Facebook and Social networking: Tim Berners-Lee closes the stable door after the horse has bolted

Since I started using computers and since I abandoned the choppy waters of Windows for the safe harbour of FOSS, the internet has experienced huge change and rapid growth. Better web browsers, file sharing, iPhones, iPads and other touch screen tablets too. The one thing that has not changed much though is that GNU/Linux always seems to breast the tape second. It seems fated to forever be behind the curve. I can live with that as long as I'm using my software my way. Free and open. However, that has implications for freedom and privacy that I don't like living with--and neither does Tim Berners-Lee. Specifically, he has been venting about those very things in respect of social networks and how they threaten that freedom and privacy.

Verily, the oracle has spoken

when Berners-Lee raises alarm bells about how social networking sites threaten the future of the web, people listen

I am very fond of three contemporary icons: Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds. And Tim Berners-Lee. Unlike Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee could walk down any high street and not be recognised and yet every human being in the world owes him a huge debt of gratitude. Like Stallman and Torvalds he gave it away for free and the term World Wide Web (WWW) will forever be associated with him. So, when he raises alarm bells about how social networking sites threaten the future of the web, people listen.

To precis his article in the Scientific American journal: Facebook and Twitter are closed and locked in, they chip away at the founding principles of the internet; the web is therefore broken into "fragmented islands" . They, and Google, leave users in a "data dead end". Social networking sites become "a closed silo of content". Their success leads to monopoly and that stifles innovation. Even Android and Web Apps become "walled gardens". I think that's a fair summary. I can't dissent from that analysis. The real question is how this situation has come about and less hopefully, if anything can be done at this late stage to remedy the situation.

We're all Facebook sluts now

Social networking sites are like alcohol, drugs, sticky buns and chocolate cake. People like them. In extremis, they can become addicted and damage their health, even rendezvous with the grim reaper. Like the evolutionary honey trap of sex, they are cunningly devised to lure you in, to do things you might never otherwise do, or later regret. Nature is replete with examples of such honey traps. Flowers and other plants have evolved all manner of wonderous and brilliant strategies to attract the birds and insects that do the heavy lifting of cross pollination. Attracted, they indulge and it is precisely this that draws people into social networking sites too.

it seems that Facebook is like Hotel California. You can check out but you can never leave. (Or take all your contacts with you either)

These sites adopt the Captain Cook strategy. They fetch up on some exotic island shore, distract the natives with a trunk full of shiny but worthless baubles and plant the flag for the king. Result. That is how they function in order to draw in users. I know, I'm one of them. I use Facebook and Twitter (but also Identi.ca, from where I cross post to Twitter). The feature sets improve all the time too and they're a great way to keep up with people, ideas and things that interest you. You find out stuff that you might otherwise miss or would have to explicitly Google for (though it doesn't seem to be much of a bargain to exchange the privacy issues of Google for the security, as well as privacy issues of social networking sites).

There's barely a website or business or blog that doesn't have a presence on social networking sites. As a result people are constantly bringing out applications to exploit them: I've lost count of the number of addons and extensions for Firefox and Chromium for Facebook and some of them are simply brilliant. And therein lie the problem.

Twitter has infinitely more users than Identi.ca, its free alternative. The open alternative has barely innovated since the first day I used it and very few if any addons have been written for it. Of course, there is no shortage of (cross platform) desktop clients and they are not also rans or poor relatives of their proprietary cousins. For example, I have been using Hotot. The feature set is very good and if you want a Twitter/identi.ca client that mimics iPhone functionality and eye candy, Hotot has it all. It's gorgeous. Then there is Lazyscope, out of the Lazyfeed stable. It has some awesome features. The only downside is that it runs (like Tweetdeck) on Adobe Air and that's bad news because it's proprietary. At least Hotot has the protection of the GPL.

History shows that the good guys don't always win

At least the situation has improved from the time when applications were overwhelmingly for Windows. Many developers now launch for Windows, Macs and Linux in one fell swoop. The situation is different when it comes to web-based applications like Facebook and Twitter. They have evolved. They have developed and developers have piled into write software for them. Identi.ca, by comparison, is a desert and because of this people are not using it to the sane extent, if indeed they actually know that it exists. I guarantee you that no one has ever had to have the term Twitter explained to them. True, Android which is free and open (but the hardware it can run on is not always or easily hackable) has been a great success, but when it comes to web-based apps GNU/Linux is coming a poor second. It looks like a catch 22 situation here. People will not use free and open alternatives until developers write stuff for it and developers may decline to write for a platform which has not been widely adopted. Checkmate.

We cannot thwart the second law of Thermodynamics and dislodge Windows from the inertial traction it gained by getting to the hardware vendors first

This is what gives proprietary systems their advantage, to say nothing of the fact that a winning strategy begins with getting to the market first with your product, even if that product eventually proves to be demonstrably inferior, buggy, insecure and expensive. Historically there are interesting examples of inferior systems winning the day commercially. I'm so old that I can remember the battle of the video recorder formats. Betamax (or for that matter the Phillips system) was superior but it lost out. The rest is history, but format wars are not. They are perennial and whilst. We cannot thwart the second law of Thermodynamics and dislodge Windows from the inertial traction it gained by getting to the hardware vendors first. It is that simple fact from which flows many other consequences which indirectly help to give closed social networks their advantage.

The Facebooks and Twitters of this world also benefit from venture capital which is looking for a return. This means advertising and data mining. Just like Google. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. Venture capitalists are not charities. They want a return. Users and developers of GNU/Linux do not but that freedom is not a free lunch. It comes at a price and that price is often to be perennially behind the curve. Many of us prefer it that way and think it a price worth paying. The problem is that the majority of end users are blissfully unaware of or indifferent to Berners-Lee's "walled gardens" where their data is trapped and owned by someone else. This might not matter so much to many but the point is that the web generally, and social networking sites in particular, are rapidly changing the way we do so much in our lives. Let me give you just one example (among so many I could have chosen) of how it is changing things.

Don't go west. Go sideways

My example may not be an obvious technical one but it is a powerful and impressive one (and a few pennies in the tip jar to Glyn Moody for flagging it up. Where? In a Tweet of course.) In developed, western democracies the state is broadly and relatively benign and potentially accountable through conventional channels though even here the internet has armed citizens with tools to protect themselves and expose state abuses. In Russia, the need is even greater. At one point, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state had all but collapsed. Under Putin it has re-establised itself and in a long tradition stemming back to the Zsars the state has re-asserted itself and its citizens are helpless before it. In previous times the response was to organize the Bolshevik revolution.

Social networks on the internet create parallel worlds where horizontal connections bypass veritcal statism and enable citizens to fight back

Today, the answer is the social networks of the internet. Andrei Loshak explains how these networks have created a parallel world in which horizontal connections bypass vertical statism and enable citizens to fight back. It's an inspiring piece: do read it. The telling phrase Loshak uses is that "society is growing horizontal links". That is exactly what social networking has been doing, and I'm sure that the people who brought us Facebook and Twitter never saw it coming. It's that favourite law of mine: the law of unintended consequences, and its not just FOSS that always seems to be a little behind the curve. It's politicians too. Just like the generals who are always preparing for the last war the political establishment reacts behind the curve in attempts to legislate and control. Or, as Berners-Lee put it in his article:

The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.

I think that one of the most important details Berners-Lee picks up on is that the kind of social horizontal connection enabled by the internet in Russia is best whenever it is facilitated by social networks having links. Coming from the man who gave us the World Wide Web, that's a given. To be precise, he thinks that the way to break out of the "closed silo of content" is to ensure the universality of the URI (as he originally called it. Now URL). It's that which allows users to share content across a neutral web. It is therefore no coincidence that he cites the free and open software that enables such freedom: GnuSocial and Diaspora but they are relative newcomers and they will have an uphill struggle to dislodge let alone dent Twitter. (note to Disapora's developers: the name might be a big hit in Israel but it might not win any plaudits elsewhere in the Middle East!) It isn't up yet, but there is also StormDriver which is taking invites. (The Blog has explanatory detail.) Behind the curve again. Yet he is absolutely right and I cannot dissent from much in his article. (It should be mandatory to have it bundled with every GNU/Linux distro but you can bet every last dollar in Microsoft's patent war chest that it won't come "pre-installed" on every copy of Windows coming off the hardware vendors' production lines.)

True data liberation equals reciprocity

However, some have wondered if Berners-Lee is absolutely correct when he says that Facebook and its ilk are completely closed silos. For example it is claimed that the Facebook API(you will need to be logged in for this) does allow you to retrieve user data (subject to the permission schemes). I don't know if this is equivalent to Berners-Lee's URIs. And what about the Twitter API? I had a quick browse but the truth of the matter is that I'm rather out of my depth here. How do you tell if an API is open in the way that the Identi.ca API must necessarily be open?

Facebook fans will point to its social graph that allows users to access to reuse the data--but as Google complained it doesn't permit users to export contact data to Google apps. Google retaliated by amending its Terms of Service agreement which barred users from exporting their Google data to Facebook (although Facebook was not specifically mentioned by name). Google actually have a dedicated "data liberation engineering team" which build import and export tools. Facebook do not. However, Google do not block users from exporting their contacts in machine readable form to their own computers from where they can be then imported to any other service, presumably including Facebook, but Google will block websites automatically importing data via their API.

Facebook's only sticking a finger in the dyke

So it looks as if there is a way to escape from Berners-Lee's fragmented islands and launch out of the closed silos and one third party developer has just released a Chrome addon called "Facebook doesn't own my friends" which allowed Facebook users to export their friends contact information into Gmail and CSV files. Or rather, it did. Very briefly. It was "taken down" sharpish (in ten minutes to be exact!), presumably either by a Facebook complaint or by Google itself. I wish I'd discovered this extension before it got whacked. Even if some enterprising user has put it up on another site, chances are that Facebook has disabled it anyway. What is really disturbing about this too is the way that Google seem to have arbitrarily deleted the extension which was being hosted on Google Code. Why is irrelevant. So, Berners-Lee has a valid point.

advertising is the Elephant in the room and until someone can come up with a better business model to subsidise "free" apps there will always be a threat to net neutrality and data portability

Now of course, there's a deal of commercial manouvering here too. Facebook and Google are "free" because they sell advertising space and your usage is tracked and this allows advertisers to target you with bespoke adverts and that is why their founders are rich but the apps are free. Opting out of Google's targeted advertising in Gmail is as simple as using an e-mail client like Thunderbird to access your mail via IMAP or POP. Facebook has desktop apps as well, including Firefox addons and Chromium extensions, but they do not offer the full functionality of the web interface--and that is cluttered with advertising. You can evade aspects elements of the silos and islands but you forfeit some functionality. It turns out that advertising is the Elephant in the room and until someone can come up with a better business model to subsidise "free" apps, there will always be a threat to net neutrality and data portability.

The situation may be even worse with smartphone apps. Even on the Android platform. Specifically, the kind of apps being offered by magazines and newspapers which cannot be e-mailed or tweeted (or even bookmarked). Better, he says, to build web apps that run on smartphone browsers, browsers of built of course on free and open standards (especially HTLM 5, which he specifically invokes). Central to breaking out of the silos is Linked Data which uses both HTML and RDF (you might recognize the latter if you've ever poked inside a Firefox addon's files). This is fine and means that a web built on the standards described by Berners-Lee is entirely possible and already exists with the likes of Identi.ca but the problem is that it is outnumbered by proprietary software and closed formats that keep getting there first, accumulating some seriously filthy wealth and using it to buy influence and exercise coercion.

When people speak of tweeting and skyping, the brand has been established and proper nouns morph into proprietary verbs

That brings us back full circle as it were to the seemingly insurmountable problem of getting to the end user first before the likes of Apple and Windows do and create a mindset that conditions them to using social networking sites indiscriminately. Once you have people using proprietary operating systems just because they came pre-installed on the tablet or laptop they bought, it's an easy step from there to a relatively closed social web. When people speak of tweeting and skyping the brand has been established and proper nouns morph into proprietary verbs.

Frankly, I don't have any easy answers or solutions to break out of this Sisyphian burden. Berners-Lee thinks that net neutrality and open standards and file formats will be sufficient. I wish I believed that too. They are certainly necessary but not sufficient and may never be. It may just be that FOSS is doomed to be be a niche profile, playing the role of a digital Cassandra and provoking the proprietary giants to occasionally relent.

The nearest thing the FOSS community has to Apple or Windows is Mark Shuttleworth at Canonical who financed Ubuntu from Debain foundations and has probably done more than anyone else to raise the profile of GNU/Linux by injecting large sums of money to the project and working on it actively. If he, and others at Red Hat/Fedora, Mandriva and OpenSUSE, can extend this success then it may be possible to gain entry on the ground floor so that "I'm a PC and Windows was my idea" is no longer an automatic assumption. But I'm not holding my breath because the bitter truth is that the average computer owner using Windows, desktop apps and social networking websites knows little or cares even less about their privacy and security. That's Google's and Facebook's trump card. Damn.


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