EFF calls for creation of federated social networks

23 Mar 2011

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called for the creation of federated social networks that enable individuals to have better control over their personal data without it falling into the hands of big businesses or governments with bad intentions.

The consequences of people turning personal data over to social networks needs to be better understood, the EFF’s Richard Esguerra said in a call for the creation of federated social networks.

No one can doubt the power Facebook and Twitter have played in the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but the consequences of public posts on social networks falling into the hands of authorities in certain regimes has resulted in arrest, torture and imprisonment.

Esguerra explained that today if you sign up for Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, you get a profile, which is a collection of data about you that lives on these companies’ servers.

“You can add words and pictures to your Facebook profile, and your Facebook profile can have a variety of relationships — it can be friends with other Facebook profiles, it can be a ‘fan’ of another Facebook page, or ‘like’ a web page containing a Facebook widget. If you want to interact meaningfully with anyone else’s Facebook profile or any application offered on the Facebook platform, you have to sign up with Facebook and conduct your online social networking on Facebook’s servers, and according to Facebook’s rules and preferences.

“We’ve all watched the dark side of this arrangement unfold, building a sad catalogue of the consequences of turning over data to a social networking company. The social networking company might cause you to overshare information that you don’t want shared, or might disclose your information to advertisers or the government, harming your privacy.

“And conversely, the company may force you to undershare by deleting your profile, or censoring information that you want to see make it out into the world, ultimately curbing your freedom of expression online. And because the company may do this, governments might attempt to require them to do it, sometimes even without asking or informing the end user,” Esguerra said.

How are federated social networks different?

Esguerra explained that the differences begin with the code behind online social networking. “The computer code that gives you a Facebook profile is built in a closed way — it’s proprietary and kept relatively secret by Facebook, so you have to go through Facebook to create, maintain and interact with Facebook profiles or applications.

“But federated social network developers are doing two things differently in order to build a new ecosystem. First, the leading federated social networking software is open source: that means that anybody can download the source code, and use it to create and maintain social networking profiles for themselves and others. Second, the developers are simultaneously collaborating on a new common language, presumably seeking an environment where most or even all federated social networking profiles can talk to one another.

Esguerra said that under this way of doing things, to join a federated social network, you’ll be able to choose from an array of profile providers, just like you can choose an email provider.

“You will even be able to set up your own server and provide your social networking profile yourself. And in a federated social network, any profile can talk to another profile — even if it’s on a different server.

“Imagine the web as an open sea. To use Facebook, you have to immigrate to Facebook Island and get a Facebook House, in a land with a single ruler. But the distributed social networks being developed now will allow you to choose from many islands, connected to one another by bridges, and you can even have the option of building your own island and your own bridges,” Esguerra said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years