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What's the solution? ... continued .....

The most attractive hardware is the ultra-small, ARM-based, plug it into the wall, wall-wart server, the SheevaPlug. An object can be sold to people at a very low one-time price, and brought home and plugged into an electrical outlet and plugged into a wall jack for the Ethernet, or whatever is there, and you're done. It comes up, it gets configured through your Web browser on whatever machine you want to have in the apartment with it, and it goes and fetches all your social networking data from all the social networking applications, closing all your accounts. It backs itself up in an encrypted way to your friends' plugs, so that everybody is secure in the way that would be best for them, by having their friends holding the secure version of their data.

Zoom The SheevaPlug wall socket computer.
And it begins to do all the things that we assume we need in a social networking appliance. It's the feed, it maintains the wall your friends write on - it does everything that provides feature compatibility with what you're used to.

But the log is in your apartment, and in my society at least, we still have some vestigial rules about getting into your house: if people want to check the logs they have to get a search warrant. In fact, in every society, a person's home is about as sacred as it gets.

And so, basically, 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.

GM: How will you organise and finance such a project, and who will undertake it?

EM: Do we need money? Yeah, but tiny amounts. Do we need organisation? Yes, but it could be self-organisation. Am I going to talk about this at DEF CON this summer, at Columbia University? Yes. Could Mr Shuttleworth do it if he wanted to? Yes. 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. From a quasi-capitalist point of view I don't think this is an unmarketable product. In fact, this is the flagship product, and we ought to all put just a little pro bono time into it until it's done.

GM: How are you going to overcome the massive network effects that make it hard to persuade people to swap to a new service?

EM: This is why the continual determination to provide social networking interoperability is so important.

For the moment, my guess is that while we go about this job, it's going to remain quite obscure for quite a while. People will discover that they are being given social network portability. [The social network companies] undermine their own network effect because everybody wants to get ahead of Mr Zuckerberg before his IPO. And as they do that they will be helping us, because they will be making it easier and easier to do what our box has to do, which is to come online for you, and go and collect all your data and keep all your friends, and do everything that they should have done.

So part of how we're going to get people to use it and undermine the network effect, is that way. Part of it is, it's cool; part of it is, there are people who want no spying inside; part of it is, there are people who want to do something about the Great Firewall of China but don't know how. In other words, my guess is that it's going to move in niches just as some other things do.

GM: With mobile taking off in developing countries, might it not be better to look at handsets to provide these services?

EM: In the long run there are two places where we can conceivably put your identity: one is where you live, and the other is in your pocket. And a stack that doesn't deal with both of those is probably not a fully adequate stack.

The thing I want to say directed to your point “why don't we put our identity server in our cellphone?”, is that our cellphones are very vulnerable. In most parts of the world, you stop a guy on the street, you arrest him on a trumped-up charge of any kind, you get him back to the station house, you clone his phone, you hand it back to him, you've owned him.

When we fully commoditise that [mobile] technology, then we can begin to do the reverse of what the network operators are doing. The network operators around the world are basically trying to eat the Internet, and excrete proprietary networking. The network operators have to play the reverse if telephony technology becomes free. We can eat proprietary networks and excrete the public Internet. And if we do that then the power game begins to be more interesting.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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