Saturday, May 15, 2010

Facebook has problems, Diaspora isn't one of them

The bigger a company becomes on the Web, the more likely it is to be accused of privacy violations. Google has been fending off privacy concerns for years, but it's now Facebook's time in the limelight.

An increasing number of people are concerned about Facebook's privacy policies. And while some are reportedly looking to jump off the Facebook train, most continue to complain...on Facebook.

Enter the Diaspora project, an open-source social network that eliminates the midddleman, the "anti-Facebook."

Diaspora attempts to solve Facebook's privacy problems at the infrastructure layer, using a decentralized, peer-to-peer approach. Unfortunately, this approach has the potential to limit the service's appeal by introducing complexity, as ReadWriteWeb explains:

Because not everyone will be technically capable of (or interested in) setting up their computer to function as a "seed," there are plans to offer a paid turn-key service too, similar to, the blogging platform. Wordpress itself is software you can install and configure on your own server, if you're inclined to do so, but if you're less technically-savvy, you can opt to quickly start a blog via instead. Diaspora would function in a similar way.

In other words, if you care deeply about a decentralized social-networking service and have the technical chops to set it up, Diaspora provides a way to do that. For everyone else, there's a somewhat centralized Web site.

This is progress?

Let's be clear: one of the primary reasons for Facebook's success is that it disintermediates the complexity that makes it hard for 400 million (and counting) people to connect to each other. For Diaspora to compete, it needs to be more than merely open: it actually needs to be better at connecting hordes of people simply, casually, easily.

As, the open-source Twitter clone, has shown, there's a niche market for those who prize openness over other considerations. But it's niche. The mainstream doesn't have time to set up seeds or otherwise follow openness for openness' sake.

I don't foresee Diaspora ever breaking into that mainstream because it's starting from the wrong premise: it treats privacy and decentralization as its primary goals. This isn't how users see it, though. For most people, privacy is a secondary concern (though it is a concern). The primary concern is connecting with friends and family.

So long as network effects favor Facebook, Diaspora users will remain few and far between.

If anything, the best Diaspora can hope for is to help prod Facebook to improve its privacy policies and communication about them. This is an area that Facebook recognizes it needs to improve, as Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook, notes in a recent interview:

It's clear that despite our efforts, we are not doing a good enough job communicating the changes that we're making. Even worse, our extensive efforts to provide users greater control over what and how they share appear to be too confusing for some of our more than 400 million users. That's not acceptable or sustainable. But it's certainly fixable. You're pointing out things we need to fix...

I sincerely hope that Diaspora can help motivate Facebook to improve how it handles users' privacy. I just don't think that it provides compelling competition for mainstream Facebook users who need ease of use before they need to be worrying about "seeds" and such.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Steps to adopt open source technology standards draw flak

India’s open source software lobbyists allege that the country’s proposed draft recommendations for adopting open technology standards and software for automating different government departments and functions, favours popular software solutions from large companies such as Microsoft.

According to people familiar with the draft recommendations, a meeting of the apex body on Standards for eGovernance was held last week, and the policy is close to being approved. ET was shown a copy of the proposed recommendations by one of the persons who requested anonymity.

“The modifications made to the suggestions given by an expert committee recommendations would make the policy very weak and not favour open standards,” says Dr G Nagarajan, chairman of the Free Software Foundation of India, which advocates that the software should be free and open for all. The draft is also not clear on whether it will also impact existing e-governance projects or only new tenders.

The policy is intended to guide the billion dollar e-governance purchases and tenders across government departments for software and hardware over next few years. The government has already allocated about $6 billion for various projects under the national e-governance plan. The new draft policy in its preamble recommends that standards which are ‘mature and have a large proliferation’ will be considered. This is being contended by the open source software community which says that it will favour proprietary standards which have large proliferation amongst masses. Last year, an expert committee comprising of many IIT professors had given suggestions to the Department of IT on the policy.

The most contentious point of the policy is that it includes standards which may be royalty free and non discriminatory (RAND) as compared to fair royalty free and non discriminatory (FRAND), which many experts had recommended. “The entire standard should be royalty-free and not just the “essential” parts of it. In other words, All patent claims necessary to implement the standard should be royaltyfree . Also, royalty free on FRAND/RAND is self-contradictory . If a Standard is Royalty Free (RF) then it cannot be RAND,” says Venkatesh Hariharan , a blogger and expert on open source affairs.