Lessons from WikiLeaks: decentralize, decentralize, decentralize
by Glyn Moody
Whether or not WikiLeaks turns out to be a watershed in politics, there's another question of more immediate interest to the open source world: can the latter learn a key lesson from the measures taken against the WikiLeaks operation?
These have included booting it off Amazon's servers and stopping donations through MasterCard, Visa or PayPal. That this happened without warning serves as a timely reminder that such centralized services have absolute and largely arbitrary power over their users.
Of course, that's not a new insight. Eben Moglen made precisely this point in an interview with The H when talking about the threat that Facebook represents to our privacy and liberty:
"If we had a real intellectually-defensible taxonomy of services, we would recognize that a number of the services which are currently highly centralized, and which count for a lot of the surveillance built in to the society that we are moving towards, are services which do not require centralization in order to be technologically deliverable. They are really the Web repackaged.
"Social networking applications are the most crucial. They rely in their basic metaphors of operation on a bilateral relationship called friendship, and its multilateral consequences. And they are eminently modelled by the existing structures of the Web itself. Facebook is free Web hosting with some PHP doodads and APIs, and spying free inside all the time – not actually a deal we can't do better than.
"My proposal is this: if we could disaggregate the logs, while providing the people all of the same features, we would have a Pareto-superior outcome. Everybody – well, except Mr Zuckenberg – would be better off, and nobody would be worse off. And we can do that using existing stuff."
Just six months later, a new project aims to make that “disaggregation” possible, and not just for social networking, but for any kind of hosted application: the aptly-named Unhosted:
"Free / Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) frees us from having to install proprietary software on our terminals. But installable software is losing ground to hosted software (web sites). The server software is often open source (e.g. LAMP), but the web site itself as a software product is almost always proprietary. There is an obvious reason for this: even if an Affero license allows us to download the web site's source code, only a commercial company can finance the thousands of servers needed to host a successful web site.
"To make things worse, hosted software has more power over its users than installable software, because it forces you to put your user data on servers owned by the same company that publishes the software. If you want to use Google Docs, you have to reveal your work to a Google-owned server."