ActivityPub: the present state, or why saving the 'worse is better' virus is both possible and important

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

In our previous episode, I laid out some personal observations about implementing an AP stack from scratch over the past year. When we started this arduous task, there were only three other AP implementations in progress: Mastodon, Kroeg and PubCrawl (the AP transport for Hubzilla), so it has been a pretty significant journey.

I also described how ActivityPub was a student of the 'worse is better' design philosophy. Some people felt a little hurt by this, but they shouldn't have: after all, UNIX (of which modern Linux and BSD systems are a derivative) is also a student of the 'worse is better' philosophy. And much like the unices of yesteryear, ActivityPub right now has a lot of missing pieces. But that's alright, as long as the participants in this experiment understand the limitations.

For the first time in decades, the success of ActivityPub, in part by way of it's aggressive adoption of the 'worse is better' philosophy (which enabled them to ship something) has made some traction that has inspired people to believe that perhaps we can take back the Web and make it open again. This in itself is a wonderful thing, and we must do our best to seize this opportunity and run with it.

As I mentioned, there have been a huge amount of projects looking to implement AP in some way or other, many not yet in a public stage but seeking guidance on how to write an AP stack. My DMs have been quite busy with questions over the past couple of months about ActivityPub.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room, actually no not that one.

ActivityPub has been brought this far by the W3C Social CG. This is a Community Group that was chartered by the W3C to advance the Social Web.

While they did a good job at getting some of the best minds into the same room and talking about building a federated social web, a lot of decisions were already predetermined (using as a basis) or left underspecified to satisfy other groups inside W3C. Finally, the ActivityPub specification itself claimed that pure JSON could be used to implement ActivityPub, but the W3C kept pushing for layered specs on top like JSON-LD Linked Data Signatures, a spec that is not yet finalized but depends on JSON-LD.

LDS has a lot of problems, but I already covered them already. You can read about some of those problems by reading up on a mitigation known as Blind Key Rotation. Anyway, this isn't really about W3C pushing for use of LDS in AP, that is just one illustrated example of trying to bundle JSON-LD and dependencies into ActivityPub to make JSON-LD a defacto requirement.

Because of this bundling issue, we established a new community group, called LitePub, this was meant to be a workspace for people actually implementing ActivityPub stacks so that they could get documentation and support for using ActivityPub without JSON-LD, or using JSON-LD in a safe way. To date, the LitePub community is one of the best resources for asking questions about ActivityPub and getting real answers that can be used in production today.

But to build the next generation of ActivityPub, the LitePub group isn't enough. Is W3C still interested? Unfortunately, from what I can tell, not really: they are pursuing another system that was developed in house called SOLID, which is built on the Linked Data Platform. Since SOLID is being developed by W3C top brass, I would assume that they aren't interested in stewarding a new revision of ActivityPub. And why would they be? SOLID is essentially a semantic web retread of ActivityPub, which gives the W3C top brass exactly what they wanted in the first place.

In some ways, I argue that W3C's perceived disinterest in Social Web technologies other than SOLID largely has to do with fediverse projects having a very luke warm response to JSON-LD and LDS.

The good news is that there have been some initial conversations between a few projects on what a working group to build the next generation of ActivityPub would look like, how it would be managed, and how it would be funded. We will be having more of these conversations over the next few months.

ActivityPub: the present state

In the first blog post, I went into a little detail about the present state of ActivityPub. But is it really as bad as I said?

I am going to break down a few examples of faults in the protocol and talk about their current state as well as what we are doing for short-term mitigations and where we are doing them.

Ambiguous addressing: is it a DM or just a post directly addressed to a circle of friends?

As Osada and Hubzilla started to get attention, Mastodon and Pleroma users started to see weird behavior in their notifications and timelines: messages from people they didn't necessarily follow which got directly addressed to the user. These are messages sent to a group of selected friends, but can otherwise be forwarded (boosted/repeated/announced) to other audiences.

In other words, they do not have the same semantic meaning as a DM. But due to the way they were addressed, Mastodon and Pleroma saw them as a DM.

Mastodon fixed this issue in 2.6 by adding heuristics: if a message has recipients in both the to and cc fields, then it's a public message that is addressed to a group of recipients, and not a DM. Unfortunately, Mastodon treats it similarly to a followers-only post and does not infer the correct rights.

Meanwhile, Pleroma and Friendica came up with the idea to add a semantic hint to the message with the litepub:directMessage field. If this is set to true, it should be considered as a direct message. If the field is set to false, then it should be considered a group message. If the field is unset, then heuristics are used to determine the message type.

Pleroma has a branch in progress which adds both support for the litepub:directMessage field as well as the heuristics. It should be landing shortly (it needs a rebase and I need to fix up some of the heuristics).

So overall, the issue is reasonably mitigated at this point.

Fake direction attacks

Several months ago, Puckipedia did some fake direction testing against mainstream ActivityPub implementations. Fake direction attacks are especially problematic because they allow spoofing to happen.

She found vulnerabilities in Mastodon, Pleroma and PixelFed, as well as recently a couple of other fediverse software.

The vulnerabilities she reported in Mastodon, Pleroma and PixelFed have been fixed, but the class of vulnerability as she observes keeps appearing.

In part, we can mitigate this by writing excellent security documentation and referring people to read it. This is something that I hope the LitePub group can do in the future.

But for now, I would say this issue is not fully mitigated.

Leakage caused by Mastodon's followers-only scope

Software which is directly compatible with the Mastodon followers-only scope have a few problems, I am grouping them together here:

Mitigation of this is actually incredibly easy, which makes me question why Mastodon didn't do it to begin with: simply expand the followers collection when preparing to send the message outbound.

An implementation of this will be landing in Pleroma soon to harden the followers-only scope as well as fix followers-only threads to be more usable.

Implementation of this mitigation also brings the followers-only threads to Friendica and Hubzilla in a safe and compatible way: all fediverse software will be able to properly interact with the threads.

The “don't @ me” problem

Some of this interpretation about Zot may be slightly wrong, it is based on reading the specification for Zot and Zot 6.

Other federated protocols such as DFRN, Zot and Zot 6 provide a rich framework for defining what interactions are allowed with a given message. ActivityPub doesn't.

DFRN provides UI hints on each object that hint at what may be done with the object, but uses a capabilities system under the hood. Capability enforcement is done by the “feed producer,” which either accepts your request or denies it. If you comment on a post in DFRN, it is the responsibility of the parent “feed producer” to forward your post onward through the network.

Zot uses a similar capabilities system but provides a magic signature in response to consuming the capability, which you then forward as proof of acceptance. Zot 6 uses a similar authentication scheme, except using OpenWebAuth instead of the original Zot authentication scheme.

For ActivityPub, my proposal is to use a system of capability URIs and proof objects that are cross-checked by the receiving server. In terms of the proof objects themselves, cryptographic signatures are not a component of this proof system, it is strictly capability based. Cryptographic verification could be provided by leveraging HTTP Signatures to sign the response, if desired. I am still working out the details on how precisely this will work, and that will probably be the what the next blog post is about.

As a datapoint: in Pleroma, we already use this cross-checking technique to verify objects which have been forwarded to us due to ActivityPub §7.1.2. This allows us to avoid JSON-LD and LDS signatures and is the recommended way to verify forwarded objects in LitePub implementations.

Unauthenticated object fetching

Right now, due to the nature of ActivityPub and the design motivations behind it, fetching public objects is entirely unauthenticated.

This has lead to a few incidents where fediverse users have gotten upset over their posts still arriving at servers they have blocked, since they naturally expect that posts won't arrive at servers they have blocked.

Mastodon has implemented an extension for post fetching where fetching private posts is authenticated using the HTTP Signature of the user who is fetching the post. This is a possible way of solving the authentication problem: instances can be identified based on which actor signed the request.

However, I don't think that fetching private posts in this way (instead this should always fail) is a good idea and wouldn't recommend it. With that said, a more generalized approach based on using HTTP Signatures to fetch public posts could be workable.

But I do not think the AP server should use a random user's key to sign the requests: instead there should be an AP actor which explicitly represents the whole instance, and the instance actor's key should be used to sign the fetch requests instead. That way information about individual users isn't leaked, and signatures aren't created without the express consent of a random instance user.

Once object fetches are properly authenticated in a way that instances are identifiable, then objects can be selectively disclosed. This also hardens object fetching via third parties such as crawlers.


In this particular blog entry, I discussed why ActivityPub is still the hero we need despite being designed with the 'worse is better' philosophy, as well as discussed some early plans for cross-project collaboration on a next generation ActivityPub-based protocol, and discussed a few of the common problem areas with ActivityPub and how we can mitigate them in the future.

And with that, despite the present issues we face with ActivityPub, I will end this by borrowing a common saying from the cryptocurrency community: the future is bright, the future is decentralized.