Facebook has been battling users, prominent people in the high-tech field, and privacy advocates over the question of privacy for years now, and the problem appears to have intensified.
In November 2008, Evan Prodromou — founder of identi.ca and CEO and lead developer of StatusNet — published a blog post on autonomo.us in which he argued that we need a distributed model for social networking sites.
Some of the most popular sites such as Facebook, Prodromou said, are “some of the most egregious walled gardens on the Internet,” despite the fact that there are a lot of free and open source applications for building social networks out there, and most of them work in a distributed model.
“The Philosopher’s Stone for social networking on the Web will be a standard for distributed sociality, defining ‘friend’ relationships between people and groups with identities on different servers,” he wrote. “We need to make the social Web look more like the document Web — open, distributed and interconnected.”
Prodromou will be first to present his arguments in a LinuxInsider debate series exploring the potential of open source to answer the privacy questions surrounding major social networks.
LinuxInsider: Could Facebook’s approach be one of the causes of its problems over privacy?
“Facebook is a single commercial entity that provides a social networking platform to its end users gratis. It commercializes this service indirectly through advertising and data sharing.
The technological model makes it impossible for individuals or companies to control their own data. The business model incents the company to push users to more and more transparent sharing. It’s a perfect storm for privacy issues.
“Add to this the temptation for bad players to try to extract data from Facebook — by force, by law, and by subterfuge. It’s just too big a target.
LIN: Would taking an open distributed approach to social networking help Facebook resolve the privacy problems it’s having?
No. I don’t know how Facebook is going to solve its privacy problems, but open source isn’t going to fix them for it.
An open and distributed model gives users and organizations a chance to choose their social networking platform without sacrificing their connections to friends, family, business partners and colleagues. Control of the data would be an obviously important decision factor for many people. So a federated model can help the social Web’s privacy problem, but really it couldn’t solve Facebook’s problem directly.
A federated model gives people and companies a chance to be in full control of their social networking data. But it doesn’t absolutely prevent privacy abuses. Consider email — there are still very strong privacy concerns about hosted email systems like Gmail. And employees at companies don’t and shouldn’t expect privacy in their emails on the corporate network.
LIN: Why would the distributed, federated approach be better than the walled garden approach?
A federated approach to social networking matches the shape of the Internet: a network of networks, linked together by simple open standards. There are number of reasons why the Internet has this shape.
First, it’s remarkably robust and scalable. It can survive the failure or bad behavior of any single part of the whole network.
Second, it favors innovation and experimentation, both in technology and in business models. It’s a platform without a vendor, as Dave Winer said. It’s an even playing field that companies can compete in fairly.
Next, it lets governments, individuals and non-profit organizations participate without concerns about conflict of interest.
Fourth, it’s resistant — but not immune — to censorship and top-down control.
Further, it’s cross-cultural and multilingual. It lets participants control what they share over the network, and what they don’t. Most of the popular developments in technology in the last 20 years have reflected this topology — email, the Web and blogs being examples. Telephone services and the international postal service follow a similar model
I don’t think there’s anything bold or original about a decentralized network of social networks; I think the surprising thing is that it hasn’t evolved earlier.”
LIN: How can an open distributed social network ensure there are enough volunteers to keep up support and maintenance?
The most likely topology will be a federated system. Users will have an account on some server, either run by the company they work for, or that they pay for; or that they get free from a service provider that’s supported by ad revenue or some other indirect payment.
That’s how social networking works today. The difference is that a user on one social network could establish a friendship with someone on another social network. We could have thousands or millions of social networks tied together, big and small, open source and proprietary, with simple protocols.
So the question isn’t whether we’ll have one big social network — Facebook — or a bunch of connected networks; clearly Facebook will never be the only social network. The question is whether we’ll have a bunch of unconnected networks or a bunch of connected ones.
LIN: Who would develop the software for this kind of networking?
I think open source vendors, like StatusNet, are willing to develop the software because we can sell support, service and hosting to customers. Volunteers do it because they need it for their own company, club or group. Proprietary software vendors would develop it because it’s good for their customers.
LIN: Who would maintain the database of members in an open distributed social network?
Nobody. It would have to be distributed, the same way that the database of email users is distributed. Nobody keeps a global database of blogs, yet if you’re trying to find, say, Doc Searle’s blog, it’s not very hard to do.
People will keep lists of users on their own servers because they need to do it for their job, or because they’re paid by the users, or for some reason.