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Privacy, Censorship and the new Oligarchs

I’m crotchety enough to have used the world wide web in the early nineties and before that, Usenet in the eighties. Back then the internet was a wild west where anarchy was viewed as a benefit. Openness and “freedom” – however you defined it – was ruthlessly defended, often to lunatic proportions. Back then the press blamed everything bad on the internet and privacy was a big issue. We seem to have come a long way from that world, but still the press blames everything bad on the internet and privacy is still a big issue.

Even bigger in the last few weeks with the furore over Facebook’s antics and Google’s drive-by privacy violations. A couple of good commentaries on this have been the Background Briefing report on the “Privacy Paradox” and Nicolas Carr’s observations on Facebook’s identity lock-in.

It is not surprising that the anarchy of the early web led to the building of “walled gardens” as a form of protection (this was AOL’s first web business model). It’s perhaps also not surprising that some of those walled gardens have become fortresses where the new Oligarchs exploit their netizens as “bonded labour”. Meet the new Oligarchs:

  • Steve Jobs rules fortress AppStore. He is chief censor and code reviewer and wants to protect our iP* user experience. All for our own good.
  • Sergei and Larry rule fortress Google. They have the largest correlation engine on the planet. They “[W]on’t be Evil” but we must trust that they know where lies the boundary. Google only wants to improve our search experience. All for our own good.
  • Mark Zuckerberg rules fortress Facebook. He generally only opens his mouth to change feet, but lately says he wants to unburden us of all this privacy nonsense. Privacy is just so 20th century. All for our own good.
  • Stephen Conroy wants to rule fortress Australia. Protecting us all from internet nasties by throwing a big censorship net around the country – just like China and Pakistan. All for our own good.

The problem with these new Oligarchs is that they purport to have our best interests at heart, but there is no openness or recourse, no rationale as to how they will separate our interests from their own. Google is too protective of their information assets and conveniently forgets to tell us about much of what they gather. Facebook views our private data too much as their own property to be onsold to others without our knowledge. AppStore acceptance or rejection appears arbitrary and fickle. As for the Net Filter, Conroy claims that a democratically elected government is more trustworthy than Facebook & Google – but there is nothing so undemocratic as a secret blacklist.

The new Oligarchs have built their fortresses on the architecture of the internet. Capitalising on Metcalfe’s law to build unbelievably valuable networks. But Metcalfe’s law also applies to our personal information. The value of any one piece of data about us is proportional to the square of all the other pieces of information they can correlate it with.

Is it all bad? Not really, the lesson of the web is that networks can provide powerful advantages. The Google search engine is testament to the power of massive collaborative filtering. Social networks such as Facebook have opened up wonderful social landscapes. The iP* AppStore has revolutionised the way we go mobile. To some extent this is also what was bought-into when we smothered all internet business models that involved payment. Web users want everything free but data centres, unlike clouds, don’t build themselves. The only currency we have allowed on the Web is that which can be obtained covertly. The real danger arises when power becomes so concentrated and subject to the whims of a few individuals. This is the lesson in the architecture of the underlying packet-switched internet.

From the old anarchic internet to the new oligarchic internet – everything and nothing has changed. Perhaps we should feel a lot less safe now when such people have our own interests so much at heart.

Web 2.0 Discovers Integration 2.0

My last entry was about Gnip and I take this subject up again following on Dare Obasanjo’s blog entry on the same subject where Dare grapples with the problem of how to share social activity streams across the web. The fundamental problem is not new to anyone dealing with the problems of integration inside the firewall, a plethora of different apis and protocols leads to spaghetti architecture. What we seem to have now in the social web is JBORS – Just a Bunch of RESTful Services.

This is only a problem if people want these services to collaborate, but there certainly seems to be sufficient desire and opportunity to make this happen. I also think that the social web – chock full of personal and dynamic information, collaboratively maintained by an army of “ordinary people” is a good testbed for the techniques which may be applicable in other applications such as Electronic Health Records.

The Gnip approach to the challenge is to provide a type of ESB in the cloud. The basic functions of an ESB – transport and mediation – is applied to the various protocols which are exported or imported by popular social applications.

Dare worries that this approach puts Gnip in the middle of the social network as a “single point of failure”. This is the classic problem with the ESB and the source of much derision about “ESB in a box”. You’re not solving the problem of protocol/api/schema proliferation, you’re simply pushing the mappings into a central logical component which – depending on its architecture – may be a single point of failure. So what are the alternatives?

One approach would be to standardize the interfaces so as to minimise or completely eliminate the need for mediation. One might refer to this as a service-oriented architecture, but I hesitate to use such an unfashionable term. But there’s the rub. The social web is a dynamic, anarchic frontier on the bleeding edge of information technology. What effect would standardization have on that eco-system? Would it slow down or block off avenues of innovation? Would new business models be choked off, trapped in a proprietary cul de sac? Maybe! These are the dangers of premature standardization which are best applied to mature technologies and processes.

Even if you could standardize to the required level of completeness, how do you coordinate dozens of different companies to support the standards? It’s pretty much impossible. We’ve struggled with this inside the firewall for decades. For example how do you get Siebel and Metasolv and Retek and Primavera all standardizing around the same set of services? Well in this case, they all get acquired by Oracle and it becomes Oracle’s problem.

The first step in the standardization of the social web has been taken by Google with OpenSocial. If standardization of the social web ever happens I think it will be a long time before the requirement for mediation disappears. In the meantime we have Gnip, and Friendfeed and…watch this space.

Thylacines and Wolves

If you look closely – right now – as we speak – a new ecological niche is opening up in the web.

It is just over eight years since we first saw the read-write web and a little more than three years since we heard about web 2.0. In that time, everyone has been gradually building up more and more valuable assets in the web: emails, photos, blogs, collaborations, videos, social networks. For some of us, a large chunk of our lives now has an independent existence in the web.

But something about this has started to become problematic. Our social assets are splattered across dozens of different sites and platforms. Multiple social networking sites vie for our attention. The result is increasing fragmentation of information and its associated problems – duplication and inconsistency. The world-wide-web has rediscovered that old enterprise bogey-man – integration! (or the lack thereof).

Some recent examples include John Udell asking where is SOA when you really need it, and Loic Le Meur lamenting the fragmentation of his social map.

At the same time a raft of new applications is attempting to address these issues:

  • Google Open Social aims for social network interoperability.
  • OpenID has now achieved broad support (if not success) as a way of managing distributed identity and authentication.
  • Ping.fm unifies message posting while FriendFeed aggregates the receiving side.

The key thing about these initiatives is that they all start at the edge of the integration problem. They attempt to support interoperability by unifying the interfaces to these web 2.0 platforms.

The new player that caught my attention recently represents the genesis of “web middleware” in the form of Gnip which bridges the “air gap” between the Producers and Consumers of the social web. And in a beautiful example of parallel evolution, Gnip makes use of wholly web protocols such as XMPP and Atom to provide the functions which are familiar inside the enterprise as JMS and SOAP. Gnip provides connectivity, message delivery and mediation between different data formats. Pinch me if that doesn’t sound just a little like an ESB. But it lives in and has evolved entirely from the web! This is the IT equivalent of discovering the Thylacine in the new world as an evolutionary parallel to the Wolf in the old world.

The funny thing is that while some middleware vendors are trying to figure out how to colonise the cloud (e.g. here and here), the natives are already evolving into that niche.