The internet has caught fire recently on the news that President Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter and that Google banned the Parler social media app from the Google Play Store. At the time of this writing, Apple has also given Parler a 24 hour warning to increase censorship of its content or face being banned from the Apple App Store.
Hosting an app on a private app store like Apple’s or Google’s has always been touch and go for developers. Most recently, Unreal had a dispute with payment terms with Apple that got them banned from developing on Apple Platforms. However, in that case the ban was temporarily restrained by a judge.
However, hosting an app on the open internet using cloud platforms like AWS has historically been much less open to censorship or restriction than a private app store. That has recently changed as AWS has now banned Parler from operating on its cloud infrastructure.
Many people might be wondering where does this stop? Is it possible that every app I use or content creator I enjoy might just disappear overnight, never to be seen or heard from again?
The answer is that it depends.
You will never be free to hear or read what you want on closed platforms like Twitter (and yes even Parler), because those platforms exercise centralized control over their content and over the users that post content.
Podcasting is different!
Podcasts Are Decentralized
You may have heard the term “decentralized” thrown around a lot recently since Decentralized Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin brought the term to the forefront of the public zeitgeist. When it comes to podcasting, decentralization means that there is no one company or person that controls podcasting or the distribution of podcasts.
A podcast is made up of just two things: A file describing your podcast (description, author’s name, list of episodes, etc) and the audio files for each episode. Those files can be hosted anywhere! You can use one of MANY podcast hosting platforms like BuzzSprout or Fireside.fm, or if you prefer to do it yourself you can put Podcasts in Dropbox, your home server, on AWS, Heroku, GCloud, WordPress… anywhere you can host an audio file you can host a podcast. In fact there is a new end to end hosting solution on the market that allows you to spin up your own podcast hosting server in 5 minutes. It’s called Castopod and you can check it out here!
At this point you might be thinking about your favorite podcast apps and how they fit into all of this. I’ll address that in a bit, but first let’s dive a little bit deeper into what makes up a podcast.
What is a Podcast, really?
The No Agenda podcast currently posts a podcast RSS feed that is an open standard that any podcast player can interpret and present to anyone to listen to. The No Agenda podcast is a great example because it’s the podcast hosted by one of the originators of the Podcast standard, The Podfather – Adam Curry.
Regardless of which podcast player you use they all read the same RSS Feed to present the No Agenda podcast to the listener. Here is the raw RSS feed that represents the NA podcast today: http://feed.nashownotes.com/rss.xml
Here’s a quick break down of the information that all podcast players use to present the podcast to a podcast app.
At the top level of the RSS Feed below, you’ll see the basic podcast description details every podcast has at minimum
<title>No Agenda</title> <description>A show about politics with No Agenda, by Adam Curry and John C. Dvorak</description> <link>http://noagendashow.com</link> <pubDate>Thu, 07 Jan 2021 21:41:05 +0000</pubDate> <lastBuildDate>Thu, 07 Jan 2021 21:41:05 +0000</lastBuildDate> <image> <url>https://noagendaassets.com/enc/1610054980.284_na-1310-art-feed.png</url> </image>
Inside the <image> tag above you’ll see a url. If you follow that URL you’ll find the cover art for the NA podcast:
So now we have a podcast title and podcast cover art. As you can see, the details for the podcast we’ve seen so far are clear and available from the open web even directly in your web browser by clicking the links above.
There’s actually a lot of great information that accompanies the podcast in the RSS feed as well. Not all podcast apps make use of this information and not all podcasts actually contain the same information. Podcast RSS Feeds are a sort of controlled chaos. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get when you open a podcast RSS feed, but you know there are a few items you will get at MINIMUM: podcast title, list of episodes with audio enclosures and unique Ids.
As long as you have those basic components you can build a podcast app!
Next, if you look inside any of the <item> tags that represent the episodes of the NA Podcast you’ll find a direct link to the audio for that podcast episode.
<enclosure url="https://mp3s.nashownotes.com/NA-1308-2020-12-31-Final.mp3" length="167771473" type="audio/mpeg"/>
In fact, I can embed the audio for a No Agenda podcast right here into this blog post using that link above, check it out below.
That’s basically all that any podcast app does. So now that we’ve seen the data that podcast apps consume, let’s talk about what podcast apps actually do.
Podcast apps take the above RSS information and process it in different ways. The No Agenda Podcast RSS feed in particular has a number of special and optional “tags” that contain information that are processed by apps that support the new Podcasting 2.0 standard (you can read more about the Podcast 2.0 Namespace here if you’re interested). This allows podcasts to embed additional information about the podcast like: people involved, chapter jump points, funding URLs and even crypto addresses, but not all podcasts support these new features. For a list of podcast apps and hosting companies that do support these features (and which features are supported) check out: newpodcastapps.com
Besides processing the RSS Feed information, another important role of a podcast app is to “find” the podcast feeds in the first place. This is where Podcast Databases come into play. There are only a few major podcast databases available currently and they are owned by: Apple, Google and PodcastIndex. These organizations have created what can be thought of as search engines for podcasts (or really podcast RSS feeds) on top of a “master list” of all known podcasts, that are growing every day.
These search APIs are important because your podcast may have an RSS feed sitting on a shared dropbox folder and it might be publicly available and ready for anyone to download it and all of your MP3 episodes… but how would anyone know where it is? They’ll know where it is because you’ll have registered it with one of the major podcast databases we mentioned earlier that podcast apps retrieve data from.
Apple has a special submission process that you can read about here: https://help.apple.com/itc/podcasts_connect/#/itce5b9b0782
If your podcast fails the submission process for any reason, then it will not be included in the database of Apple Podcasts and any podcast apps that use the iTunes Podcast search API will not be able to find your podcast.
But wait… that doesn’t sound very censorship proof!? What if Apple won’t approve my podcast because they don’t like what I have to say about the latest iPhone model? If Apple controls what podcasts I can add to my podcast app then don’t they have the power to censor any podcast?
Well, not quite. There are a couple of protections built in to the podcast ecosystem that make podcast censorship impossible to enforce.
The most exciting development in recent years towards podcast freedom is PodcastIndex.org. Podcast Index is a free podcast database developed by Adam Curry and Dave Jones with a stated goal to: “Preserve podcasting as a platform for free speech”. As long as the Podcast Index is available there will always be a place for free speech podcasts on the internet. By the way, Podcast Index is entirely user supported, so you can help to ensure that Podcast Index is available well into the future by donating here!
PodcastIndex.org is a great free speech alternative to podcast platforms like Google and Apple. However, not all podcast apps use the PodcastIndex as their search API. A podcast app is only as good as its search database. So if Apple or Google decide to exclude your podcast from their search results then users won’t be be able to search for your podcast on any apps that rely on the Google or Apple podcast search Database / API.
The Podcast Index also regularly publishes their list of podcasts RSS feeds to the Internet Archive for safe keeping an open access. This means that anyone that wants to can start a new podcast index to compete with Apple’s or Google’s doesn’t have to start from square one.
Adding an RSS Feed
There is an additional layer of censorship protection built into most podcast apps. In fact, this feature is so fundamental that I’d say that if an app doesn’t have this feature then it’s not actually a podcast app.
That podcast RSS Feed we looked at earlier (or any for that matter) can be directly imported to the HyperCatcher podcast app as well as the Apple Podcast app and many other podcast apps (but not all… looking at you Spotify).
As long as this feature exists then no matter where a podcast is hosted or who hosts it, you can import it to your favorite podcast app and get notified when new episodes are available.
In a world where information and communication channels seem to be disappearing right in front of our eyes you can rest assured that your favorite podcasts will survive the internet purge (eventually). It’s possible that in the coming days or months some podcasts might lose their hosting platform and need to move to providers that are more open to free speech. While podcasts might need to change service providers or switch podcast search indexes temporarily the fact is that Podcasts aren’t going anywhere.
If you’re interested in checking out a podcast app that’s dedicated to free speech I hope you give HyperCatcher a try at the link below!