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Aug
11

Social networking: The good, the bad & the ugly

by Richard Smedley

Has Facebook stolen your privacy? Take back the logs, take control of your data and make Facebook irrelevant. Richard Smedley explores two worlds of social networking – one good, one evil…

This article originally appeared in issue 90 of Linux User & Developer magazine.Social networking: The good, the bad & the ugly Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

“Mr Zuckerberg has an enviable record. He has done more harm to the human race than anyone else his age,” said Software Freedom Law Center founder Eben Moglen, in his ‘Freedom in the Cloud’ talk in New York, in February. The same talk that prompted four NYU students towards the idea of Diaspora* [the ‘*’ is part of the name] – a distributed social network, to be built using free software and open standards.

“The price – being spied on all the time – is too high,” said Moglen in the lecture. “I’m not suggesting it should be illegal: it should be obsolete. We’re technologists; we should fix it.” This (successful) call to arms came between two changes to Facebook that have people questioning what they have given away in return for a few pennies’ worth of hosting from the social network with half a billion users.

Who owns your data?
Discontent with Facebook emerged strongly when the terms of service were changed in February 2009, to allow Facebook the right to “Do anything they want with your content. Forever”, as The Consumerist’s Chris Walters put it. Facebook’s most recent change – turning all of your interests, favourite films and books, etc, into ‘Like’ pages – makes all of these interests public. Information to be sold.

Openbook uses Facebook’s search service to show public Facebook updates, exposing an alarming amount of personal information left open to the world. It’s plain that many Facebook users have no idea that recent changes to privacy settings have left them open to the whole internet, and probably don’t understand exactly how their information is read in order for them to be advertised to.

But for many the particular problem with Facebook – after all, let us remember that Google fillets Gmail messages for cues for advertisers too – is the way it sucks in all outside data, but lets none out. Just as once Compuserve users couldn’t email AOL customers, so Facebook users cannot use any of FB’s features to reach the outside world.

Nor can you take your contacts (the real value of your network) with you. Facebook won’t allow users to export their data – and have suspended those who tried web scraping to retrieve content, notably Robert Scoble. FriendCSV, which allowed users to export their data to Gmail accounts, seems to have disappeared from Facebook Apps.

Appleseed and OneSocialWeb
This analysis of the privacy problem, and a proposed federated solution, first emerged in 2004, when Appleseed was founded by Michael Chisari. Appleseed has working code, and recently development has resumed. Particularly interesting is an implementation of IM2000, an underused alternative to SMTP. Chisari has also talked open standards to OneSocialWeb.

Lacking the longevity of Appleseed, but slightly ahead of the rest of the pack, OneSocialWeb has the aim of providing a “free, open and decentralised alternative to the social networking silos that are Facebook and Twitter.” Developer Laurent Eschenauer is looking to work with Diaspora co-operatively if the chance arises, and has been on the GNU social mailing list since its inception.

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