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.

There was a huge clamour back in 1996 or so in my country, when the Government decided to break a rule of the local DNS provider and registered an invalid domain name according to the rules. This quickly became political. Internet Service Providers and users of Internet services joined forces to protest and claimed that if the Government was not abiding by the Internet’s rules, then the Government would be ostracised from the Internet. This kind of thing made headlines on the news. At the end, Government forced the local DNS registry manager to resign, replaced it by a political puppet, and went ahead with breaking whatever rules they pleased.

The Internet community was shocked. At a stroke, a tiny Government from an insignificant country had shown that they couldn’t care less about the rules that made the Internet work so well for several decades. A flip of a coin, a whim of the moment, and everything that has been so carefully built over the years, is all shattered because, well, Governments have the power to fire people they dislike. Megacorps might not be able to do the same, but they can threaten, lobby, or simply buy key elements to impose their will. Eventually they will also get away with it.

So over time the whole concept of what the Internet was designed for has been replaced by something quite different. Now we have Governments like the UK seriously considering to filter information (like China does), using the pretext that rioters can organise via the Internet. Now we have companies like Facebook and Google loudly proclaiming that they couldn’t care less about basic human rights (i.e. the right to privacy and anonymity), hiding under the very convenient argument that “nobody is forced to use our services” and so they’re allowed to ignore all kinds of public complaints.

It’s true that in the not-so-distant past, complainers could go to the Government and say: “this company is not playing by the rules!” or claim that they would be “abusing their dominant position” — effectively manipulating a market where they’re a quasi-monopoly — and, well, Governments would interfere. But these idealistic days of having a “government by the people, for the people” to step in when companies start playing evil have long since gone. These days, megacorps like Yahoo or Google negotiate with China about the best way to filter content and provide profiling data to the Chinese government about the citizens they wish to control — something that Western countries like UK find immensively attractive. It’s an utter perversion of what the Internet was designed for: to sustain multiple attacks to several different nodes and still remain operational. Nowadays, it’s all about control, and imposing a will, a morality, a conformity: “do it our way or we’ll ostracise you”. But it’s not people setting the rules, nor even Governments any longer.

I remember that I was an avid reader of the cyberpunk authors of the 1980s, because they mingled dystopias with technology and brought a completely different way of thinking about ourselves and our society. Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson, and many others gave us a vision of a “near” future of a high-tech society dominated by megacorps, weak governments with little or no control over vast slums, and a network-of-networks — the “grid” or “matrix” or “metaverse” — where individuals would meet, socialise, and transact business. Most authors were vague about the future but they sort of placed it in or around 2000-2020 and kept technological advances reasonably possible for that period; it was the social changes that were most hard to grasp.

Now it’s 2011 and suddenly all those scenarios become incredibly believable. Our democratic countries have been established with constitutions that limit what governments can and cannot do to their citizens. For the past two centuries or so, we saw the source of all evil to lie on politicians and governments which had all the power. So democracies established a way for that power to be checked. Cyberpunk dystopias show what happens when governments matter little or nothing and are unable to defend or protect civil rights; our societies have few ways of dealing with the power that will fill in that void, but, in 1984 (when William Gibson’s Neuromancer was written — an ominous date for dystopias!), it seemed rather impossible for that to happen. We saw cyberpunk authors as being oddities — an artistic or cultural movement, but nothing more. Not to be taken seriously. Cyberpunk sort of died a slow death in the 1990s with its rampant economy; and the new millenium brought the collapse of the dot-com bubble and war against the Middle East, sort of showing how governments are still all-powerful and companies are engaged in activities that will lead to their self-destruction due to greed.

But 2011 shows a rather different picture. Governments have to deal with riots in democratic countries at large scales (like we saw in France in 2005/6, Greece in 2010, the UK a few weeks ago) and are struggling with the virtual economy in collapse, having few — if any – tools to deal with them. As governments weaken, and politicians are just replaceable figures without making a serious differences, corporations filled in the void. They never went away in fact; they were just a bit less silent. But it was perhaps 5 years ago, when I had a discussion with an American citizen in Second Life about freedom of expression, and was complaining that some company or other was stifling the right for a user to complain about the service, that I got this shocking answer: “Freedom of expression only applies to citizens relatively to their governments; companies are exempt from that. You sue corporations, and they sue you back for libel, if you have any complaint. Freedom of expression doesn’t apply to them, companies can do whatever they wish”.

I was horrified and rejected the idea immediately. But then I saw how true it actually was. Companies can always hide behind the argument “if you don’t like our policies, you can buy similar services from our competitors — everybody is free to join or leave”. That’s true except in quasi-monopolies. We used to be aware of what the words “abuse of dominant position” meant (I was involved in a few fights in the 1990s because of similar abuses). It was easy when the target was a single company, or a small cartel, clearly dominating a sector of industry. But these days things are not so easy to spot. First, as our world economy becomes more and more about information (another cyberpunk prediction!) and less and less about pushing atoms, there are no “goods” or “products” that one can point a finger to and say, “you’re abusing your position as major supplier of this product”. There are just services. Anyone can set up a search engine. Google just happens to have the most popular one. Are they abusing any “dominant service”? No. Google’s business is not even providing search engines — it’s selling ads. And as an ad seller, they are not the major player, just a major player which, by chance, happens to be the largest digital ad seller. Where is the “dominant position”? What is actually the service that Google provides to “dominate”? It’s way more vague.

And secondly, governments have always been very closely involved with the top corporations and depend more and more on them. During the 1990s, with outsourcing becoming the norm, almost all governments placed themselves in the hands of corporations to provide basic services for their citizens — usually, in far more efficient ways, at a fraction of the cost. Everybody benefited. But in the process, power was diluted. For example, most governments cannot abolish Microsoft Windows from their governmental desktops and install Linux instead — saving taxpayers billions and billions — simply because Microsoft would “threaten” to fire countless employees, forcing governments to support them out of unemployment benefits (this is not hypothetical; I truly saw it happen. IBM and Oracle use similar strategies with the same arguments). So, over the past two decades, the little decision power that governments still had were placed in the hands of megacorps, which, literally speaking, hold them by the balls. And it’s impossible to turn back.

Citizens, of course, vote for governments and can replace them at will. But they cannot replace corporations. You cannot vote a government in that will claim to replace all copies of MS Windows with Linux. No politician can seriously promise that; they know they haven’t even got the slightest glimpse of a chance. So you’re stuck with them and there is no way to complain.

As time goes by, we see how the constitutional limitations on the power of governments — like spying upon their citizens (which requires a court order by the judiciary; governments cannot do that legitimately without a reason), limiting their freedoms, stifling their freedom of expression, controlling their privacy, and so forth — do not apply at all to corporations. Corporations, under their Terms of Service, can pretty much do everything. There are no automatic criminal charges placed against corporations if they violate basic human rights; someone has to complain, someone has to sue them, and that law suit has to be mediatised and win in court. This is harder and harder to do, because the “free press” is less and less free (but strongly controlled by media empires in the hands of a selected few). We still have the Internet to complain — but Facebook and Google can control what is said in their networks. Google is even more scary: you might have a popular blog with millions of readers, but how can you be found if Google removes all links to your blog? This can happen — the technology exists and is used in China. But according to many globe trotters, it is also employed elsewhere: they all report that logging in from different countries show different search results. We sort of get used to it because, well, Google is supposed to be the company that “does no evil”.

The more I hear that phrase, the more I remember the Mars Attacks motto: “We come in peace”. Right…

So how could the Internet and its core social values survive and resist against such giants that control what information is displayed and how people are “allowed” access to it? Well, we lost one of the main features of the Internet since the mid-1990s. Back then, I used to do presentations saying that the major advantage of the Internet was that nobody truly controlled it. It was a federated system, where you had to “play nice” to be able to interconnect with other networks, allowing each operator to have authority over their own network, but demanding a ground set of rules for networks to communicate. The core Internet protocols still work pretty much that way. Internet Email, for example, is pretty much a federated environment: you can set up a mailbox wherever you wish and it will send email to any of the other 3 billion Internet users (I’m counting mobile users too), no matter what application you’re using, no matter what server software is running, or where you are physically located and connected. That happened because SMTP, the underlying protocol, is designed from the start to be completely independent from any “central” structure and is a federated protocol. We have a lot of similar protocols like that, we just forget how many.

New services on the Internet, when launched, tended to follow the same effort. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web, he designed a protocol for a distributed, federated environment, where anybody could set up a server and hyperlink to anyone’s server, without requiring a central structure. That was in the early 1990s. I’ve racked my brains to figure out if there is any more recent protocol which follows the same rule. In fact, most of what we see as distributed/federated environments — like, say, Jabber/XMPP, which is what Google and many others us for messaging services — run on top of the HTTP protocol, so they are by nature distributed and federated as well.

On the other hand, everything designed since then is pretty much centralised and proprietary. Take Skype as an example. You cannot create an open-source Skype-compatible environment and expect it to interconnect with Skype’s own network. Skype is hardly interested in that; they want users to be bound to them. What happened in the 2000s is that corporations wanted to control their users and environments, but also make sure that third-party developers would be able to integrate things with their services. So these days pretty much everybody has APIs. APIs are great — a way to make otherwise unrelated applications or services to talk to each other — but they are not a federated environment. By deploying an API, a company is just saying that “we allow you to connect to us, under our own terms.” You could imagine something like, say, email working that way: everybody would have a different email protocol to connect clients and servers together, but email providers would then release an API allowing third-party developers to tie into their services and read or send messages through their servers — under their own terms, of course. This pretty much would ruin the way email is used today. If you think this is far-fetched, think again: all it takes is for an industry giant like Microsoft, Yahoo, or Google (who, together, run probably 90% or so of all email on the Internet) to announce that, for security reasons, and to limit spam, they would abandon SMTP and develop their own proprietary network for delivering mail. Oh, and by the way, here is a cool plugin we’ve released that ties into your “legacy” SMTP server which will authenticate with our network, provided you register to get an API key. Which we can revoke at any time without reason and you’re not allowed to sue us if we do that, of course.

All it takes is one of the main email providers to do exactly that. Wait, I forgot. There is one who did it: Facebook. Facebook “email” works exactly like that. In fact, I don’t even think they have an API for tying into their email system. Zuckerberg correctly imagines that he now operates the largest email server in the world, with 700 million email addresses, so he can prevent others to tie into “his” network, and can set whatever rules he likes for email. And that’s exactly what he’s doing. Ironically, you get an “[email protected]” email address, but you can’t communicate with non-Facebook users inside Facebook. Clever, isn’t it?

Social networking tools are currently the dominant “killer application” in the market (both mobile and desktop) and will very likely remain that way. But the issue is that it’s not about the “sociability” of those application. It’s all about how companies have driven a wedge between the privacy issues and the egocentric predisposition of individuals to let the world know about themselves. For decades we have successfully controlled how governments and companies have access to our most sensitive and private data, and made rather good progress in avoiding that things go too far. With social networking, privacy and security concerns were thrown out of the window. It’s the same drive that leads people to accept being publicly humiliated on TV shows in exchange for a few dollars — it’s the “hey Mom, I’m on TV!” moment. Social networking tools bring that ability to the everyday user, by reinforcing their need to be in the centre of a world of admirers. That’s why all these tools encourage us to share more and more, to expose ourselves to the utter limits. And the winners are the ones that can successfully exploit this need for having a starring role in a world-wide audience and turn profiling data into a huge business that sells ads — all legitimately done, thanks to cleverly worded terms of service that pretty much say, “Sign on the dotted line (or rather, click the checkbox) if we’re allowed to expose you publicly, screen all your data, and sell it to third-parties. If you dislike this policy, terminate your account.” Since all these services are opt-in, consumers have no choice but to accept them. But the point is that people want to share everything to the public. And they don’t mind the few nagging ads that they get here and there in return for being able to share. The problem is that things are going too far, when companies — not the users — are the ones who decide who is allowed to share their data and how it is shared. Forget freedom of expression — this is about being able to control your whole environment. If you just click that checkbox, you’re consenting the company to tell you how you shall express yourself and forfeit any rights to complain.

This could get to extreme limits. The intriguing TV series Lie to Me, on its last episode for season 3, presented a criminal case around a hypothetical start-up worth billions called SeekOut. SeekOut is the ultimate social networking tool for people desperate to get laid. You create a profile with your interests and associate it with your mobile phone, where an augmented reality application is installed. Now every time you point your phone’s camera to a person, the application contacts the central server, and places a floating tag on top of that person’s image. Click on it, and you see their name, their partnership status, their sexual preferences, their address, and all the kinds of other typical things you’d find on a profile. No more dilemmas for the socially inapt! Just point your mobile phone to a prospective partner, and SeekOut will tell you if he or she is a match for you — no need to embarass yourself any more. The application is very realistically shown on the episode.

Of course we don’t have that kind of application yet. But we’re not many years far from it. While face-scanning software is not good enough (or not fast enough), geolocation using GPS is getting better and better. It might not allow a mobile phone to pinpoint exactly one particular individual in a crowd (like the Lie to Me director shows with SeekOut) but things like FourSquare and similar approaches are “almost there”. You can definitely create a matchmaking service these days where, using GPS, you can track down your “perfect match” within a few metres. Combine GPS positioning with the current state-of-the-art face recognition algorithms (which are not that bad; see how good Picasa is in identifying faces, given enough training) — possibly running on the server and not on the mobile phone for extra processing power — and you could achieve a relatively realistic clone of SeekOut. It’s just a question of time. Possibly the research team for Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are at this very moment deep down in their caves making a lot of experiments; this more a question of someone having an idea — which we now have — and assembling the required technology (which we also have), and put everything together.

SeekOut, in the series, is not really the focus, but the personality of the sociopath (clearly modelled after Zuckerberg; even the name is oddly familiar — “Zach Morstein” — and by no means randomly chosen!). Lie to Me is not the kind of series that wants us to reflect on society, but pure entertainment exploring almost-there technology. But it certainly gave a lot of geeks (and possibly venture capitalists looking for the next cool idea to invest in) a lot of thought. I’m sure that something similar to SeekOut will be released in 2012; it’s too much of a good idea for nobody to take it seriously.

And when that happens, it means that all social networking sites will have something similar. Each will tie the Ultimate Stalking Application with their profiles and cross-relate data. They will see what you see, know where you are, understand what kind of partners you like. And as more and more people use those tools, and more data gets gathered, the fight will be ultimately about who controls all your environment — not only online, but in the physical world as well. “Opting out” will mean social exclusion and ostracism; if you’re not on SeekOut, how will people know you’re actually honest? That’s the trouble with all sorts of totalitarism: when you exchange freedom for security, you’re relinquishing all control to some corporation which will dictate what you should do, how you should behave and act, and, ultimately, how you shall think.

Now there is only an antidote to that, but it’s unlikely that it will be applied soon. The idea is to abandon the concept of one-company-controls-all and enter a federated environment. Diaspora is an example of what might be a future federated environment (I wish I could talk a little more about Diaspora, but it’s uncannily hard to get an account that actually works while they’re on alpha testing… I’m trying to install my own copy of Diaspora elsewhere. It’s a challenge, though 🙂 ). They propose an open protocol that allows independent social networking servers to talk to each other. Since each has their own users, and allows them to set their own policy, it means that people can sign up with whatever server they wish — or run their own — and freely exchange just the information they want with other users. Think email, but on a social networking environment: you pick your provider, you select your mailbox, you set your policies, but communicate to other networks of users in the way you wish. My guess is that if Diaspora (or any similar open, federated protocol for social networking communication) becomes successful, the first thing that developers will do is to interface it with Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Google Plus — so you can keep your own data safely and privately on your own server, but freely exchange only what you wish with other users who are still stuck with proprietary, totalitarian companies.

The Internet’s biggest successes, however, have worked the other way round: first an open, federated protocol was developed, and then companies built their services on top of it. It will not be easy to move the billion users of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Google Plus to a new, federated environment — not easily. Some optimists think that sooner or later this notion that companies can override civil rights and set whatever policies they wish will be fully exposed and collapse on its own, but I’m not so sure. We’re talking about a market worth dozens of billions of dollars in ads, sold thanks to excellent profiling algorithms. Such a huge market will not go away easily. The ones in the market, if they feel “threatened” by a federated alternative, will soon launch counter-information about how insecure and untrustworthy those federated applications are. Whom will you believe — Page and Zuckerberg on a TV show explaining how their technologies are better and safer, or a group of anarchist geeks that warn people about the dangers of being tied forever to a single company that reams your data, profiles it, and sells it for a profit to third-party advertising companies? The latter are always labeled as “weirdo conspiracy-theory anti-capitalist anarchists” and usually ignored by the media and the overall population — even if they happen to be right. So I don’t think this will happen so soon.

The ‘nymwars have shown that even after almost two months of discussions, Google has not reverted their policies. In fact, according to Tateru Nino, they have even hardened them — now you’re not even able to appeal for Google’s decision to cancel your Google Plus account (and all that is implied with that). Unlike Facebook’s even stricter policy — use the name on your ID card, by sending a copy of it to Facebook, or be immediately deleted — Google’s policy is anything but clear and mostly depends on the Googler assigned to your case. At their whim, they might find your name “weird” and simply delete the account, no matter what your ID card says. This is rather dramatic if you’re unfortunate to have born in a non-English-speaking country, where all names will sound weird to an American anyway, or if your parents have blessed you with a strange name with unusual spelling. On the other hand, Google is happy to allow hackers and scammers to join Google Plus, so long as they register under “John Doe” or “Joe Smith”. The sheer injustice of this measure is appalling, to say the least, but, again, you can’t complain. Google can delete any account at their whim. You can’t even sue them — you forfeited that right when accepting the terms of service.

What this means is that if Google by any chance deletes your account, no matter how much time and money you have invested in it, you can’t complain, you can’t sue, and you can’t claim any compensation. This should be familiar to Second Life residents — Linden Lab has similar terms, and in the past, this has been heavily discussed as well in 2008:

In effect, Linden is able to enforce their own interpretation of the usage of their trademarks by banning all content they view as “threatening” to their claims on registered trademarks, no matter if it is displayed inside Linden’s virtual world or anywhere else on the world. Linden’s decision to ban avatars and remove content is unilateral and not appealable unless a user is willing to sue Linden in a court under the jurisdiction of the State of California.

(The text is mine, and so is the interpretation)

After a lot of discussion, however, Linden Lab was persuaded to be far less threatening than what their terms of service actually say. It was explained, usually in more private talks, that Linden Lab was just “protecting” themselves in legalese but had no intention to actually implement those threats. And, to the best of my knowledge, those clauses on their terms of service were never put in practice to randomly exclude residents, except in the most grave cases of abuse, where the abuser actually didn’t publicly protest much — they knew (and had been warned) what consequences they faced.

Not so with Google. Like Facebook, they really go ahead and delete the accounts. Opensource Obscure, a famous SL resident and evangelist (*/me waves to OO*), was simply banned from Google Plus for no reason whatsoever except that he had a funny name. This was such a dramatic example of how Google’s policies are completely insane that even the New York Times wrote an article about it, asking if Google really “understood” what “social media” means. Similar cases were reported for uncountable cases of other innocent users, and Google has a weird way of dealing with “celebrities” (starting with a definition of who is a celebrity and who is not): sometimes they get validated, sometimes an apology is issues, sometimes they will never get access back to Google Plus.

Well, to be honest, I’m not going to take any more risks. There is simply too much at stake here, and Google is toying with their customers. And I say “customers” because I’m a paying customer of a service that I use legitimately, and the least I expect from Google is that they protect my data and investment, which I have entrusted to them, without playing silly games.

You see, I’m fine with terms of service that pretty much force me to donate my DNA and sacrifice my offspring in burnt offerings in order to register. I have the option not to, if I’m not prepared to be humiliated by a company. No, what really bothers me as a customer is that I’m attracted to a service for some reason — it could be marketing, advertising, or actually finding something cool about the service — and join it under very reasonable terms: when I joined Google, there was no nonsense about deleting accounts, except, of course, if you’re doing something criminal (spamming, for example, is a criminal offense in many countries). Then I start investing time and money in using the service because I think it’s a good service. I’m happy to be a volunteer, a beta-tester, and an evangeliser for the service and the company. And then, all of the sudden, out of the sky, they force us to sign for new terms of service, and these, obviously, are the opposite of what you’ve originally signed for. At the whim of a corporate lawyer, you now face being banned for some stupid reason which was not on the original terms of service. And you cannot complain. You can only opt out of the service — basically throwing all your money and time out of the window.

In the 1990s, there was a word for this kind of practice: fraud.

Consumer associations would immediately target such a company and file lawsuits against them — and win almost always. The consumers’ right to use a service based on what they have signed up to register used to be very strongly protected, and there was no way a company could change those rights without the client’s permission. There was also no way you could legitimately attract clients, promise them a lot of things, and when they had parted with their money, present them with something completely different. To this day, in the atom-based industry, this still holds. If I buy an Apple computer and get a package of biscuits instead, because Apple suddenly thought it would be a nice idea to accept my money but deliver biscuits instead of computers by subtly changing the terms of sale agreement after I had signed the previous ones — they cannot get away with that.

But on the digital service industry, the rules are completely different. You can change terms of service at whim. You can kick users out without giving them any kind of compensation. You can take their assets, shut them out of your service without reason, and leave them out, screaming, without the right to get any compensation, without even the right to sue (and even if you’d be crazy enough to sue a megacorp, how can you beat their army of lawyers earning dozens or hundreds of millions of US$ per year?). This is the trend of this new millenium, one where consumers are just data assets to be sold as profiling data, but giving them absolutely no rights at all, except the right to remain silent.

So as of today I’ve closed down my Google Profile, and, with it, my participation in the Google Plus open beta-testing. I’d be insane to let Google’s policies that have suddenly changed and apply just to stupid volunteers that spend their time testing a service for Google interfere with all the other services they provide, which are tied to my account, one that I use to pay Google for services, and one that Google pays me for allowing them to place ads on my websites. This is so completely insane that, in a few generations, I’m sure this will be shown on business schools as an example of how the world was absolutely mad in the 2010s.

Google should have known better. Page and Brin come from a generation of geeks that are used to open source, to crowdsourcing, to volunteers donating time and code, to widespread user participation of clients and companies. The first rule of any business is not to bite at the hand that feeds you: this means respecting the customers willing to participate on helping you deliver new and better products. It’s not morally right — or worse: it doesn’t make any business sense — to kick out the very few that are eagerly helping you out with fixing bugs, for free.

So I guess I’m back to Second Life, Earth’s Last Bastion of Pseudonymity, where most consumer rights are still respected and somewhat protected. But it’s also time to reflect where we want to be in ten years. The Internet was based on the principle that, in a federated network, users cannot be hurt by corporations with insane policies. This worked amazingly well for at least 30 or so years. We’re now feeling deeply in the flesh what it means to abandon the federated model and move to centralised models. As governments have outsourced most of their core to corporations, too much power has been put in their hands, to the extent that there is now no way to curb that power, and no way to get citizens’ rights to be defended by anyone. As governments become less and less able to control what corporations are doing, these will roll out more and more limitations and “voluntary supression” of one’s own citizen rights to use their services, just because they can. Even a massive cry out against Facebook’s and Google Plus’ policies would be ineffective. Contrary to common sense, the vast majority of the population wants less freedom and more control. Minorities in the Internet cannot be stopped in a federated model, but they can be completely hushed in a centralised model. And if you’re shut out of Google, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and the rest of the social media sites — what choices are left? Where do you go if you’re locked out by the megacorps?

The cyberpunk dystopias are amongst us. Here, now, not in the distant future. With a collapsing virtual economy, and an uncertain future, governments become weaker and weaker, and the economy — or whatever will be left of it — will remain in the hands of a handful of megacorps who will effectively rule the world. These are not “totalitarian” governments — since “totalitarianism” applies just to governments, not to corporations, who are never democratic anyway — but they have just one interest in mind: making a lot of money out of their clients, but not truly worrying about what rights they might have or not. That’s secondary.

A teacher of mine once said: “Vows are things that we take in moments of sanity to remind us what to do when we’re completely insane”. In a moment of sanity, Page & Brin wrote their philosophy in ten points, of which #6 is the famous “You can make money without doing evil” motto (suggested originally by Gmail’s original developers). Although it strictly applies to Web advertising, this motto was part of Google’s IPO leaflet, and it has been constantly employed by Google at every opportunity. Google then further wrote a Code of Conduct for Google employees stating the following as a conclusion:

Google aspires to be a different kind of company. It’s impossible to spell out every possible ethical scenario we might face. Instead, we rely on one another’s good judgment to uphold a high standard of integrity for ourselves and our company. We expect all Googlers to be guided by both the letter and the spirit of this Code. Sometimes, identifying the right thing to do isn’t an easy call. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask questions of your manager, Legal or Ethics & Compliance.

And remember . . . don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!

(emphasis mine)

Well, this is one of the moments of utter insanity where Googlers and their management are supposed to be reminded by their vows not to do evil. Ultimately, I think that they will have to change their motto to “Don’t do evil unless it’s justified”, which is just another form of moral relativism.

In the mean time, the only way to protect citizens’ rights on the Internet and make sure that megacorps cannot take them away at whim is to make sure that we get more and more federated systems, and stop using centralised, proprietary solutions that will create quasi-monopolies in the hands of a few ruthless people. At this stage, it’s pointless to believe that governments, or judicial systems, will do anything to undermine the trend of allowing megacorps to act as Big Brothers, watching all, and deciding who is allowed to join their services or not, and under which terms. It’s also pointless to believe that minorities or non-conforming individuals will have a role to play in the forthcoming years. While the attention of the media might be occasionally turned to these issues, ultimately they will be ignored — like Microsoft managed for over a decade to survive the many government-level fees, both in the US and Europe, to include their own browser as part of their operating system (it was cheaper for them to pay the fees than to risk that everybody installs a different browser than Microsoft’s own). The way megacorps in the Internet industry laugh at governments and civil rights activists, and pretty much do what they please, has reached a level where there is no turning back. And the major problem is that so many high-profile California-based start-ups became giant empires with partners that are borderliners and see the world in very different colours than we do.

The only hope to survive this crisis is to rely more and more on federated services, where you can jump from company to company, as the change policies continuously to limit your freedom and your rights as an individual, but will still be able to get access to a service. Again, think how convenient email is. There are so many options of email providers out there, and you can pick the one that benefits you most. Think how easy it is to set up a Web server in one place and move it across the world if you get kicked out by the hosting provider for violating any silly “rule” they might have come up with. Your email address or your domain name will not be affected; your data are your property, and it’s your choice where you place it.

Ironically, before moving my blog to my current provider, the first think I asked was what their policies were regarding adult content. Not if their services were good, or reliable, or if they had service-level agreements, that sort of thing you usually ask when shopping for a hosting provider. And ut’s not as if I’d planned to open a porn website 🙂 But, who knows, I expected to publish some pictures of my avatar wearing a bikini, and for some companies, that’s the nearest thing to pornography… Their answer was “you can do whatever you wish with your account, so long it’s not illegal” (which basically meant no online gambling, no piracy distribution, and no spamming). So I went with them with confidence. So far, nothing that I’ve done on the 100+ websites hosted with them has so much as raised an eyebrow. But the important point is that if tomorrow their CEO goes insane and starts controlling who is using their services and how, I can simply pack all my data and move elsewhere to another provider. And that’s simply because the Web is a federated service without anyone really setting the rules for being part of the World-Wide Web.

Social networking has to be like that as well.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: