 90’s, it’s been a long time ago. And we’ve talked about it a little bit before, but it basically, but maybe I’ll let you describe it, but it, it’s about the responsibilities of platform providers that they have for the content that appears on their platform. So I’m very interested to hear, given your obvious stance on this sort of thing, what role should platforms play in moderation? And how do we promote open communication, without enabling hate speech and misinformation? How do you tackle that really thorny issue?
SD: So in the sense of 230 it’s about whether the platform itself is the publisher or not of the content, effectively the publisher of the content, and then what rights and responsibilities they have therein. Personally, I don’t believe that platforms should facilitate, or knowingly facilitate crime. So I’m not OK with being party to crime. And therefore, you’re not invited to come to Panquake and commit crimes. That’s just a baseline. However, I also am not the police force, and I’m not your parents either. So while I will not actively facilitate your crimes, I’m also not going to impose my personal opinions, political standpoints, moral/ethical bounds upon you. But I’m not gonna let you come to my platform and commit crimes. So that’s basically how I look at it. In terms of moderation protocols, it’s really important to me that we don’t have, like, single arbiters of the right or wrong. We have put a lot of thought into and a lot of innovation, actually, into how we are going to handle moderation. I don’t want to talk too much about that right now because our moderation plans are not something that any other platform has done to date. We have got some ways that we are going to keep it really fair and balanced. Transparent is the key word for everybody, and also from an international view, because this isn’t just about the English speaking world. It’s not just about the laws and regulations in the United States. It’s not just about GDPR, or the EU. There are actually myriad factors, and cultural factors, and, you know, geopolitical factors, at play, and so we’ve been putting a lot of work into how to create a framework that does right by users, no matter where they’re located, and no matter what legal frameworks they’re forced to operate within. Obviously, we have a lot of anti-censorship, pro-privacy technologists on our team who’ve done a lot of work around helping to enable free speech around the planet. And there are also those types of minds in the legal profession and elsewhere as well, which, in various ways will be brought to bear and I’ll leave it at that. But I can tell you that our moderation policies will be publicly available, and that there will be extensive consultation with the user base because ultimately, the users have to decide what kind of platform they want to be a part of, rather than our system imposing that.
“Ultimately, if you innovate new functionality and you present it in a way which is favorable to users, you’re going to succeed regardless of how much so-called competition is out there. So I think innovation is key.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: Well, and you mentioned that, that you want this to be played out fairly across the planet, and I don’t think a lot of people, certainly a lot of people in the U.S., are aware that whatever you think of the moderation policies of companies like Facebook and Twitter now, they don’t do a lot of moderation outside the U.S. If you go to some of the African Nations and some other areas of the country, or, other areas of the planet, there’s little to no moderation in those areas, which really, if you think it’s a wild, wild west here, it’s much worse elsewhere. So it’s really interesting that you’re making the point. And I want to call attention to that, because having it be the same everywhere is different than what we have now.
SD: Yep. There is a whole big world out there, and, you know, sometimes lack of moderation has also been weaponized by our governments with agendas in certain areas of the world. Sometimes they have deliberately pushed things in one way or another to effect outcomes via social media, um, using, I hate to say it, information warfare strategy. So. very aware of the way in which they play both ends of the field to their benefit. They will employ moderation to their benefit, and scream that it’s necessary. They’ll also employ lack of moderation to their benefit, too, when it suits them for some political end. I’m completely, ethically opposed to that type of manipulation, across the board.
CP: So another hot button issue, uh, certainly in the United States right now, is Tik Tok. For whatever reason, our federal government and several state governments recently have, well, I won’t say for whatever reason; they have what they think are reasons, but, it’s come up recently that they are trying to basically ban this. And they’ve started by doing what they can, which is to ban it from federal and state employees’ devices, uh, but there’s a lot of effort right now behind banning them outright. Just, you know, taking them off the Apple and Google Play stores, for example, making it unavailable. So is TikTok really fundamentally different than, you know, Facebook and Twitter and some of these other U.S. based companies? Do they present any more of a threat than, than those companies? What’s your take on that?
SD: Well I think it was different in that it achieved a large scale audience that the U.S. government was not confident it could control. So that’s the point of difference. And they tend to be very slow in legislation, so their enforcement activities are hindered by the lack of precedent. It really comes down to innovation is a threat, right? When you innovate, you move fast, and it takes a long time for the status quo to catch up, and work out what to do about you. And I think that’s exactly what the case is with TikTok. Is TikTok as fundamentally dangerous as the powers that be purport? I actually don’t think so. I don’t see how it’s any more or less abusive than anything that was offered up by Big Tech already. I think you just see a bit of huffing and puffing over the fact that, it coming from a different territory and different jurisdiction, that they didn’t feel that it was in their own camp, and that that itself made it threatening. I don’t see it as being dramatically different for users. At the end, it’s still algorithmically driven. It’s exactly the same type of content manipulation as you see anywhere else, so I see it all as much of a muchness, personally.
CP: Certainly I can think of from a data collection perspective, from an algorithmic feed perspective, they all seem to be kinda of, very similar. In fact, TikTok has run circles around them in a lot of cases. Their algorithms have been very, very effective. But the one thing that keeps coming up that does give me some pause is China certainly is a more repressive regime. And some people worry that there is a direct connection between ByteDance, the owner of TikTok and the government in China. Meaning that, perhaps, despite the social media aspects, maybe there is a data collection thing going on. Maybe the harvesting is not so much for engagement, but might also be used for blackmail, or for national security reasons. Does that land with you at all as a potential difference with them, or not?
SD: What I see is people who engage in abusive behaviors complaining that other people are engaging in abusive behaviors. I’m sorry, but that’s how I see it. I mean, we know from the Snowden releases that the NSA is spying on every single U.S. Citizen, and then storing that in a permanent record in Utah for all time so that 30 years from now, they can come back and tell you what you did at 9am on a Tuesday when you were 5 years old. They’re spying on your children. On your grandparents. On everybody else, and then, I mean, spying is not a passive endeavor. They don’t just collect information because it’s a hobby. They collect information because it can be utilized in a variety of different ways, and the outcomes of those ways are to their benefit and not to your benefit. So the question then becomes, when you have abusive governments who are spying on every citizen, if we’re going to draw differentiations between them, what is the differentiation? Whether they’re gonna kill you, or whether they’re gonna find some other way to harm you, whether they’re gonna jail you? I mean, the U.S. is not without political dissidents. It’s not without people who have rotted in a jail cell for 30 years, or who have disappeared. If you’re a streamer from Ferguson, you might have been burned to death in a car by now, from a police department that will never be held accountable. And like, I’m sorry to put it so blatantly, but if you’re Julian Assange, sitting in a cell, having had the CIA devise ways to kill you, having been tortured for years because you’re a publisher and a journalist, then how are you feeling about U.S. government vs. Chinese government right now? What it seems to me, is that in every country in the world, there are powerful people who are determined to stay in power. And they use extremely immoral means, including via advanced technology, to maintain their grip on power and make more money. And I don’t see that as being, necessarily, a cultural issue. What scale they manage to do it on, because of the respective size of their population, or what particular methods they employ to do it, do not seem to me as much of an issue as the fact that all of them are doing it in the first place. And therefore, rather than pick shades of criminal, or rank them from one to ten in nefariousness, I would rather find new ways to counter the larger problems, which are the violation of the human rights of citizens all around the world, regardless of what country they’re from, by big technology companies that are inflicting these abuses upon their populations and international populations. I’m sure it may come across as, like, too principled of a line, but that’s really what I see it. Am I going to prefer an American oppressor to a Chinese oppressor? No. I’m going to feel oppressed.
CP: Well and this, and a lot of this stems from your background as an activist and as a journalist I’m sure. So let’s get back to a couple more topical aspects of this, because I wanna, these are some other topics I’ve been wanting to explain to my audience. And one of them is the Fediverse. When Twitter started imploding, you know, Mastodon popped up. Of course it’s been there for a while, but it became like, this is the one everyone was going to, to the point where Twitter was actually, for a while, banning people that were even mentioning that they have a Mastodon account as well. They’ve since stopped doing that. But nevertheless, it was obviously Twitter, Elon Musk in particular, apparently, thought it was a threat. But Mastodon is part of this thing called the Fediverse. And so I want to talk a little bit about what that is because I know that that is something, perhaps, similar to what you’re talking about. What is the Fediverse? What does it mean to be part of the Fediverse? How is it better than a centralized platform? And maybe what are the downsides? How is it, maybe, are there any, when you’re talking about a decentralized system like this, are there downsides to that?
SD: So whenever you have points of centralized control, you have large numbers of users, it invariably turns against the interest of those users. When you have decentralized points of control, then you have different sets of rules and different sets of administrators, and different flavors of community that you can join and be a part of. The Fediverse connects those different communities, and allows them to talk to each other. At a systems level, messages can be sent between different applications that can be read and understood and utilized by those applications. So everybody’s kinda sharing with each other across these different communities, rather than being stuck within the rigid walls of one system that, for reasons of wanting to monopolize their user base, doesn’t allow communication between systems, or effective communication between systems. Obviously, we believe in decentralization. We think it’s healthy for humanity and for communities. And we, similarly, want our application to be able to share messages and communicate with a whole host of other systems as well. Therefore, we’re using FOSS standards for messaging, standard messaging protocols, that allow other applications to ingest messages and communications from Panquake, and to share those within their applications. And vice versa, us to be able to pull content into. So again, it’s a philisophical thing. It’s about the distribution of power, instead of the concentration of power. It’s walking our talk, bottom line.
CP: So I wanna dig into that a little bit more, because I want people to understand how this functions because it’s so alien to, I think, what most people think about today. Because it’s, it’s not the norm when you think about most current popular social media. So let’s take Twitter and Mastodon. So Twitter is centralized. There’s one company that runs Twitter. It’s a private company, they can do whatever they want. They can ban people if they want, they’re a private company. A lot of people will talk about free speech, or whatever, and of course in the United States, free speech is, the First Amendment is about the government not preventing you from doing, or saying what you want, not a private company. But nevertheless, because it’s a private company they can, at their whim, suppress speech, suppress users, whatever they want. Mastodon, as one part of the Fediverse, and there are other applictions that are part of the Fediverse beyond just Mastodon. Mastodon is this decentralized thing where different groups, or people, individual people if you want - I could, you could - set up a Mastodon instance that will talk with other Mastodon instances, or not. And as the owner of a particular instance, I can say, yeah, I want to talk to all these instances except that one. I don’t like that one. Right? So at that level, help us understand a little bit more, functionally, how this works. If I sign up for Mastodon, who am I really signing up with? Where does my account live and how does that account be visible to any other Mastodon instance? Or Panquake, if you want to use Panquake?
SD: Panquake and Mastodon are not directly comparable, except they are interoperable, if that makes sense. So we’re not using a Mastodon model per se. But to answer your direct question about Mastodon, you’ve got two options. You can either join someone else’s Mastodon server, in which case ultimately, yeah, they’ve got your data. And yeah, you have to live by their rules. Or you can opt to self host. And self hosting costs money. So you’re now investing in creating a facility for other people to be able to join your community, which you are now administrating, and you are responsible for the data and traffic of that community. So that’s why I say Panquake is not strictly the same in that sense. But we can communicate with Mastodon users, and Mastodon users can communicate with us. We’re able to interoperate in that way without being subject to the Mastodon model, per se. Ultimately, the Fediverse is the sum of all parts. That’s how I look it. So the more different types of applications that facilitate interoperability with the Fediverse, the greater you’re strengthening the combined user base of the Fediverse. And I think that the Fediverse is ethically sound. That’s how I would put it. And so it’s absolutely something that we want to help grow. And the Fediverse is not just Mastodon. There are dozens of decentralized applications in the social media space now, probably more than dozens, and they’re growing by the minute. And I consider that to be healthy as well. Panquake doesn’t see other projects as competition. Ultimately, if you innovate new functionality and you present it in a way which is favorable to users, you’re going to succeed regardless of how much so-called competition is out there. So I think innovation is key. But I hope, I dream, of there being more projects. I want there to be more projects because the more projects there are, the more people working on these types of issues, the greater chance of the collective success, and the greater chance of us not being able to be crushed under the boot of Empire, so to speak, you know. The greater chance we have of surviving in a sustainable way. So I don’t see other people doing this as a threat, I see it as hope.
“We believe in decentralization. We think it’s healthy for humanity and for communities. And we, similarly, want our application to be able to share messages and communicate with a whole host of other systems as well. Therefore, we’re using FOSS standards for messaging, standard messaging protocols, that allow other applications to ingest messages and communications from Panquake, and to share those within their applications.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: Well, the reason it’s called the Fediverse is because these services are federated. They’ve come up with agreed-upon standards for communication between each other, and agreed-upon standards for formatting, so that they can be compatible without necessarily being subject to each other in terms of, they can do their own thing. So one of the other key aspects to this is the data portability. And this is one of the things I think is actually really cool about Mastodon. If I join one instance of Mastodon, I’m not tied to that instance. At any point, the system is built so that I can go to a different instance of Mastodon. They will automatically forward all my followers, that, you know, all my data will come with me, and I can just go to a different instance if I find another one that I like better. So how crucial is that? Because that seems to be, that’s another thing that’s, there’s such lock-in. The reason that there aren’t competitors to Facebook and Twitter is because everyone’s already there. They’ve already got this networking effect, where, all my friends are already here, if I go somewhere else I’ve gotta bring them with me. So how important is data portability and standards to the future of social media? And then short of some sort of a legal mandate, are we ever going to get our data out of Twitter or Facebook? Will we ever be able to force them to make our data portable, so that we can pick our ball up and go somewhere else?
SD: Well if you’ve ever downloaded a Twitter archive, and had a look at the XML format, you won’t consider it to be very portable at all. Those headers are a nightmare from hell, however, I would say, portablity is a buzzword. And it’s a buzzword that’s been buzzing around since the late 90’s, particularly in the telecommunications industry. And you’ll see, actually, a huge corporate agenda around portablility. And also a government agenda around portability, because what they’re wanting you to port, is actually your identity. Not just your pseudonymous identity, not just your little community that you’ve built for yourself on the internet, but actually tying you back to that real world ID. Tying you back to biometrics. Tying you back to all of those horrible pieces of profile data that we talked about not wanting to capture. So when I hear portablility, I think, OK, is this Microsoft’s DDID, or whatever? Is this their so-called decentralized digital identification, which is supposed to allow portability cross-platform, but when you dig through their technical documentation you discover, lo and behold, Microsoft is, in fact, in the middle holding all of the keys, and you’re back into the same control structure, except it’s just had the word decentralized slapped on it. And it’s being sold to you. It’s being sold, I mean, they even slap the words open source on it these days as well. It’s amazing how you can be decentralized and open source, without being decentralized or open source. Especially if the project is funded by Microsoft. So I always scratch to see what’s beneath the cover. There’s another major DDID project out now, which is, well not out now but, they’ve been publishing their first documentation. I’m going to be very careful here to not name the extremely big names behind this supposed open source DDID initiative. However, I can tell you that this geeky little social media company owner went and actually read through all that technical documentation, including the privacy and security documentation. And I did not have to dig very far at all to discover that actually what they do is push all of their privacy and security issues out to external projects and say, oh go look at their documentation. And then you go and look at their documentation and you discover that they’re pointing you somewhere else. And then you go somewhere else, and you discover that, oh shit, they actually haven’t solved any of these problems whatsoever, that they have been marketing to everybody far and wide that they’re going to be able to solve. And inevitably, it leads back to centralization and proprietary software on the decentralized, open source project. So I mean, for me, Panquake is about being what we actually say we are. Showing the goods, and not pointing at someone else and saying go check them out. Us using standards which allow us to interoperate does not mean that we are foregoing, in any way, privacy or security. And so, yeah, again, it’s about platform integrity for me. And I do not want to provide portability of identities, I want to provide portability of content. And interoperability means I can provide portability of content, but I’m not interested in profiling you and pushing your profile around the internet.
“What I want is for there to be a safe place where a large number of people can communicate knowing that there is platform integrity, and that they will be able to effectively network and reach people in a way in which their data is not being manipulated or captured.” Suzie Dawson, Panquake Founder
CP: Alright, so one last question before we go. So tell me about what’s next for Panquake, and what does your road map look like for the next few year? And then of course the key thing is how and when will we be able to try this out?
SD: So our Year One was about that story I told you, us creating the crowdsourced platform, raising some funds, hiring some devs and starting to build. Our Year Two, we completed our application build. And now we are in the most hardcore part, which is that we’re actually writing our own custom network protocol. So we’re not, actually also our blockchain model is custom as well. We’re using a Proof of Authority, loosely a Proof of Authority model, but everything is completely customized to our platform, our users, our environment. And also our countries where we’re hosting. So we, right now, will complete the network build. We will complete our blockchain performance testing, and then we will move into our Beta release. And at this precise moment in time, as I mentioned earlier, we have hired on service personnel, who are coming in and writing standard operating procedures and setting up processes by which we can support this delivery. Because it’s one thing to have an idea. And it’s one thing to build something. And it’s one thing to deliver something to market. It’s another thing entirely to be able to meaningfully support it, in a way that does right by the users who you attract to the platform. And we’ve seen time and again, companies fail at support. Fail so badly that they’ve almost, there’s almost this hubris where they don’t feel that they even need to support it. And I’m actually really offended by that. I’m offended as a user, and therefore as a platform owner, I won’t allow that kind of nonsense in my organization. So when you need support from Panquake, you get a real person, you don’t get a robot. We don’t have AI customer service. No way. Just like we won’t have AI within our content streams, we refuse to have it within our service operations as well. So those real humans who we’ve been bringing on board, and who we’re training up, and who we’re creating ample resources for. I will only release this product when I'm confident that we can, to the fullest extent, support the users in the way that they deserve.
CP: So what’s the timeline, then? So when can we hope to, obviously the Beta, I think you said, is limited to originally 5,000 people, so that’ll be pretty restricted.
CP: And when, do you have a rough idea of when you think that might start? And then when, you know, what does it look like, what do you hope to be in the next 3 to 5 years?
SD: Oh, in the next 3 to 5 years we’ll be through our third iteration, into our full public release, and we’ll be pushing and scaling to, you know, grow the market. Like, absolutely, absolutely. I will make it really clear, though, that like, I don’t have delusions of grandeur about this product. I don’t expect us to have a billion users. I don’t even necessarily aspire to having hundreds of millions of users. What I want is for there to be a safe place where a large number of people can communicate knowing that there is platform integrity, and that they will be able to effectively network and reach people in a way in which their data is not being manipulated or captured. I don’t intend to impose that somehow on the entire planet. I don’t intend to necessarily change the entire industry. I don’t think we’re going to put corporations out of business. We’re not going to be sponsoring the Super Bowl. I mean, let’s be real, like, it’s not gonna happen. So I keep my expectations quite humble, and I keep my vision very much fixed on, we release to our 5,000 people, then we release to our 25,000 people, then we open. And our commercialization model, I mean, one of the strengths of it, is that we don’t actually have to have a super large number of users in order to be a very successful and profitable company that is able to do amazing things, because I’m very keen on supporting other small projects in the industry, and being able to help and resource them. And I think that Panquake is absolutely gonna afford us the ability to do that. So I look at the contributions that we can make across the board, rather than just going for the big golden dollars in the sky and trying to be a billionaire and, you know, jet off to Mars or whatever. I’m not really keen on that stuff, unless it’s a one-way trip for them.
CP: Well Suzie, I really look forward to this because I actually, I was really happy about the promise of things like Facebook back in the day when they first came out. And I was really bummed out to see where it went. So I would love a place where I could go and keep track with my family, and keep updated with my friends, and not have to worry about all the crap that comes with a place like Facebook. So I cannot wait for this. I will keep my eye on it and will let my audience know when it’s available. Thank you for coming on and explaining to us and talking to us about the ills of social media today. Thanks, Suzie.
SD: Can I ask you one question?
CP: Oh, sure.
SD: Can we reverse roles? Here’s my one question. You actually just got to see Panquake. To you, it’s not just a concept, it’s something you’ve actually seen. What are your thoughts?
CP: I just signed an NDA too, so I gotta be careful what I say, right? Well, I mean, it’s got some great technological advances that I think are really cool. You’ve already said yourself, or as we talked about it earlier, if everybody likes the cool technological advances you have, they’ll copy them too, and so other people might have it as well. Honestly, the thing I’m most jazzed about, again, is the promise of this being what, you know, social media should’ve been all along. That, to me, means, honestly more to me than some of the technological stuff you showed me. Because as cool as all that stuff is, and I love the fact, and we saw this in the demo, we didn’t talk about it too much today, but it’s very much a positive thing. You’re trying to help support other people, as opposed to go with what’s viral, or you know, virtue signaling and all this other crap. I’m looking forward to not having that and having the stuff that we should’ve had with social media. The technological aspect is just icing on the cake for me. So I’m more looking forward to the social aspects that we should’ve had all along with social media.
SD: Oh that’s awesome feedback. Thank you so much. I love hearing about what other people see in the application, what they get from the application, and how they feel about the application. It means the world to me. So thank you for the feedback.
CP: Great and thanks again for coming on the show, Suzie, that was great.
SD: You’re so welcome, thank you.
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