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Striking back at Facebook, the open-source way

The Diaspora project aims to create an open-source social network where the users own their data, not the network.

By Amy Vernon on Wed, 05/12/10 - 4:40pm.

Probably the two biggest complaints about Facebook are about how the site handles privacy and how it's near-impossible to customize.

Four students at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, despite being members of the Millennial generation (who are assumed to not give a whit about privacy) got tired of not having control over their personal information. Daniel Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy say they were inspired by a talk by Eben Moglen, a Columbia Univeristy law professor and author of the latest GPL, about privacy on the 'Net.

So they started the Diaspora project, which they aim to release in its first iteration by September, under a GPL license.

They explain on their Kickstarter project description (Note: They have raised more than four times their initial goal of $10,000 since posting the project April 25):

We believe that privacy and connectedness do not have to be mutually exclusive. With Diaspora, we are reclaiming our data, securing our social connections, and making it easy to share on your own terms. We think we can replace today's centralized social web with a more secure and convenient decentralized network. Diaspora will be easy to use, and it will be centered on you instead of a faceless hub.

The idea is that Diaspora itself won't hold your personal information - your own "seed" will - and only people to whom you give a "key" to (the Diaspora equivalent of "friending") will be able to see the information you share with them.

As they explain on their pitch video: In real life, you don't give a message to a third party, who then shares it with your friend. You talk to your friend directly. The site aims to be the electronic equivalent of that. All the information in your "seed" is yours, not owned by a third party, and it's heavily encrypted.

More than 1200 people have funded the project - most of them pledging $5, $10 or $25 - to the tune of more than $42,000 as of Wednesday.

The project is quite timely. Everyone and his sister is bashing Facebook for its privacy flip-flops lately. Wired accused the site of having "gone rogue"; big-name Internet first-adopter/influencer folks such as Jason Calacanis and Leo Laporte are deleting their accounts (not just deactivating). Gizmodo offers the Top 10 reasons to quit Facebook, much of which centers around privacy issues, including a link to the "Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline" from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Facebook has been hammered by consumer groups (including the EFF) in a complaint to the FTC. Network World blogger Jeff Caruso wondered just last week where the outrage was over Facebook privacy changes was (and by that he meant "mass exodus"). And Facebook is using that lack of outrage to bolster its argument.

Part of that is due to the fact that, as Salzberg says in the team's video, "Sharing is a human value." People want to share what's going on in their lives with their family friends. Facebook offered a unique - and initially rather private - way to do that. But, as a friend who started on Facebook when it was only open to college students explained, many people posted things on there they never imagined would be visible to the public, mainly because members of the general public couldn't even start an account.

And now there are relatives posting embarrassing childhood photos and tagging you in them, too. And now, unless they are constantly checking their privacy settings, any stranger on the Internet could see them.

The one nit some might have about Diaspora's open-source credibility is that the first iteration will not be done in a public source repository. In responding to one commenter on Kickstarter, Salzberg explained the team "struggled" with that issue, but in the end decided to wait until the first iteration was released  in September because they wanted to take the time to hunker down and create a solid interface on Ruby on Rails. Then, all code would be released and everyone encouraged to add nodes and customize to their heart's content.

They promised to post lots of updates on their progress and release libraries as they went along, too, to be more open in the initial stage.

Oh, and why "Diaspora"? The root, as they show on their homepage, is Greek for "a scattering [of seeds]" - their symbol is a dandelion (in the white, fluffy stage of life, just before its seeds are ... scattered).

Everyone's been wondering what the next stage in social networks would be, as Facebook has been growing exponentially and continually making more and more data public. Perhaps this is the new direction - both more open and more closed at the same time.

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