ActivityPub: The “Worse Is Better” Approach to Federated Social Networking

This is the first article in a series that will be a fairly critical review of ActivityPub from a trust & safety perspective. Stay tuned for more.

In the modern day, myself and many other developers working on libre software have been exposed to a protocol design philosophy that emphasizes safety and correctness. That philosophy can be summarized with these goals:

  • Simplicity: the protocol must be simple to implement. It is more important for the protocol to be simple than the backend implementation.
  • Correctness: the protocol must be verifiably correct. Incorrect behavior is simply not allowed.
  • Safety: the protocol must be designed in a way that is safe. Behavior and functionality which risks safety is considered incorrect.
  • Completeness: the protocol must cover as many situations as is practical. All reasonably expected cases must be covered. Simplicity is not a valid excuse to reduce completeness.

Most people would correctly refer to these as good characteristics and overall the right way to approach designing protocols, especially in a federated and social setting. In many ways, the Diaspora protocol could be considered as an example of this philosophy of design.

The “worse is better” approach to protocol design is only slightly different:

  • Simplicity: the protocol must be simple to implement. It is important for the backend implementation to be equally simple as the protocol itself. Simplicity of both implementation and protocol are the most important considerations in the design.
  • Correctness: the protocol must be correct when tested against reasonably expected cases. It is more important to be simple than correct. Inconsistencies between real implementations and theoretical implementations are acceptable.
  • Safety: the protocol must be safe when tested against basic use cases. It is more important to be simple than safe.
  • Completeness: the protocol must cover reasonably expected cases. It is more important for the protocol to be simple than complete. Under-specification is acceptable when it improves the simplicity of the protocol.

OStatus and ActivityPub are examples of the “worse is better” approach to protocol design. I have intentionally portrayed this design approach in a way to attempt to convince you that it is a really bad approach.

However, I do believe that this approach, even though it is considerably worse approach to protocol design which creates technologies that people simply cannot trust or have confidence in their safety while using those technologies, has better survival characteristics.

To understand why, we have to look at both what expected security features of federated social networks are, and what people mostly use social networks for.

When you ask people what security features they expect of a federated social networking service such as Mastodon or Pleroma, they usually reply with a list like this:

  • I should be able to interact with my friends.
  • The messages I share only with my friends should be handled in a secure manner. I should be able to depend on the software to not compromise my private posts.
  • Blocking should work reasonably well: if I block someone, they should disappear from my experience.

These requirements sound reasonable, right? And of course, ActivityPub mostly gets the job done. After all, the main use of social media is shitposting, posting selfies of yourself and sharing pictures of your dog. But would they be better served by a different protocol? Absolutely.

See, the thing is, ActivityPub is like a virus. The protocol is simple enough to implement that people can actually do it. And they are, aren’t they? There’s over 40 applications presently in development that use ActivityPub as the basis of their networking stack.

Why is this? Because, despite the design flaws in ActivityPub, it is generally good enough: you can interact with your friends, and in compliant implementations, addressing ensures that nobody else except for those you explicitly authorize will read your messages.

But it’s not good enough: for example, people have expressed that they want others to be able to read messages, but not reply to them.

Had ActivityPub been a capability-based system instead of a signature-based system, this would never have been a concern to begin with: replies to the message would have gone to a special capability URI and then accepted or rejected.

There are similar problems with things like the Mastodon “followers-only” posts and general concerns like direct messaging: these types of messages imply specific policy, but there is no mechanism in ActivityPub to convey these semantics. (This is in part solved by the LitePub litepub:directMessage flag, but that’s a kludge to be honest.)

I’ve also mentioned before that a large number of instances where there have been discourse about Mastodon verses Pleroma have actually been caused by complete design failures of ActivityPub.

An example of this is with instances you’ve banned being able to see threads from your instance still: what happens with this is that somebody from a third instance interacts with the thread and then the software (either Mastodon or Pleroma) reconstructs the entire thread. Since there is no authentication requirement to retrieve a thread, these blocked instances can successfully reconstruct the threads they weren’t allowed to receive in the first place. The only difference between Mastodon and Pleroma here is that Pleroma allows the general public to view the shared timelines without using a third party tool, which exposes the leaks caused by ActivityPub’s bad design.

In an ideal world, the number of ActivityPub implementations would be zero. But of course this is not an ideal world, so that leaves us with the question: “where do we go from here?”

And honestly, I don’t know how to answer that yet. Maybe we can save ActivityPub by extending it to be properly capability-based and eventually dropping support for the ActivityPub of today. But this will require coordination between all the vendors. And with 40+ projects out there, it’s not going to be easy. And do we even care about those 40+ projects anyway?