Decrypt’s Art, Fashion, and Entertainment Hub.
You don’t have to like it. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Gab, the free-speech maximalist, social media network is decentralizing—relaunching its platform for its members on the Fourth of July as a federated network of interconnected servers.
And in so doing, Gab is set to do its part to “to decentralize the web and ensure that freedom, digital sovereignty and privacy come first,” said CEO Andrew Torba in an interview with Decrypt.
What that means is those stifling bans and mass deplatforming campaigns from Silicon Valley stalwarts—attempts to shun and silence a company widely perceived as pushing an “alt-right agenda”—are about to become a thing of the past.
To help its cause, Gab, which has spent the last year remaking both its business and its public image, aims to raise $10 million in a Series A funding round. But, as you’d expect, it won’t be making a trip down Sand Hill Road to do it. Instead, it has launched a crowdfunding campaign on its website, encouraging its dutiful supporters to invest in the company with “free speech money”—by using Bitcoin to buy shares in Gab.
And it’s this embrace of Bitcoin, coupled with a seemingly newfound appreciation for open source and decentralized technologies, that is poised to make Gab “unstoppable,” says Torba.
Gab’s Series A is designed to help the company expand its team and build out Gab’s infrastructure at both the hosting and payment levels—which is where Bitcoin comes in. The plan, Torba said, is to integrate Bitcoin and Lightning Network across all of Gab’s products, which now include a web browser (a forked version of the open-source Brave browser) as well as its social media platform (renamed Gab Social).
“We are also excited to start marketing Gab to the world at a time when censorship and no-platforming from Big Tech is worse than ever before,” said Torba. “Up until this point, Gab's growth has been entirely from word of mouth. So for us this is about team building, infrastructure building, and community building.”
Gab’s target of $10 million is ambitious. If it hits the mark, the amount would represent five times more capital than it previously raised in two successful crowdfunding campaigns. And while its earlier offerings were open to everyone (and therefore each capped at just over $1 million, per SEC regulations), Gab’s Series A will be limited to accredited investors in the U.S. and around the world.
For those wondering, Gab won’t be shilling any blockchain-based tokens on this go around either. It’s a straight sale of non-voting preferred stock, opened up to the world of crypto by allowing for investments made in bitcoin. And though the company’s offering memo suggests other cryptocurrencies could be accepted as payment for its stock, Torba says Gab will “absolutely not” take anything other than bitcoin.
Torba, it appears, is as intractable on his choice of “free speech money” as he is on free speech itself. His company’s hard pivot to bitcoin, however, is somewhat more novel—a strategy born out of a reciprocal scorn for Silicon Valley, and what that’s meant for Gab’s ability to process payments.
Gab has been booted from virtually every major payment-processing platform there is, including crypto-friendly companies such as Cash App, Square, Coinbase, and Bitpay. The situation only worsened in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last October, following media reports that the shooter used Gab’s network to spread his hatred of Jews.
The controversy and mass deplatforming that ensued forged Gab’s new bitcoin-led path, relying on crypto to continue accepting payments and generate revenue.
Meanwhile, the company’s dogged acceptance of content on its social media network that would otherwise be labelled as “hate speech” just about everywhere else has led its detractors to denounce it as a safe space for racists and bigots.
It’s a blotch that Torba has repeatedly decried as an unfair smear—though attempts on Twitter and elsewhere to defend his values, and those of the company he’s built, have at times in the past only deepened the stain.
“As long as your chosen form of expression is legal in the United States, anyone in the world […] is welcome to speak freely on Gab without fear of corporate censorship,” said Torba. That includes “LGBT+ persons in Iran, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, conservatives in America, Arabs in Israel, Christians in Iraq, atheists in Egypt, and news organizations across the planet,” he said.
Despite being banned from nearly a dozen Silicon Valley service providers for his unwillingness to bend to the new normal from "Big Tech," Torba hasn’t relented. In decentralizing its network, Gab is not only signaling that it isn’t going anywhere—now, it can’t.
Photo of the New Gab universe.
Join our server, or create your own.
They all interconnect.
You can't be banned from your own server.
The network as a whole can't be taken down.
Big Tech would never do any of this. Ever. pic.twitter.com/K2PxW8pqR0
— Gab.com (@getongab) July 1, 2019
Gab Social is essentially a fork of the decentralized social network Mastodon, which makes use of the open-source ActivityPub protocol. In practice, “Gab Social allows anyone to set up their own social networking server,” Torba explained. “All Gab Social servers are interconnected. Users from one can follow users from another and receive their content in feeds on their own servers.”
What that means is this: anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to create their own Gab Social server and set the rules for the content on that server as they see fit. This, in turn, creates content-sharing platforms that not even Gab itself can ban, even if it wanted to—all while retaining access to millions of other users on servers that extend even beyond Gab’s own network.
“Gab Social servers can also interconnect with other projects and apps in the Fediverse: a collection of platforms that are all built on top of the same open-source social networking infrastructure,” said Torba. “Long story short: Gab users can now connect and interact with millions of new people.”
And what that also means is that Gab may have finally found a way to defeat the bans from app store gatekeepers, Apple and Google. Since “Gab will be built on top of the open source Mastodon/ActivityPub protocol, any apps that support these protocols will work with Gab,” Torba said. And because of the strong communities that Mastadon and ActivityPub have built, there are currently “dozens of apps that exist right now on both app stores” that Gab users can appropriate for themselves.
In other words, barring a massive, coordinated effort from Fediverse-linked app developers to somehow drop support for Gab servers, Apple and Google have a difficult choice to make: capitulate and leave Gab be, or ban more than 30 apps that currently serve millions of people across a dozen interconnected networks.
Gab is about to become the largest node in the fediverse and will inevitably dominate it within a few months time. Many are very upset about this fact. pic.twitter.com/xki3XBWSnp
— Gab.com (@getongab) June 24, 2019
Mastodon creator Eugen “Gargron” Rochko, like Brave’s CEO Brenden Eich, is less than enthusiastic about Gab’s free-speech forking frenzy—perhaps expectedly so. But Torba insists that Gab isn’t the enemy, and that the real threats to open platforms come from the Valley out West:
“Although the Gab and Mastodon communities are historically quite different, we share a common goal: triggering an unstoppable global migration of users away from centralized social media platforms which are controlled by authoritarian and reckless Silicon Valley corporations."
Torba acknowledged that Gab’s vision for its decentralized future would be impossible without Mastodon developers and those of other open-source communities. “We are optimistic that our communities can find common ground and build the internet of, by, and for The People,” he said.
It’s an olive branch that is unlikely to be well received. Not that it matters much. What good is raising $10 million in free speech money if you can’t say “fork you” once in a while?