Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus)

After much careful thinking, I’ve decided to abandon Google Plus. The Nymwars have another victim!

This was not a light decision to make. When I was kicked out of Facebook, I was naturally furious enough to grumble and complain, specially because I had used Facebook IDs to log in to some sites and games, and lost access to all of them. This was annoying, as well as losing contact to my friends via Facebook as well.

On the other hand, I really never liked Facebook. I just joined because, well, nobody who is serious about social networking and online communities can afford not to be on Facebook, even if they don’t use it much. So it was something that I did discard pretty easily, and enjoy the idea that now I don’t need to worry any longer if people send me messages on Facebook and complain that I don’t read them quickly enough! Anyone wishing to contact me knows that they will have to send me an email or an IM to Second Life instead (more on IM later).

Google Plus, however, is a different story.

You can see how excited I was with Google Plus two months ago. I think that the major reason was not technological, nor even how cool Google Plus handles things so well. No, for me it was a question of principles. Google is (was?) the “company that does no evil”, and masters at integration. I remember the frustration when Facebook stopped the ability to easily (I mean easily) get images from Flickr and videos from YouTube to display on users’ profiles: they prefer that users upload them directly, of course, so that their own policies of overtaking users’ copyrights could be applied in force. It was a nasty move, and Facebook is constantly doing those kinds of things.

Google, by contrast, until recently had a much more friendly attitude. They seemed aligned with the “old spirit” of the Internet and imbued with positive, optimistic ways of doing things — while at the same time ruthlessly pursuing a multi-billion-dollar advertising & profiling business. That was fine with me; I’m all for ethical business. If you’re nice to your customers, who cares if you’re profiting billions from them? This is, in fact, pretty much what Google’s policies say: they can make a profit without hurting people.

Encouraged by that, since 2005 onwards I have been using Google’s many services more and more. From shared calendars to documents, from project management to posting pictures of Second Life, from YouTube videos to launching Google Code projects, I’m subscribed to dozens (not yet a hundred!) of Google’s services. I enjoy how easily those work together and that I have a single login for them all. And, of course, I’m also in the ad business and use Google AdSense and Analytics on a plethora of sites (in fact, I often forget how many sites I own or operate that are interlinked with Google in some way!). Google knows my credit card data and sometimes sends me some money from ad revenues; and if Google Checkout worked well in my country, I would be using that instead of PayPal for all my purchases.

So a substantial part of my online activity is somehow related to a Google product here and there. Professionally, as an IT consultant, I’m constantly pushing companies to move over to Google. One of my best friends (who ironically doesn’t know about Second Life or my pseudonym…) is a top system administrator for Google. There are strong professional ties that I have with them in many forms, and the reasons are twofold: their technology works, but, most important, their policies are not evil. And every Google service is getting more and more integrated every day, which means that I need to be subscribed less and less non-Google services, which is so much more convenient.

Well, all this changed, and it’s curious to notice that the buzz around how Google is now dealing with their faithful users has completely changed. In the past two months, I have never seen so many discussions around pseudonymity on the Internet. You see, us oldtimers take that for granted. We always lived on the Internet under the assumption that our basic rights as human beings would be respected, and that any company connected to the Internet would naturally abide by its rules (known as RFCs).

This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone who has first logged in to the Internet in, say, the last decade. There was a moment in time when not everybody was connected to the Internet 🙂 which might be strange to imagine nowadays. But there were alternative networks instead, set up by corporations, and some of those were even bigger than the Internet. The Internet was a strange phenomenon — strange to us, reading and writing in 2011 — because it was a counter-cultural movement in many aspects. Instead of centralisation, it used federation. Instead of control, it used reputation. Instead of forcing users to abdicate their rights as human beings, it forced corporations — if they wanted to interconnect using the Internet — to enforce a set of rules and principles, or face being disconnected.

The federated model of the Internet, however, had a big problem. It became far too successful. When all node operators knew themselves by name, it would be pretty easy to shut down anyone who was not complying with the Internet’s policies (and note that those were not the result of a bright mind, but a complex, democratic process of voting upon what kind of rules — technological and social — would be adopted by the Internet). These days, however, everybody is on the Internet, most importantly, governments and megacorps. And these have different agendas from the people who built the Internet from scratch.

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