Diaspora: Freedom in the Cloud?


One of the key thinkers in the free software world is Eben Moglen. He's been the legal brains behind the most recent iterations of the GNU GPL, but more than that, he's somebody who has consistently been able to pinpoint and articulate the key issues facing free software for two decades. Recently, he did it again, noting that cloud computing is a huge threat to freedom.

Even if you don't use social networks like Facebook, your children probably do (or will). And the push to move practically *everything* “into the cloud” means that the issues are not just about personal information: businesses, too, will find that they are essentially placing key competitive information about themselves on somebody else's computers a long way away, with little real control over what happens to it once it's “there”.

That makes Moglen's latest warning all-the-more timely. You can either watch him giving a talk on the subject, with his customary rhetorical brilliance, or read this interview I conducted with him on the subject (or, ideally, both). Here's one of the key sections from the latter, in which he lays out his solution to the problem of today's cloud computing services:

what I am proposing is that we build a social networking stack based around the existing free software we have, which is pretty much the same existing free software the server-side social networking stacks are built on; and we provide ourselves with an appliance which contains a free distribution everybody can make as much of as they want, and cheap hardware of a type which is going to take over the world whether we do it or we don't, because it's so attractive a form factor and function, at the price.

We take those two elements, we put them together, and we also provide some other things which are very good for the world. Like automatically VPNing everybody's little home network place with my laptop wherever I am, which provides me with encrypted proxies so my web searching, wherever I am, is not going to be spied on. It means that we have a zillion computers available to the people who live in China and other places where there's bad behaviour. So we can massively increase the availability of free browsing to other people in the world. If we want to offer people the option to run onion routeing, that's where we'll put it, so that there will be a credible possibility that people will actually be able to get decent performance on onion routeing networks.

And we will of course provide convenient encrypted email for people - including putting their email not in a Google box, but in their house, where it is encrypted, backed up to all their friends and other stuff. Where in the long purpose of time we can begin to return email to a condition - if not being a private mode of communication - at least not being postcards to the secret police every day.

So we would also be striking a blow for electronic civil liberties in a way that is important, which is very difficult to conceive of doing in a non-technical way.

The question is: Who is going to build it? His answer:

It's not going to be done with clicking heels together, it's going to be done the way we do stuff: somebody's going begin by reeling off a Debian stack or Ubuntu stack or, for all I know, some other stack, and beginning to write some configuration code and some glue and a bunch of Python to hold it all together.

And of course, as ever, he's right: a group of hacker have indeed sat down, and started to create the kind of free software solution that Moglen was proposing. It's called – appropriately enough – Diaspora:

Diaspora aims to be a distributed network, where totally separate computers connect to each other directly, will let us connect without surrendering our privacy. We call these computers ‘seeds’. A seed is owned by you, hosted by you, or on a rented server. Once it has been set up, the seed will aggregate all of your information: your facebook profile, tweets, anything. We are designing an easily extendable plugin framework for Diaspora, so that whenever newfangled content gets invented, it will be automagically integrated into every seed.

Now that you have your information in your seed, it will connect to every service you used to have for you. For example, your seed will keep pulling tweets and you will still be able to see your Facebook newsfeed. In fact, Diaspora will make those services better! Upload an image to Flickr and your seed can automatically generate a tweet from the caption and link. Social networking will just get better when you have control over your data.

A seed will not just be all your existing networks put together, though. Decentralizing lets us reconstruct our “social graphs” so that they belong to us. Our real social lives do not have central managers, and our virtual lives do not need them. Friend another seed and the two of you can synchronize over a direct and secure connection instead of through a superfluous hub. Encryption (privacy nerds: we’re using GPG) will ensure that no matter what kind of content is being transferred, you can share privately. Eventually, today’s hubs could be almost entirely replaced by a decentralized network of truly personal websites.

This is, of course, precisely Moglen's vision; that's hardly surprising, since the team was directly inspired by him:

This February, Eben Moglen, Columbia law professor and author of the latest GPL, gave a talk on Internet privacy. As more and more of our lives and identities become digitized, Moglen explains, the convenience of putting all of our information in the hands of companies on “the cloud” is training us to casually sacrifice our privacy and fragment our online identities.

But why is centralization so much more convenient, even in an age where relatively powerful computers are ubiquitous? Why is there no good alternative to centralized services that, as Moglen pointed out, comes with "spying for free?” Why do we keep our personal data in a thousand places? We have the technology, someone just needs to take the time to figure out how we can communicate smoothly and intuitively, without the hidden costs of “the cloud”. As good programmers, when we noticed that the application we need doesn’t exist, we set out to fill the hole in our digital lives.

That was part of their “Kickstarter” pitch, seeking to raise $10,000 to help them get the project moving. The great news is that Diaspora has just passed that figure (but I'm sure they'd welcome more if you'd like to contribute). That means the project should get underway soon, and provide, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, another great example of an itch being scratched, and of ambitious hackers saying: “just how hard can it be...?”

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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