I see that work is ongoing for anti-spam proposals for the Web — if you post a response to my blog post on your own blog and send me a notification about it, how should my blog software know that you're not a spammer?

But I'm more concerned about harassment than spam. By now, it should be impossible to think about online communities without confronting directly the issue of abuse and harassment. That problem does not affect all demographic groups directly in the same way, but it effects a loss of the sense of safety that is currently the greatest threat to all of our online communities. #GamerGate should be a lesson for us. Eg. Tim Bray:

Part of me sus­pects there’s an up­side to GamerGate: It dragged a part of the In­ter­net that we al­ways knew was there out in­to the open where it’s re­al­ly hard to ig­nore. It’s dam­aged some people’s lives, but you know what? That was hap­pen­ing all the time, any­how. The dif­fer­ence is, now we can’t not see it.

There has been useful debate about the policies that large online social networking sites are using for detecting, reporting and removing abusive content. It's not an easy algorithmic problem, it takes a psychological toll on human moderators, it puts online services into the uncomfortable position of arbiter of appropriateness of speech. Once you start down that path, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between requests of various types, be it DMCA takedowns (thanks, Wendy, for chillingeffects.org); government censorship; right to be forgotten requests.

But the problem is different on the Web: not easier, not harder, just different. If I write something nasty about you on my blog, you have no control over my web server and can't take it down. As Jeff Atwood, talking about a difference between large, worldwide communities (like Facebook) and smaller, self-hosted communities (like Discourse) puts it, it's not your house:

How do we show people like this the door? You can block, you can hide, you can mute. But what you can't do is show them the door, because it's not your house. It's Facebook's house. It's their door, and the rules say the whole world has to be accommodated within the Facebook community. So mute and block and so forth are the only options available. But they are anemic, barely workable options.

I'm not sure I'm willing to accept that these options are anemic, but I want to consider the options and limitations and propose code we can write right now. It's possible that spam could be addressed in much the same way.

Self-hosted (or remote) comments are those comments and responses that are posts hosted by the commenter, on his own domain name, perhaps as part of his own blog. The IndieWeb folks have put forward a proposed standard for WebMentions so that if someone replies to my blog on their own site, I can receive a notification of that reply and, if I care to, show that response at the bottom of my post so that readers can follow the conversation. (This is like Pingback, but without the XML-RPC.) But what if those self-hosted comments are spam? What if they're full of vicious insults?

We need to update our blog software with a feature to block future mentions from these abusive domains (and handling of a block file format, more later).

The model of self-hosted comments, hosted on the commenter's domain, has some real advantages. If joeschmoe.org is writing insults about me on his blog and sending notifications via WebMention, I read the first such abusive message and then instruct my software to ignore all future notifications from joeschmoe.org. Joe might create a new domain tomorrow, start blogging from joeschmoe.net and send me another obnoxious message, but then I can block joeschmoe.net too. It costs him $10 in domain registration fees to send me a message, which is generally quite a bit more burdensome than creating an email address or a new Twitter account or spoofing a different IP address.

This isn't the same as takedown, though. Even if I "block" joeschmoe.org in my blog software so that my visitors and I don't see notifications of his insulting writing, it's still out there and people who subscribe to his blog will read it. Recent experiences with trolling and other methods of harassment have demonstrated that real harm can come not just from forcing the target to read insults or threats, but also from having them published for others to read. But this level of block functionality would be a start, and an improvement upon what we're seeing in large online social networking sites.

Here's another problem, and another couple proposals. Many people blog not from their own domain names, but as a part of a larger service, e.g. Wordpress.com or Tumblr.com. If someone posts an abusive message on harasser.wordpress.com, I can block (automatically ignore and not re-publish) all future messages from harasser.wordpress.com, but it's easy for the harasser to register a new account on a new subdomain and continue (harasser2.wordpress.com, sockpuppet1.wordpress.com, etc.). While it would be easy to block all messages from every subdomain of wordpress.com, that's probably not what I want either. It would be better if, 1) I could inform the host that this harassment is going on from some of their users and, 2) I could share lists with my friends of which domains, subdomains or accounts are abusive.

To that end, I propose the following:

  1. That, if you maintain a Web server that hosts user-provided content from many different users, you don't mean to intentionally host abusive content and you don't want links to your server to be ignored because some of your users are posting abuse, you advertise an endpoint for reporting abuse. For example, on grouphosting.com, I would find in the <head> something like:

    <link rel="abuse" href="https://grouphosting.com/abuse">

    I imagine that would direct to a human-readable page describing their policies for handling abusive content and a form for reporting URLs. Large hosts would probably have a CAPTCHA on that submission form. Today, for email spam/abuse, the Network Abuse Clearinghouse maintains email contact information for administrators of domains that send email, so that you can forward abusive messages to the correct source. I'm not sure a centralized directory is necessary for the Web, where it's easy to mark up metadata in our pages.

  2. That we explore ways to publish blocklists and subscribe to our friend's blocklists.
  3. I'm excited to see blocktogether.org, which is a Twitter tool for blocking certain types of accounts and managing lists of blocked accounts, which can be shared. Currently under discussion is a design for subscribing to lists of blocked accounts. I spent some time working on Flaminga, a project from Cori Johnson to create a Twitter client with blocking features, at the One Web For All Hackathon. But I think blocktogether.org has a more promising design and has taken the work farther.

    Publishing a list of domain names isn't technically difficult. Automated subscription would be useful, but just a standard file-format and a way to share them would go a long way. I'd like that tool in my browser too: if I click a link to a domain that my friends say hosts abusive content, then warn me before navigating to it. Shared blocklists also have the advantage of hiding abuse without requiring every individual to moderate it away. I won't even see mentions from joeschmoe.org if my friend has already dealt with his abusive behavior.

    Spam blocklists are widely used today as one method of fighting email spam: maintained lists primarily of source IP addresses, that are typically distributed through an overloading of DNS. Domain names are not so disposable, so list maintainance may be more effective. We can come up with a file format for specifying inclusion/exclusion of domains, subdomains or even paths, rather than re-working the Domain Name System.

Handling, inhibiting and preventing online harassment is so important for open Web writing and reading. It's potentially a major distinguishing factor from alternative online social networking sites and could encourage adoption of personal websites and owning one's own domain. But it's also an ethical issue for the whole Web right now.

As for email spam, let's build tools for blocking domains for spam and abuse on the social Web, systems for notifying hosts about abusive content and standards for sharing blocklists. I think we can go implement and test these right now; I'd certainly appreciate hearing your thoughts, via email, your blog or at TPAC.


P.S. I'm not crazy about the proposed vouching system, because it seems fiddly to implement and because I value most highly the responses from people outside my social circles, but I'm glad we're iterating.

Also, has anyone studied the use of rhymes/alternate spellings of GamerGate on Twitter? I find an increasing usage of them among people in my Twitter feed, doing that apparently to talk about the topic without inviting the stream of antagonistic mentions they've received when they use the #GamerGate hashtag directly. Cf. the use of "grass mud horse" as an attempt to evade censorship in China, or rhyming slang in general.

Hi Kyle,

It's nice to think about what a disclaimer should look like for services that are backing-up/syndicating content from social networking sites. And comparing that disclaimer to the current situation is a useful reminder. It's great to be conscious of the potential privacy advantages but just generally the privacy implications of decentralized technologies like the Web.

Is there an etiquette about when it's fine and when it's not to publish a copy of someone's Twitter post? We may develop one, but in the meantime, I think that when someone has specifically replied to your post, it's in context to keep a copy of that post.


P.S. This is clearly mostly just a test of the webmention-sending code that I've added to this Bcc blog, but I wanted to say bravo anyway, and why not use a test post to say bravo?

The Knight News Challenge applications are in and I find them a particularly exciting batch this year, perhaps because of a burst of activity spurred on by a handful of surveillance revelations you might have heard about. I read through all 660: below are my list of promising applications from friends and colleagues. I’m sure there are many more awesome ones, including some I already “applauded”, but I thought a starter list would still be useful. Go applaud these and add comments to help them improve.

Which are your favorites that I’ve missed? I’m keeping a running list here: https://pinboard.in/u:npdoty/t:newschallenge

Encrypt all the things

Mailpile - secure e-mail for the masses!

Making secure email (using the OpenPGP standard) easier by developing an awesome native email client where encryption is built-in. They already have an alpha running that you might have seen on Kickstarter.

Encryption Usability Prize

Peter Eckersley, just over the Bay at EFF, wants to develop criteria for an annual prize for usable encryption software. (Noticing a theme to these encryption projects yet?) Notes SOUPS (CMU’s conference on usable security, happening this summer at Facebook) as a venue for discussion.

LEAP Encryption Access Project: Tools for Creating an Open, Federated and Secure Internet

LEAP (leap.se) is a project for developing a set of encryption tools, including proxies, email (with automatic key discovery) and chat, in an effort to make encryption the default for a set of at-risk users. (My colleague Harry Halpin at W3C works with them, and it all sounds very powerful.)

TextSecure: Simple Private Communication For Everyone

TextSecure is likely the most promising protocol and software project for easy-to-use widely adopted asynchronous encrypted messaging. (Android users should be using the new TextSecure already, fyi; it basically replaces your SMS app but allows for easy encryption.) Moxie (formerly of Twitter) is pretty awesome and it’s an impressive team.


Speaking of encryption, there are two proposals for standards work directly related to encryption and security.

Advancing DANE (DNS-Based Authentication of Named Entities) to Secure the Internet’s Transport Layer

This one may sound a little deep in the weeds, but DANE is a standard which promises end-to-end transport security on the Internet via DNSSEC, without relying on the brittle Certificate Authority system. Yay IETF!

Improved Privacy and Security through Web Standards

My colleagues at W3C are working on WebCrypto — a set of APIs for crypto to be implemented in the browser so that all your favorite Web applications can start implementing encryption without all making the same mistakes. Also, and this is of particular interest to me, while we’ve started to do privacy reviews of W3C specs in general via the Privacy Interest Group, this proposal suggests dedicated staff to provide privacy/security expertise to all those standards groups out there from the very beginning of their work.

Open Annotations for the Web

Hypothes.is (with lots of I School connections!) has been contributing to standards for Web annotations, so that we can all share the highlights and underlines and comments we make on web pages; they’re proposing to hire a developer to work with W3C on those standards.

Open Notice & Consent Receipts

A large handful of us I School alumni have been working in some way or another on the idea of privacy icons or standardized privacy notices. Mary Hodder proposes funding that project, to work on these notices and a “consent receipt” so you’ll know what terms you’ve accepted once you do.

Documenting practices, good and bad

Usable Security Guides for Strengthening the Internet

Joe Hall, CDT chief technologist and I School alumnus extraordinaire, has an awesome proposal for writing guides for usable security. Because it doesn’t matter how good the technology is if you don’t learn how to use it.

Transparency Reporting for Beginners: A Starter Kit and Best Practices Guide for Internet Companies, and a Readers’ Guide for Consumers, Journalists, & Advocates

Kevin Bankston (formerly CDT, formerly formerly EFF) suggests a set of best practices for transparency reports, the new hot thing in response to surveillance, but lacking standards and guidelines.

The positive projects in here naturally seem easier to build and less-likely to attract controversy, but these evaluative projects might also be important for encouraging improvement:

Ranking Digital Rights: Holding tech companies accountable on freedom of expression and privacy

@rmack on annual ranking of companies on their free expression and privacy practices.

Exposing Privacy and Security Practices: An online resource for evaluation and advocacy

CDT’s Justin Brookman on evaluating data collection and practices, particularly for news and entertainment sites.

IndieWeb and Self-Hosting

IndieWeb Fellowships for the Independent and Open Web

I’ve been following and participating in this #indieweb thing for a while now. While occasionally quixotic, I think the trend of building working interoperable tools that rely as little as possible on large centralized services is one worth applauding. This proposal from @caseorganic suggests “fellowships” to fund the indie people building these tools.

Idno: a collective storytelling platform that supports the diversity of the web

And @benwerd (werd.io) is one of these people building easy-to-use software for your own blog, not controlled by anyone else. Idno is sweet software and Ben and Erin are really cool.


Even if you had your own domain name, would you still forward all your email through GMail or Hotmail or some free webmail service with practices you might not understand or appreciate? This project is for “a one-click, easy-to-deploy SMTP server: a mail server in a box.”

Superuser: Internet homeownership for anyone

Eric Mill (@konlone) has been working on a related project, to make it end-user easy to install self-hosted tools (like Mail-in-a-box, or personal blog software, or IFTTT) on a machine you control, so that it’s not reserved for those of us who naturally take to system administration. (Also, Eric is super cool.)