The Data Union: A positive step in the wrong direction

published on May 26, 2018 by dem.

The Data Union asks for better living conditions inside the walled garden, but they are not daring to imagine an ecosystem without walls.

Very recently, a new international union was founded in the Netherlands, with the goal of uniting social media users, and through collective representation put pressure on big Internet companies and state governments. They want to pressure companies such as Google and Facebook to provide more user-friendly terms and conditions, and governments to enact stronger privacy laws.

There’s a lot to like about this initiative. It’s an attempt to bargain collectively in an insufferably individualised neoliberal world. Statements from the board of directors of this union recognise user-generated content as the result of labour, and of users as unpaid workers producing surplus value for the commercial entities that run the websites. Quotes such as “What we want…is to get across the table from Google and Facebook to talk about reasonable compensation, or at least better working conditions” by President of the Advisory Board and Dutch Labour Party Dr. Paul Tang MEP show a refreshingly good understanding of the relationship between users and Internet service providers.

There’s also of course the obvious criticisms, such as their focus on reformist, compromise-driven tripartite model of “State-Capital-Union” negotiations, or its hierarchical, (social-)democratic centralist-type structure. But for me the problem runs deeper. The Data Union is pushing in the wrong direction. Winning concessions from Facebook or Google is not the solution. Doing away with them is.

To fight a sociopolitical structure, you need to understand how it works. Focusing just on Facebook, for ease of exposition, we need to understand this about them: Facebook is a private walled garden. A walled garden is a metaphor used in discussions of network services to describe how a provider tries to (a) bring users into their service, and (b) limit their ability to leave that service once they are in.

Before Facebook, there was the Web (now retroactively renamed Web 1.0). On the Web, each user could have a presence by having their own websites, and use tools like email to communicate. The users of course didn’t own the cables that connected their computers with everyone else around the world, but they controlled their online presence to a great extend. To communicate with others, they could simply establish a peer-to-peer relationship, by sending them an email, or visiting their blog. It didn’t matter if user A was on user_a@cytanet.com.cy and user B was on user_b@aol.com, their different underlying network service providers were just carriers. Many users were even the network carriers for themselves, managing their own webservers and not relying on a company to do it for them.

With Facebook, a lot of things that were already possible, like chat (email, IRC, Jabber), aggregation of new posts from multiple sources (RSS), and event calendars (iCalendar, vCal), were packed together and integrated for easier use.

As a matter of fact, Facebook early on made use of technologies like Jabber, and RSS to provide their services, and they were to some degree compatible with other servers also running the same technologies. So if you wanted to talk with someone on Facebook, but you didn’t have a Facebook account yourself, you could still do it by using your Jabber account. Or you could get real-time notifications from a Facebook page without having to visit Facebook itself. Being on Facebook meant everything was done from the same interface though, and that drove many people in.

Once a lot of people were in though, Facebook had power, and they used it. For example they cut off chat functionality with the rest of the non-Facebook Web in 2015, by dropping support for Jabber. Now you could only contact people on Facebook and Facebook alone. RSS was also dropped. Any external links posted on Facebook are also disadvantaged: “native content” gets priority, and external links are treated as “potentially malicious” and get hidden away behind an “Are you sure you want to leave Facebook?” warning. That’s the second stage of a walled garden. Locking the gates.

That’s not just something Facebook does because its CEO is evil. This is the fate of centralised network services, where all data storage and processing happens at the servers controlled by one entity, and where the users are at the mercy of that entity. Centralised services are often more convenient than alternatives, but because of their very structure, they are always more restrictive and hierarchical.

The Data Union asks for better living conditions inside the walled garden, but they are not daring to imagine an ecosystem without walls.

Contrary to what neoliberalism wants us to believe, there is an alternative. There is a way to have horizontal, non-hierarchical social networks: The Federated Web, or The Fediverse (federated universe).

Federated network services are services where different entities (running different servers), have the technical ability to communicate with each other and seamlessly share content between them. They do that by using open communication protocols: email for text messages, Jabber/XMPP for real-time chat, RSS/Atom for real-time content delivery, and recently ActivityPub for social interactions (implemented for example by Mastodon, the software that runs many federated social networks).

In the Federated Web, it doesn’t matter if you run your own server, and few of your friends banded together to collectively run a server jointly used by all of them, and maybe some other common friends use services provided by some organisation that manages their server (eg their university). You can all communicate together, as if you were all on the same website.

The Federated Web radically defuses the power one single service provider could have on the users. It doesn’t prohibit you from contacting people who are not on the same server than you, and you always have the option of leaving one federated node for another one if you start to feel that the administrator of that node is malicious, without losing access to the people with whom you want to stay in touch. Leaving a centralised service like Facebook on the other hand is near-unimaginable for most people, because it means losing contact with anyone who doesn’t follow you in your attempt to climb the walled garden and escape.

The Data Union’s ideas are welcome and they have the best intents. But with their reformist tripartite compromise-seeking, they will not solve the social injustices that are inherent to centralisation.

For technology-user liberation, we should tear down all the walls and built horizontal network relationships that rely on open protocols, and implement the protocols in libre software that anyone can use, modify, and share.

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