Facebook and WhatsApp: Another blow to user freedom

By acquiring half a billion new users, Facebook significantly increases centralization when we need more federation

Facebook just paid a king's ransom for an app many of us have probably never heard of. WhatsApp is a phone-number-focused messaging app that has been a word-of-mouth success of enormous proportions outside the United States, particularly the southern hemisphere with a global user base approaching half a billion people, dominated by the young.

To me the acquisition is reminiscent of AOL buying ICQ so many years ago. But what is Facebook really buying? The $19 billion deal is not really securing technology; rather, it's centralizing the large user base of the app, at around $40 per user, to add its social graph into Facebook's universe. The company is buying users, not technology.

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As I explained last week, none of this would have been possible without open source software. Both Facebook and WhatsApp are built with open source platforms and tools (WhatsApp is built on the FreeBSD kernel, for example). But neither company would leap to mind as "an open source company." This is how open source builds value today -- not by being the headline, but by being the heart.

What about the customers? WhatsApp had a reputation for being edgy and counter-corporate, with pledges against advertising and abuse of personal data. While both can be expected to stick strictly to their published terms, the commitment to user rights in this deal is likely to be secondary. We can expect both to share user information once they are under a common banner, adding a wealth of phone data to Facebook and fleshing out WhatsApp with both Facebook's data and the results of Facebook's powerful semantic search.

Just as the opportunity was not explicitly open source, neither is the problem. Whether you call it "free software," "open source," or something else, the issue is that the flexibility stopped at Facebook and WhatsApp. Both companies used those "four freedoms" to use, study, adapt, and deploy software to their best extent. Neither extended them to their users. Even if they had, neither created the ability for their users to control their own destiny and data.

Is that an unreasonable expectation? I don't think it is. There are open source projects in the same technology area that offer the users and the system hosts the flexibility derived from the four freedoms. What's missing from both Facebook and WhatsApp is federation.

It's reasonable to offer centralized services, but it's also reasonable to offer the ability for suitably capable users -- as well as, potentially, a peer ecosystem of service providers -- to run their own service that can federate as a full peer, extending the service without surrendering full control. What might that look like? There are plenty of examples:

  • Pump.IO offers a federated text message service, allowing its users to control how and whom they federate with
  • Diaspora creates a federated social publishing network similar to Facebook, with many users preferring centralized hosting yet with a strong self-hosted faction
  • WordPress offers easy content hosting through a respected parent company, but users can and do take the whole thing under their own wing any time they want

There are plenty more, especially services using open standards like SIP and XMPP to create open interoperability. All are open source, but more important, all are open to user control in addition to service provider hosting. I'm convinced it's possible to create large-scale, successful services like Facebook and WhatsApp with a similar design philosophy.

But first, you have to want to do that. Right now, the legacy assumption that more control means more profit still rules. Facebook's treatment of Social Fixer showed it won't tolerate any attempt to introduce flexibility users desire without permission.

As our meshed society evolves, I hope innovators building with open source will learn to go further and build their services in ways that empower users to stay in control of their data, through federation, open standards, and interoperable data exchange. In an age where the NSA and others value centralized, proprietary services as an easy bottleneck to tap for surveillance purposes, we need the next generation of online services to break the mold.

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