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Songs on the Security of Networks
a blog by Michał "rysiek" Woźniak

Breaking the garden walls

This is an ancient post, published more than 4 years ago.
As such, it might not anymore reflect the views of the author or the state of the world. It is provided as historical record.

UPDATED with Step 0 and FreedomBox reference; UPDATE 2: heartfelt thanks to Laura Arjona for the Spanish translation, now also featured here.

For some time now I have been pondering the best way to break people free from walled-gardens (like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc).

For all those services there are viable, free-as-in-freedom alternatives (Diaspora/Friendica, StatusNet, and many more). All those proprietary services are being heavily criticised (among others, for privacy violations, tricking or pushing their users, heavy-handed policies, censorship, nymwars).

And yet, people still overwhelmingly use them, instead of the libre, decentralised, federated alternatives. And yet, people still write software for them and base their business on them – and even when those closed services change their API policies and draw ire of developers, the developers themselves write petitions instead of simply diversifying.

There is a reason for that, and the reason is called Network Effect. In short – the more people use a given communication too, the more new people will use it.

Seems that there is no way out… However, I believe there is. But we have to subvert the network effect to do our bidding!

Step 0. Agreed protocols

We do have a problem with fragmentation. Fragmentation is not choice – it is a situation where you don’t know which of the incompatible service types to choose – in fact, it’s almost a kind of a walled-garden in and of itself.

Choice is what we have with e-mail: you can choose from a plethora of clients, servers, webmail providers, etc; however, regardless of whichever you choose, you are still able to seamlessly communicate with any other e-mail user, using any other combination.

Currently we have quite a few open, free, decentralised social media protocols that have similar functionality but not much interoperability. Before we can move on, we need to change that – and the only way to change that is to agree on one of those protocols and move from there.

I believe we should start a discussion on that and make the decision as soon as possible; and I call upon GNU Project, FSF, FSFE, and all other notable organisations promoting free/libre/open source software to partake in this discussion and throw their weight behind the protocols that would emerge as the agreed-upon solution.

Step 1. Awesome service

We need to build a service (and methods of creating new instances of it quickly and easily!) that integrates as many different service types as possible uder a single identity. I’m thinking at the very least:

Maybe a distro/remix, ready with everything one needs to just install it, enter some basic data and run? We need as many instances of that as possible, as fast as possible.

Of course, there already are valuable projects going in this direction, and we should support them. For example, FreedomBox, as pointed out by forteller; or SocialSwarm, as pointed out by march.

The problem with FreedomBox and SocialSwarm I see is that they are trying to make two hard transitions at once: from centralised to de-centralised, and from third-party-hosted to self-hosted. I believe this is a tad too an ambitious plan and it should be split into two separate steps. However, if we did Step 0 and Step 1 right, they both would have at least a part of their work done for them.

Step 2. Prison break

When we have where to send potential interested users, it’s time to start the campaing proper. For this we need a website, endorsed by as many privacy-advocating and FLOSS-evangelizing organisations and people as possible.

It would designate a single day each month, or each quarter, to be (e.g.) “Prison Break Day Q4 2012”. Users of walled-gardens could log-in on the website with their walled-garden accounts and pledge to (either, or both):

  • create an account on an analogous libre, decentralised service (i.e. StatusNet for Twitter users; Friendica for Facebook users);
  • close their walled-garden accounts;

…before or at the next “Prison Break Day”.

Info that they did pledge that would get automagically published on their walled-garden feeds for all their friends to see. As the “Prison Break Day” draws closer, at least one reminder would be sent to them – and to their feeds. Users then would be able to log-in with their libre OpenID to “claim” a given pledge and prove they made good on it. This would also get published on their walled-garden feeds.

To sweeten the deal, the libre services should be able to connect with walled-garden accounts and publish to them.

This would have the effect that people would see how many of their friends in walled-gardens are actually willing to make the switch. For some the amount of those would be enough to make good on their pledges and create the accounts; for some it would even give the incentive to close their walled-garden accounts.

Anyway, we would have the network effect working for us.

Yes, there is a Diaspora thread and Identica one for your commenting pleasure!