PubHubs is an abbreviation for ‘Public Hubs’, a safe and trusted online environment managed by public organizations and their end users. Together with partners of the PublicSpaces coalition, PubHubs wants to enable these organizations to facilitate their own online communities (Hubs). These Hubs are responsible for the moderation of communication and content within their own Hub. In addition, PubHubs wants to facilitate connections between organizations so that they can work together on online projects.
Most Dutch people communicate online via global social media platforms that have a revenue model in which they exchange user data for free access to these platforms. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or TikTok focus on global connectivity between individuals. Their centrally controlled, global (algorithmic) moderation of content appears to be insufficient to provide a safe public environment. PubHubs, on the other hand, wants to offer a public space in which not global connectivity, but (institutional, local, professional, etc.) collectivity is central. PubHubs approaches users as citizens who want to collaborate in a safe and trusted online environment for communication, deliberation and the exchange of content. PubHubs wants to give existing civil society organizations more digital sovereignty and autonomy. A school, soccer club or public library does not always need global reach to organize communication between their members. They want an online environment moderated by users themselves with various functionalities in which they can decide for themselves about data storage and access to content.
Intended users of PubHubs are public organizations, such as patient associations, broadcasters and libraries, and their end users. Municipalities and other members of the PublicSpaces coalition are also interested. Both these organizations and their end users are the target group of PubHubs. Each of those organizations will want to use PubHubs for different reasons and tailor it for their own community. PubHubs is currently developing a number of overarching basic functionalities that safeguard public values and that are necessary for all public organizations. PubHub’s designers and programmers want to develop both technology and governance in co-creation with public organizations and their end users.
- Autonomy: affiliated public organizations can decide for themselves about the storage and management of (and access to) their data and content. PubHubs does not have a central authority that owns, manages and stores data and content on one server, this will fall under the management of the public organizations.
- Security and privacy: security is created through a central Yivi login, which gives access to Hubs and locked Rooms. PubHubs also offers the possibility for flexible identity management: within each Hub, public organizations can offer a self-moderated chat function via Rooms with verification of persons and authentication of content.
- Connections between organizations: Organizations would like to set up their own space, but also use the opportunity to do something together with other Hubs and their communities, such as a broadcaster that wants to set up discussion groups on a particular documentary with a library.
Identity management is a central feature of PubHubs. PubHubs offers so-called ‘proportional and attribute-based authentication’. Proportional means that the user displays only that identity information that is essential to the context, no more and no less. Attribute-based means that each piece of information about a user’s identity can be entered separately. A few examples: if a public library reading group is only suitable for 8-12 year olds, the verified attribute ‘age’ (not date of birth) will suffice. If patients in a peer group want to talk to each other, they will probably not always want to reveal their full identity. That is why PubHubs also offers the possibility to adopt pseudonyms. Professional care providers could also be verified, for example via their official registration, in order to participate in such a group.
At PubHubs, communities (“Hubs”) are in principle managed by a public organization with a duty of care, which is also responsible for underlying communities (“rooms”). Rooms are public or closed chat environments for the publication of video or other content on a timeline (for now) without algorithmic ranking. Human moderators (employees of the public organization or volunteers) are active in the Hubs and Rooms and can determine themes and access requirements for rooms for instance.
The central login gives access to the connected Hubs. To log in, users provide their email address and phone number as an identity check for access. PubHubs works with the Yivi app, a so-called proportional, attribute-based authentication tool (see more explanation in answer to question: Why is a secure architecture important for a trusted online environment?). In the long term, other wallet apps will also become possible, provided they are open source, non-profit and privacy-friendly. Once registered, a user will receive a PubHubs ‘card’ in the Yivi app, for identification on subsequent logins. Information such as email addresses and telephone numbers is never provided to the participating Hubs or to other parties. The privacy of users is therefore guaranteed while their identity is verified.
The big difference is the raison d’être. PubHubs is not a global social network but an online environment for existing public organizations that are rooted in (physical or offline) society (limited to the Netherlands for now). A social network like Facebook can present itself as a place where connections take place between individuals, but in the end it is primarily a place to show advertisements to people. As a centralized platform, Facebook, for example, collects data from users to link those profiles to advertisements. PubHubs will be a place where public organizations and their audiences are truly central; they are responsible for moderation themselves and there are no commercial incentives nor software and algorithms designed for this goal. PubHubs is a non-profit, open source online environment that is developed in co-creation with the parties involved. There are no companies involved.
PubHubs has a different purpose than most Decentralized Open Source Networks (DOSN); most DOSNs offer a similar user experience to the major big-tech social media platforms, but without the underlying purpose of ad revenue and without central data storage or ownership. PubHubs does not want to replace decentralized social media platforms, as it has no ambition to build a centralized global network. It does want to offer a safe digital meeting place for the supporters or communities of local and national public organizations. Public organizations are therefore in the lead and also responsible for organizing their online communities, which in turn bear their own responsibility for content moderation.
- Mastodon is built on ActivityPub protocol, while PubHubs is built on Matrix. Matrix offers better options for security and identity management.
- Like Mastodon, PubHubs is open source and has decentralized servers. With Mastodon, a user must choose a server where he/she has an account. PubHubs, on the other hand, has a central login and the user can, in principle, access any connected server (of the connected Hubs) with that login.
- Mastodon is an open source decentralized alternative to Twitter, so all communication is public and visible to all other users unless they are blocked. PubHubs does not want to make all communications public and fully anonymous. It aims to enable closed communication in groups.
- At Mastodon, everyone can basically start their own community on their own server; with PubHubs, communities (“Hubs”) are in principle managed by a public organization with a duty of care, which also has responsibility for underlying communities (“rooms”) that themselves provide human moderators.
- At Mastodon, the community manager and its moderators are mostly volunteers. With PubHubs, this could also be employees or freelancers of the public organization behind the Hub; in any case, they work according to agreed-upon guidelines.
- Mastodon is a microblogging platform, where you have one profile with all your own posts. In PubHubs the user enters via a central login where name, telephone number and e-mail address are provided. The PubHubs-user can then choose a different pseudonym username in every connected Hub. No one can track this user’s activities in or between Hubs.
PubHubs would be an open source environment similar to Reddit, Discord and Slack in terms of functionality for the end user. It’s similar to Reddit in that its structure resembles PubHubs. Many companies have their own subreddit, and discussions are posted on Reddit so that it takes the form of a forum. PubHubs is similar to Discord in that you can create your own server (similar to a Hub) and create channels (similar to Rooms), and even start discussion threads. PubHubs is similar to Slack in that it is also used as a communication tool within organizations. Slack also has channels.
PubHubs is a co-creation project intended for Dutch public organizations and governments that would like to participate in the design of an alternative online environment based on public values. Participating organizations are members of PublicSpaces. Over the next two years, a number of partners will participate in the first phase of design and testing: MIND (umbrella of patient organizations), the VPRO (public broadcaster), the public libraries, and possibly a municipality. PubHubs is also a research project that aims to gain a better understanding of what is needed to build (technology development) and organize (governance and moderation) an alternative, public online environment. This project started in 2022 and, now at the beginning of 2023, is still in the development phase. The team at Radboud University Nijmegen is now designing the basic functionalities, such as for login and communication within rooms. Utrecht University is investigating possible governance models for PubHubs. Together with PublicSpaces-partners, they are now exploring through workshops what are the shared ‘must functionalities’ for public organizations.
The management organization behind PubHubs has yet to be established, but PubHubs wants to offer a non-commercial online environment in which no advertisements, products or data are traded. The development of PubHubs is currently being financed with resources from the Stevin Spinoza Prize and subsidies from the SIDN Fonds. The costs for moderation will be for the participating organizations; costs for open source software development and maintenance will likely be covered by these PubHubs members (and their funds).