Do we really need a Statebook? How to democratise social media

October 5, 2018
'We want a world where you don’t lose everything if Google decides to delete your account.'

From taxing tech firms to pay the license fee to creating a new British Digital Corporation (BDC), the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture by British Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn  in August  unveiled an array of potential new Labour  digital policies, writes Nick Webb.

These proposals are not yet official party policy, but they give a good sense of where Labour’s leadership is headed as it develops its offering ahead of a potential Brexit-related snap election.

Corbyn’s suggestion that the new BDC might develop its own public social media platform with public control over data use was, predictably, seen in some circles as a step too far. It led to cries of “Statebook” and comparisons to Orwellian dystopias.

Yet we are already living in a corporate tech dystopia. Most of our online lives are spent in addictive feedback loops inside corporate walled gardens built for profit maximisation and data extraction.

Corbyn’s speech signalled the recognition of a problem: we are living in a world where most of our digital lives are at the mercy of a small number of US-based corporations who control our data and set the terms by which it’s used. Facebook and Google have become so dominant it’s near impossible to opt out. Opting out of these networks now means opting out of our groups, communities and society itself.

These companies sell our attention for a living, encouraging us to keep scrolling or, worse, feel bad enough to buy into their advertising. If you do summon the courage to leave, you have to give up all access to your social graph and to your existing posts and photos.

There is no way to seamlessly transfer your data to an alternative provider with a more ethical business model or values you may prefer, as you would for, say, a bank (supported by the open banking standards).

Corbyn suggests setting up a new publicly-owned alternative to Facebook. The idea of setting up a more ethical, privacy-centric platform isn’t new — Diaspora, Mastodon, Sapiens and countless others fill that void.

Unfortunately, these alternative platforms all face the same problem of limited user retention, as users can’t migrate their data and profiles from the old platform to the new. You can’t choose to use an alternative and still communicate with your existing friends on Facebook or Instagram — users are forced to start afresh.

Yet the value of social media platforms are in their network of users. We have allowed companies to own and control this, making it nearly impossible for anyone else to compete.

Corbyn’s notion of a publicly-owned platform is admirable in intention, but to fundamentally alter the online landscape we need to change the rulebook to create an environment fostering user choice and agency. A public social media platform would suffer many of the same problems that alternative projects have faced in the past.

Even if a new platform can overcome the challenge of migrating a significant number of users to the new platform — replacing one monopoly with another — this still leaves power concentrated in the hands of the few. We shouldn’t create systems that can be abused and are dependent on a responsible owner, such as the BDC, to exist.

We need systemic changes that redesign the playing field to offer sustainable and long term choice. In short, we need to re-decentralise power.

Government should focus on extending the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation rights around data portability and enshrining the use of open standards and protocols when it comes to communication and social media. Not only is this technically feasible, there are in fact several mature projects in this space.

Standards bodies such as the W3C (founded by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web) have been developing standards for federating updates across services and devices for over a decade. Matrix, a project to decentralise communication, have created an open protocol iterating on XMPP, which can be used by any chat client.

Not that many years ago, open protocols like XMPP allowed users to chat across and between a range of apps. You could run Pidgin or one of its many competitors to message your friends on Facebook, Google, MSN and IRC all from one application.

Yet as Facebook and Google became more powerful and dominant, they stopped supporting these open protocols, forcing users to juggle numerous siloed accounts. The needs of users have been overwritten by the desire of digital monopolies to control the content in their walled gardens in order to better serve their customers — advertisers and data buyers.

Now, just email stands alone. For now, a Gmail account lets you email anyone regardless of the email client they’re running, whether it’s Hotmail, ProtonMail or Yahoo. Can you imagine using WhatsApp to chat to your friends on Reddit or share photos from Flickr to Facebook and still see likes and comments? That’s the power of open protocols.

Even if most people would choose to stay with Facebook, the option of genuine alternatives that users could switch to easily and not lose touch with their existing friends would help keep current giant digital monoliths accountable akin to the Digg Exodus of 2010.

Supporting open protocols and standards will enable an ecosystem of viable alternatives that will drive innovation and user choice, privacy and resilience.

We want a world where you don’t lose everything if Google decides to delete your account, a world where your data won’t be hacked or spied on. We want a world where users can finally migrate away from predatory, privacy-infringing corporate networks and central points of failure.

This isn’t new. This is how the web was originally designed, for everyone.

Labour has the opportunity now to set a bold strategy aimed at reining in the power of digital monopolies and bringing about a seismic shift in how we understand power in the online space. If Corbyn’s speech told us anything, it’s that his team have an appetite for taking on tech power — now they need to bring the ideas.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It’s time to redecentralise.

[Reprinted from New Socialist.]

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