Writings of a techie wizard
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Mon, 26 Sep 2011

I've seen a number of online articles and blog posts recently with the common theme of being uncomfortable with Facebook. For instance, this at Slate, or this from a programmer, or this from a Facebook developer.

Of course the privacy implications of putting your data in the cloud, with Facebook or anywhere else, are (or should be) obvious; as this article by Rick Moen says,

Experience suggests that "Possession is nine points of the law", and the best way to prevent abuse of your personal data by strangers is not to give it to them.

I personally do not do Facebook, and keep only minimal data in the online accounts I do have, for exactly this reason. But apparently most people are not like me, and are quite willing to post lots of personal information where it is visible, if not to the entire Internet, at least to anyone who uses the same social media services they do (which is a lot of the entire Internet). That's a decision everyone is entitled to make.

However, the common theme of the above articles goes beyond that, and it was brought into focus for me by this article on The Atlantic's website (which I got to via Hacker News ).

The key observation is this:

We've always been dependent on software providers to create the digital spaces we inhabit, but when your email and documents and music are in the cloud, you're giving up the lock on the door and allowing changes to be made on the schedule of the parent. He or she may clean up or buy you a new desk. He or she may take away the car or decide you can't do something you think you should be able to.

This is not a new problem. The question of whether to own or rent (or more precisely to live rent-free on someone's property, which is what the "cloud" amounts to, as the Atlantic article notes later on) is a very old one, and the tradeoff has always been the same: ownership can be a burden, yes, but without it you lose control. Facebook and Google and all these other wonderful "digital spaces" do not belong to you. And complaining that the changes are affecting your "user experience" is kind of missing the point; your user experience makes a difference to them only to the extent that it affects their ability to collect data that they can sell. It's not as though you are a paying customer.

But I seem to be an outlier; most people don't seem to see things in the stark way I just put them. Perhaps what makes me (and Rick Moen, and other programmers who have posted about this kind of thing) different is that I don't need or want "software providers" to create any "digital spaces" for me. Sure, there are some services (like Google) that I can't reasonably create for myself, so I use them (but I try to give Google as little information as I can when doing so). And I do participate in online forums in areas I'm interested in, and where I think I have something to contribute. But those are limited uses for limited purposes. As far as my email and documents and music go, I can see paying a hosting provider to maintain one's own personal "cloud" online, both as a backup and for convenience. (I don't even do this for a lot of my data, but as I said, I'm an outlier; not everybody has a RAID array on a file server, not to mention multiple other machines to store copies of data, in their house. Although these days, external USB hard drives are cheap enough that anyone can have their own personal backup storage.) But the idea of putting all my data on the servers of someone, even Google, to whom I am not a paying customer--that is where I draw the line. No amount of convenience is worth that.

And it is basically about convenience, as the Atlantic article makes clear:

This isn't a bug in the way that cloud services work. It is a feature. What we lose in freedom we gain in convenience. Maybe the tradeoff is worth it. Or maybe it's something that just happened to us, which we'll regret when we realize the privacy, security, and autonomy we've given up to sync our documents and correspondence across computers.

In case the reader is still in any doubt, I'm betting on the second option. I could be wrong; it could be that "cloud" services will evolve in the direction of less centralization and more privacy. But I think that will only happen if their business model is changed. And that will only happen if we, as users, start to be willing to pay for some things that we are used to getting for free, in order to ensure that they are set up in our interests. We'll see.

Update: Not long after posting the above I came across this post taking an even bleaker position than mine:

The promise of the open web looks increasingly uncertain. The technology will continue to exist and improve. It looks like you'll be able to run your own web server on your own domain for the foreseeable future. But all the things that matter will be controlled and owned by a very small number of Big Web companies.

However, it's clear from the rest of the post that this kind of thing is much more of an issue for businesses and organizations than for individual people. I am certainly not opposed to as many people as possible reading this blog, but I don't need people to read it the way a lot of businesses need people to visit their sites. And for a business, the tradeoff between keeping control of data and making information visible is very different. I don't use Facebook in my personal life, but as a business owner (see the PDApps link under Wizard Projects on this page), we certainly have a social media presence; we want people to see what we're up to as a business. No small business has ever been able to control the rules by which that game is played; companies that a decade or two ago were trying to get press "hits" (see Paul Graham's essay on PR firms for a good account of how this worked in the mid-1990's for a web startup) are now doing search engine optimization and trying to build Facebook and Twitter followings. I simply don't see this sort of thing as a harbinger of doom for the web, or anything else; it's just business as usual.

But the post I quoted from just now also has links to projects that are aimed at making it easier to have the convenience of data in the "cloud", without having to sacrifice privacy and control. For example, Unhosted is building software to allow you to have your own "cloud", which you can host anywhere but which only you (or those you give user accounts to) can access, because everything stored in the "cloud" is encrypted. Diaspora is taking a somewhat different approach, building tools to let people set up their own social media networks where they control their own data and how it is shared. Thimbl is making a micro-blogging platform that is free and open source. And even the W3C, the web standards body, is working on specs for a Federated Social Web. So even on the personal side, the picture is not all bleak. There will always be ways to opt out of the Big Web companies' offerings if you want to. Maybe most people won't want to; that's their choice. But it's important that there is a choice.

Posted at 18:02   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: computers   |   Permalink
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