My Contrarian Stance on O’Reilly’s Contrarian Stance on Facebook

This is in response to Tim O’Reilly’s piece on the O’Reilly Radar: My Contrarian Stance on Facebook and Privacy. O’Reilly’s thesis is simple:

The essence of my argument is that there’s enormous advantage for users in giving up some privacy online and that we need to be exploring the boundary conditions

In his essay it quickly becomes clear that O’Reilly presupposes that the only/best way to provide web services is through centralized servers owned and operated by private (and probably large) companies. I think that this is really super extremely wrong.

O’Reilly writes, “We give up our location in order to get turn by turn directions on our phone.” But you could imagine a service where you hosted all of the map code and data on your own computer—maybe a machine sitting under your bed at home, or maybe your cellphone itself (hey, they’re getting faster and faster). This mapping software gains no benefit from any sort of network—it’s purely Software as a Service (SaaS).

Of course, the network service doesn’t have to be SaaS to benefit from thinking outside the box of centralization. This is what Diaspora* and a few other projects are hoping to prove. If the network is decentralized, you don’t have one primary party that can access all of the data, so you have more privacy. See also email, where your messages go directly to the email provider of the person receiving them. Sure, we can all choose to give up on the decentralized internet and use gmail (guilty), but if we decide that we really care about controlling who sees our messages, we can still choose to host our own mailservers (plus there’s always end-to-end encryption). No one person is controlling this information flow—we just agreed on a protocol and then moved on.

I don’t doubt that there are some examples of services where the very nature of the service means that information from a huge number of people makes it better, and thus some amount of centralization (or at least reporting back to mother ship) makes sense. Recommendation engines, especially ones that use machine learning algorithms, are a clear example (think Pandora, Grooveshark, Netflix). However, this class of services is only one slice of the social web, and facebook does not lie within this slice.

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