Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus)

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.

CC BY 4.0 Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus) by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

  • Oh! Gwyn! I’ve found quite a few SL’ers at Diaspora. It’s still got a few bumps to go through, but there, you can be whomever you need to be. It is decentralized, not a corporation, you can even run it on your own server. Personally, I have Moonrise Azalee at Diaspora via poddery.com. Check it out and spread the word. Diaspora was big on the scene last year, open source. They were big in the news with their ideas of creating ‘aspects’ to put your contacts in, and a ‘stream’ of posts. If you look at it, it even looks like g+. Not at ALL hard to see where G+ got their ideas from. The BIG difference is though, that Diaspora was put together by 4 university guys, on a grant from Kickstart.
    I’ve been spouting off about g+ all over the place, including ON g+ and would love to see more people try out alternatives like Diaspora. I am in the process of moving all my services away from Google. I’m sick of them. Didn’t realize how tangled up I was in Google until I made the decision to move away. *cheers* on a wonderfully written article.

  • Like BirchWind, I also found friends at Diaspora. I expect we’ll all be heading there eventually.

    Untell then, to promote a meme…

  • Like BirchWind, I also found friends at Diaspora. I expect we’ll all be heading there eventually.

    Untell then, to promote a meme…

  • Great article, Gwyneth. Nothing much to add, I guess. The problem with Diaspora is that it is not clear for whom it is being created. At least it is not obvious when looking at their website. The project will suffer if the general audience does not get it at all. And no matter how advanced (or no) they are right now, more clarity would be a plus.

  • Great article, Gwyneth. Nothing much to add, I guess. The problem with Diaspora is that it is not clear for whom it is being created. At least it is not obvious when looking at their website. The project will suffer if the general audience does not get it at all. And no matter how advanced (or no) they are right now, more clarity would be a plus.

  • All right, thanks for the link to poddery.com! I’ve registered there; I’m assuming that they are already interconnected to other Diaspora servers?

    Now that I’ve seen Diaspora from the inside, I’m actually shocked. Google didn’t even take any time to create their own HTML+CSS design! They just copied & pasted it from Diaspora!

    I’m confused!! Diaspora predates Google Plus for about a year…

  • All right, thanks for the link to poddery.com! I’ve registered there; I’m assuming that they are already interconnected to other Diaspora servers?

    Now that I’ve seen Diaspora from the inside, I’m actually shocked. Google didn’t even take any time to create their own HTML+CSS design! They just copied & pasted it from Diaspora!

    I’m confused!! Diaspora predates Google Plus for about a year…

  • I agree. It’s too geeky. Then again, Google Plus suffers from exactly the same problem and that didn’t prevent them to get 25 million or so users in little time. Of course, they’re Google…

  • I agree. It’s too geeky. Then again, Google Plus suffers from exactly the same problem and that didn’t prevent them to get 25 million or so users in little time. Of course, they’re Google…

  • hehe Sio 😀

  • hehe Sio 😀

  • Larry Rosenthal

    pay 10 bucks for a server and an email account…. and lobby for a “tax” paid  email address system/with maybe a home page  … that or just wait till Google issues visas..and youre too short to ride this ride.

  • I’m enjoying this article, but one little nit pick, XMPP is not built on HTTP, it’s an independent protocol.  (With it’s own ports, an XML based protocol, it’s own SMTP-like DNS, etc.)  It can be tunneled over HTTP, but that’s an unusual use case.

  • Excellent article. I have moved to a server in Iceland where they are implementing IMMI, a very important initiative, and I am now a Google-free zone….(also on Diaspora).

  • Excellent article. I have moved to a server in Iceland where they are implementing IMMI, a very important initiative, and I am now a Google-free zone….(also on Diaspora).

  • I know, it’s pretty crazy. Diaspora has been open for a while, and is open-source. Obviously some people at G+ thought it was a great idea and ran with it. Amazing what can be accomplished with a few billion dollars and well paid employees, as compared to the 4 young guys in University that came up with Diaspora. Sad really, I’m glad to be a D* member and am working to remove myself from all Google services. And yes, all pods intercommunicate with one another.

  • Google just need to be honest about what their aim is with Google plus, the whole real name policy is baloney, William Shatner doesn’t know plenty of his followers and nor does Robert Scoble who keeps arguing the case for real names, he doesn’t know his followers, they are not real life friends of his, he benefits from being Robert Scoble, people wouldn’t care if he was Robert X Cringely as long as they could recognise him.

  • … I’m trying to find you on Diaspora but haven’t succeeded yet hehe

  • The more I think about it, the more I suspect everything. There are so many un-Google things surrounding Google Plus. The only thing they were rather consistent is in the “limited access” to the semi-open beta, because they knew from the past experience with Gmail how quickly that attract geeks, who obviously “all want to be part of it from the start”. But the whole way Google has communicated the project is starting to look very strange.

    Some people estimate that around 10% of the users have already closed down their accounts, but this could just be a stupid rumour. It’s more than clear that the ones interested in privacy, security, and pseudonymity are not such a high figure; on the other hand, everybody is so eager to get a Facebook alternative, so this 10% seems overwhelmingly high. Of course, among SL residents, I can very well believe that — but the figure was quoted by a non-SLer who actually uses their own real name on G+ but dislikes Google’s policies.

  • Thanks, Winter 🙂 I stand corrected.

  • You know, on a different universe, Google would either be completely ashamed in public or be subject to a lawsuit.

    How is it possible that none of the major tech writers could have failed to spot that Google Plus is just a clone of Diaspora? And it’s such a perfect clone that it’s really uncanny. It’s like downloading Mac OS X Lion and suddenly seeing your Mac running Windows, just the startup icon being different. I mean, one thing is drawing “inspiration”, that’s ok. The other thing is pretty much replicating the concept (like for example BuddyPress tries to do regarding Facebook), but coming up with something different but vaguely familiar.

    I had never tried Diaspora before because I never managed to get an invite to it, and never saw snapshots of it before. All I knew was that it was “similar to Google Plus, but Google calls ‘aspects’ ‘circles’ and has cute animations for it”. Well, it’s not similar. It’s exactly the same thing! Down to design — CSS, HTML, even the font type and the colours — but also functionality. Conceptually there is absolutely no difference. If the Diaspora designers had protected their work with a patent, they would be worth billions. On the other hand, copy is the highest form of flattery — even though, in this case, it’s not even a copy: it’s a perfect clone.

    Well, ok, to be honest, they did not copy the whole CSS, but just wrote equivalent CSS to accomplish the same thing. And Diaspora uses the font “helvetica, arial, sans-serif” instead of Google Plus which uses “arial, sans-serif” so on some browsers there might be a slight difference. The word “Stream” before the circles (shouldn’t it be “Circles”) is in bright orange, while Diaspora has “Your Aspects” in black. The central part, where the stream is, has just one horizontal separator on the left side in Diaspora, but horizontal separators on both sides on Google Plus. It’s like a game of “spot the differences”, you actually have to pay very close attention to see what’s different.

    And the whole conceptuality behind it is exactly the same.

    Again, as said, I’m shocked. I will post something about it with a side-by-side comparison. I cannot understand how so few people actually noticed it.

    This article shows an earlier version of Diaspora http://raventools.com/blog/google-copies-diaspora/ where the fine details of the layout were still slightly different from Google Plus.

  • I’m not sure when exactly that snap shot of early D* was taken, but yes, it has progressed and tidied up since then. I’m pretty sure that D* was looking the way it does currently, in June, but it would be interesting to see how the growth of both progressed. The key thing though is that G+ takes all the credit for organizing circles and posting to different circles, when in reality, D* brought that out into the limelight when they publicly discussed their vision. I just think it’s too bad that the word wasn’t out there a bit earlier, in regards to the fact that there have been open registration pods for quite some time. Then again, with D* only now getting into the beta stage, still currently in alpha, probably best that there wasn’t more people on it. Bumps and glitches tend to scare people away, so people there in the very beginning would have seen a different D* than we have now.
    You know what would be great? A SL’er with a server, hosting their own pod. Even though we all connet anyhow, with the new surge of people to D*, I can see the current pods filling up fast! 😀

  • I’ve tried to do just that, but the only two servers I’ve got access to don’t work well with Ruby on Rails. One is simply too old, which is a pity, since it’s a dedicated server; the other is a shared server which does support Ruby on Rails, but not persistent processes. I’ve tried to look for (cheap) alternatives but currently I’m out of money, lol — perhaps next year I’ll be able to afford to host something like that!

    In the mean time, I can only volunteer to install it on a suitable server, if someone has a spare one hanging around and no time to configure Diaspora on it…

  • I’ve tried to do just that, but the only two servers I’ve got access to don’t work well with Ruby on Rails. One is simply too old, which is a pity, since it’s a dedicated server; the other is a shared server which does support Ruby on Rails, but not persistent processes. I’ve tried to look for (cheap) alternatives but currently I’m out of money, lol — perhaps next year I’ll be able to afford to host something like that!

    In the mean time, I can only volunteer to install it on a suitable server, if someone has a spare one hanging around and no time to configure Diaspora on it…

  • Samantha Atkins

    Huh?  It is not corporations setting into law unlovely things like SOPA.  It is not corporations claiming that it is ok to throw anyone, even citizens, into a military prison without trial, indefinitely with mere accusation of terrorism or that is ok to render them up to be tortured.  Most of the abuses you place at the feet of corporations are greatly aided by the fact that the State has unchecked power that corporation *can* buy.  Without such buying of legalized force a corporation has relatively little power to force anyone to do anything or to avoid effective competition if it gets out of line.  Your paper seems to absolve the State, blooded by hundreds of millions of deaths of its own citizens in the last 100 years and even hold it out as curative of the evils of mere businesses.  This is surely dangerously upside down. 

    You also don’t seem to say much about the evils that corporations do at the behest of the State.  It is much easier for the State to squeeze a few corporations than many.  All it has to do is threaten them with new disastrous regulations or sufficient taxes or with denial of the right to operate in their markets.  Then the corporations become tools of State oppression and get the blame while the State gets handed even more power to correct the evil it is actually behind.  A neat trick, eh?

  • Samantha Atkins

    We actually want most of the things that more integrated technology and data can bring us.  But to have it without great danger requires growing up a bit as people and growing up institutionally as well.  It requires removing all notion that anyone should be controlled or criminalized for any sort of victimless activity, for instance.  It requires admitting who we are and what kind of people we are without worry.  The technology to make these things more prevalent will only accelerate.  We have a very difficult struggle to grow up into the kind of people that can live well with such things. 

  • I agree completely! The question is just how to grow up into that kind of people, and what exactly we can do to grow up the institutions around us. Aspiring to do so is great, but what method will work to achieve that result?

    My belief is that education is the first step — educating in the sense of opening people’s eyes towards how things are, and letting them think about it — and eventually suggest an alternative until then.

  • Perhaps we’re saying the same thing but in different ways: e.g. that unlike in previous decades, as I mentioned, governments allow corporations a lot of abuse which would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, because governments are more easily bought these days — politicians are more greedy, feel more self-confident, have less sense of duty as servants to the public, whatever the real reason is.

    On the other hand, I don’t blame “the State” (or “the government”) for doing bad things to its citizens — I blame the people that are part of the “State” or “the government”. In the past 100 years, as you said, they had the power to do whatever they pleased, and so, over time, and very slowly, citizens managed to put checks on them. So the people moved away from “government” into “corporations”, where such checks are not put in place, making sure they left “puppets” behind that they could easily buy to be protected. So, if you wish, both are the two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, what it means is that “people in power” will smoothly move from either the government or to government-protected corporations to not only remain in power but to continue to “oppress” (like you said). And yes, I agree it’s a neat trick. The Putin/Medvedev/Gazprom troika is a typical example; in my own country, pretty much every politician is “willing to serve” for a few years in exchange for a life-long position as CEO or at least as Board Member on a top company; it’s something they “expect” that will be handed over to them on a silver plate for carrying the “burden” of sitting in office for a few years. And while they do so, of course, they will try to please as much as possible any potential big corps in order to assure a position there. (A nasty side-effect is that, as politicians come into power and get voted out, you have to artificially create more and more positions outside government where they can get a job at the top for the rest of their lives — when the number of private corporations ran out, the State had no choice but to “invent” and “create” artificial “institutes” or publicly-owned companies without real function just to place retiring politicians there, at the expense of taxpayers’ money. But that is possibly restricted to a country with relatively few big corporations and a huge number of politicians eager to get a well-paid job for life without any qualifications whatsoever.)

    My suggestion in the article was how to avoid this trap. It’s perhaps not the best of suggestions, and there might be many. But it works, in a very limited way.