In 2007, consumer groups asked the FTC to come up with a “Do Not Track” list, which would work like the “Do Not Call” list. Naïve Internet researchers then proposed a “Do Not Track” header for the web. The idea was that users would set a preference in their web browser; the browser would then send a “Do Not Track” (DNT) flag each time it fetched a web page. Advertisers would then voluntarily be good and not track the user.

Yeah, right.

In a surprise to approximately nobody, the industry which brought us pop-up ads and button hijackers and blind redirects has been reluctant to implement DNT. And now, companies including Google and Yahoo are recommending to the FTC that they basically be exempted from it.

I’ve always thought that any privacy measure predicated on good behavior by the advertising industry is basically a complete waste of time. I don’t bother with DNT; instead, I use the EFF’s Privacy Badger, which blocks trackers — and ads which attempt to track you. Mozilla is now experimenting with building similar functionality into Firefox.

Meanwhile, the podcast Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything has been running a series of shows called The Dislike Club, focused on everything that’s horrible about today’s Internet. One of those things is the fact that we’ve built a commercial Internet based around the business model of advertising things to people, and then responded to advertiser demands by making user tracking more and more invasive in order to increase the perceived value of the ads. At the same time, we’ve moved more and more of our content into walled silos like Facebook, and become beholden to the same corporate entities who are tracking us.

As you’ve probably noticed, I’m refusing to follow that business model. I own my own site, I pay for it myself, and no advertiser has any say over what I post. And while I post occasional articles to proprietary social networks, I don’t feed everything to the corporate maw. That’s why if you want to subscribe, you need to find yourself a web feed reading service, also known as a feed reader or agregator, and sometimes as a news reader.

Once upon a time sites like Facebook and LiveJournal would let you use their sites to read web feeds, or read their content as a web feed. Even Google had a feed reader. But in the quest to increase the value of their product — the captive user base — and force you to go back to their site so they could show you more ads, Facebook and Google and Twitter all deprecated open standard web feeds for social content, and then deliberately killed them off.

But they still exist elsewhere. There are Feedreader, Feedly, Digg Reader, Newsblur and other web-based services. There are desktop applications like Vienna, RSSOwl, ReadKit and many more. If you’re sick of being tracked and advertised at, pick one of them and start using it. Set up your own site where you can own your own content. Rejoin the open web.

Mark Zuckerberg, painted portrait DDC_8781
Creative Commons License thierry ehrmann via Compfight

I don’t care whether it’s ello or sgrouples or FriendFace or or whatever, I am not joining another walled-in social network owned by a single organization. I already have enough of those.

I don’t care if it has a strong privacy policy, I don’t care if it has good security, I don’t care if it has no advertising, I don’t care if it will let you remain pseudonymous, I don’t care if the people who own it are really cool. All of those things are worthless if the site is controlled by a single organization, because they can all be changed on a whim.

Remember, Facebook used to be ad-free, somewhat closed, had no data mining, and didn’t force you to sign up with your real name. Then they decided they had to make money, and their only resource was a captive user base.

Twitter used to be ad-free with no data mining, and it used to be open so anyone could write clients for it. Then they decided they had to make money, and that meant making sure clients showed ads properly, and that meant locking out your favorite Twitter client and showing you posts that nobody had retweeted.

Go back even further into the past, and LiveJournal used to be run by a small team of people who were directly engaged with their user base. Then they sold out to a company who didn’t care, who sold out to a Russian company who were in it for the money.

Make no mistake, this cycle will repeat itself with ello and all the other closed-off single-provider social networks. Servers cost significant time and money to run — I know because I run some. Unless you have an eccentric millionaire or a trust fund to pay for the hosting, as the site grows, sooner or later someone’s going to decide that it needs to pay for itself. In fact, even if you have funding from an eccentric millionaire, you’re still reliant on their whims to keep the privacy and advertising policies you like.

Venture capitalists are not philanthropists. They didn’t lend ello half a million dollars so that it could be run on donations as a not-for-profit, no matter what the founder may say about having unconstrained choices. The fact that ello aren’t upfront about their funding is very telling.

So, what’s the alternative? One word: federation.

What we need are social networks which are open, like e-mail and the web; where anyone who wants to can set up their own server (or pay someone else to do it) and join the conversation via a system they control. We need social systems which are decentralized, rather than centralized and corporate. Systems where at a minimum, there are multiple independent organizations running servers, and you can migrate if you decide you don’t like the one you’re relying on.

There’s a system which is built that way. It also has no ads, doesn’t require that you provide your “real” name or specify your gender, doesn’t aggregate your data for sale to corporations, and doesn’t run ads. It has per-post privacy settings, so you can share just with the people you trust. You can post pictures and comments, discuss things with friends in discussion threads, and do most of the other stuff you do on Facebook or Twitter.

It’s called Diaspora. You may have heard of it. It was big for a while, but then people were disappointed with the initial code, and tragically one of the lead developers committed suicide.

Diaspora isn’t as pretty as other social networks. It doesn’t have signup pages making elaborate feel-good promises. It isn’t popular with celebrities. But it works, and you can sign up for it right now, and because it’s open source it isn’t going to be ripped away from you or turned into the next privacy-destroying corporate panopticon. Want to give it a try? Tutorials are available, you can pick from dozens of service providers, and my profile’s public.

So in summary: Please don’t waste time asking me to join another walled-off “social” network. If you find a decentralized system that’s better than Diaspora, I’m all for that, but no, I’m not interested in the next Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Diaspora Screenshot
Creative Commons License Antonio Pardo via Compfight

A while back, the Washington Post reported on a set of leaked NSA slides that most people seem to have ignored.

There was one interesting piece of data in the report that I think deserves more attention. On the slide titled “Address Books” is a table setting out how many people’s address books have been collected, and how many are “Attributed” — that is, how many allow the NSA to tie an online ID to a real named person.

Address Books

Here’s the data as a table, to make it easier to read:

Provider Collected Attributed Attributed%
Yahoo 444743 11009 2.48%
Hotmail 105068 1115 1.06%
Gmail 33697 2350 6.97%
Facebook 82857 79437 95.87%
Other 22881 1175 5.14%
Total 689246 95086 13.80%

Notice that Facebook is far and away the NSA’s best source of information about you and your friends. Doing the math, 79437/95086 = 84% of the NSA’s information linking named individuals to their friends online is sourced from Facebook.

Now that people are starting to migrate from Facebook to Google Plus, I see a lot of people asking, apparently seriously, what’s wrong with Facebook. Given that Facebook is hated as much as airlines, it seems likely that the site has few dedicated fans willing to stick around when everyone else leaves. I’m certainly not one of them, and here’s why.

Facebook insists that you get a new e-mail inbox, which you can only access from Facebook. You can get e-mail notifications in your existing e-mail, but to reply you still have to go to Facebook. I don’t want another inbox, especially not a proprietary one. In Google Plus, the button to send a private message can be disabled, allowed only for certain people, and can forward to any e-mail inbox you want.

Facebook insists that you get a new instant messaging ID, which you can only use to talk to other Facebook users. I don’t want another proprietary IM ID. Google Plus uses Google Talk, which is based on the Internet standard XMPP and is federated with Jabber and AIM so you can talk to people on those networks too.

Facebook won’t let you export your friends’ contact information or sync it with your phone. Google, in contrast, offers Google Takeout to export everything, and also offers full contact sync via an open API.

Facebook is signing up with Microsoft and Skype to implement their voice and video chat. Skype is a closed proprietary protocol, deliberately obfuscated and encrypted to make it impossible for anyone else to interoperate with it. In contrast, Google document their additions to the standard XMPP video and audio protocols, and state their belief that people should have a free choice of competing clients.

Facebook have slowly and deliberately eroded users’ privacy. While Google has had a few privacy failings (principally with Buzz, which I didn’t use), they are far better than Facebook in this area.

Facebook is buggy. I routinely see a different news feed depending on whether I use the app on my phone or the main web site.

Google Plus’s “circles” are simple to set up and simple to use. The equivalent functionality in Facebook is hard to find and a pain to set up. (At the time of writing, you create a list as follows: Click “Friends” in left menu, “Edit Friends” top right, click “Create a List” top right, find a person by typing their name into the search box, click the drop down to the right of the search result, and click the name of the list you created. To use a list, you must then click the lock under a posting you’re writing, click Customize, under “Make this visible to” select “Specific People…”, in the text box type the name of the list you created, and click “Save Setting”.) Whether this is just bad UI design or a deliberate attempt to make the process painful so people don’t do it, I don’t know.

Want more reasons to dislike Facebook? Check out Wikipedia’s criticism of Facebook article, particularly the section on censorship. The latest victim is Roger Ebert.

And then there’s Mark Zuckerberg himself, and his attitude to privacy issues in the early days. Businesses’ cultural attitudes tend to flow from the top down.

As a final note, I’m not an absolutist. I recognize that there are things Google has done wrong, and things they continue to do wrong. However, moving from Facebook to Google Plus seems to me to be overall greatly positive, from the point of view of privacy, openness, access to data, and general levels of evil. When something even better comes along, I’ll consider moving to it. Until then, I’m done posting on Facebook, though I’ll keep reading it for the time being.

I’m also sure there are people who will keep using Facebook, and not use Google Plus. There are probably people still using MySpace and refusing to use Facebook too. That’s their decision, and they’re welcome to it, but it’s not going to affect my decision.