The Next Big Fight: Facebook vs. Firefox?


The big announcements by Facebook last week have started alarm bells ringing around the Net. Here's the kind of thing that is sending shivers down many people's spines:

Today at our third f8, we are making it so all websites can work together to build a more comprehensive map of connections and create better, more social experiences for everyone. We have redesigned Facebook Platform to offer a simple set of tools that sites around the web can use to personalize experiences and build out the graph of connections people are making.

This next version of Facebook Platform puts people at the center of the web. It lets you shape your experiences online and make them more social. For example, if you like a band on Pandora, that information can become part of the graph so that later if you visit a concert site, the site can tell you when the band you like is coming to your area. The power of the open graph is that it helps to create a smarter, personalized web that gets better with every action taken.

We think that the future of the web will be filled with personalized experiences. We've worked with three pre-selected partners—Microsoft Docs, Yelp and Pandora—to give you a glimpse of this future, which you can access without having to login again or click to connect. For example, now if you're logged into Facebook and go to Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you've liked across the web. And as you're playing music, it can show you friends who also like the same songs as you, and then you can click to see other music they like.

Behind the upbeat exterior of Mark Zuckerberg's words lies a vision with Facebook not only at the centre of just about everything you do online, but also acting as the gatekeeper to most Web sites through the use of your Facebook account as the keyholder of your online identity.

Convenient? Indubitably. A good idea in the long term? I don't think so...

So, the question becomes: how can that convenience be offered without giving so much power to one company?

Deep thinkers like Eben Moglen have come up with innovative ideas that involve decentralised social networks running on “wall warts” - small servers that plug into the Internet (and a power supply) to recreate your existing accounts on other services (and then close them down). That would be a great solution, not least because it brings with it all kinds of other benefits (like automatic off-site backup, Tor relays etc.). But realistically, it's not going to happen in the short term: we need something that can offer what Facebook is proposing, and we need it now.

Facebook wants to be the entry-point to the Web, but it's important to remember that Facebook itself is on the Web, and accessed through a Web browser. This means that in some sense the browser exists at a lower level than Facebook, and therefore has the opportunity to pre-empt some of its functions – notably, in terms of handling the key issue of identity.

That fact has not escaped those clever people at Mozilla, who rather conveniently have just announced Account Manager:

The Account Manager makes it incredibly easy for users to create new accounts with optional randomly generated passwords, and log into and out of them with just a click. As a web developer, adding support for this feature could take as little as fifteen minutes of hacking (in fact, we’ll mention the first 5 people to add support – read below to learn more.).

We want to make signing into websites easier for all Firefox users, and are looking to ship this feature as soon as possible in Firefox. As part of that process we’re looking for feedback to refine the specification. Now is a really good time to get involved in defining the spec.

Because it is being built on free software, it won't be under the control of any company; even better is the fact that

we hope that Account Manager will not be a Firefox-only technology. We’re working towards defining the protocol as a formal specification that other Web browsers can implement.

A truly open standard for managing identity across the Web is exactly what we need as a credible alternative to Facebook's undeniably attractive but unilateral plans, and perhaps just as important for the health of the Internet as fighting Microsoft's proprietary Web approach was in the early years of Mozilla. I wrote a few weeks back that “the real challenge for Mozilla now is finding the next big challenge”: maybe it has just found it.

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