The alternatives to Apple, Facebook & C already exist. Shall we package them?

A recent article by Bruce Sterling explains why, thanks to Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft talking about the Internet stopped making sense in 2012. The article caused the following comment an Italian mailing list: unfortunately, this isn’t news at all… What would be news would be to find alternatives. I answered that comment as follows.

Sure enough, projects like Diaspora were born just to replace some of those services, but they are still in the early stages. Here, however, I would like to explain that maybe we don’t have to wait because, technically speaking, almost all the alternative already exist, and suggest to assemble them together.

Email has been manageable in a completely autonomous way for a long time, for the reasons and with the tools I already presented in another article and its included lnks. I already use Squirrelmail for this, but there are also interfaces much more similar to Gmail.

For online bookmarks, like but self-managed, there is SemanticScuttle. You can browse my own personal installation here.

Self-hosted cloud storage of photo galleries, texts, contact lists, calendars… is doable with owncloud. Notifications are the realm of RSS feeds, which you can aggregate, integrate and process however you see fit. The screenshot here shows how I do that. Simple scripts that I wrote by myself in a few hours collect in one HTML page on my server, automatically updated, all my news sources. Including, as you can see, Twitter and (not present in that specific screenshot, but working just fine), the notifications from my Facebook account (I mention this to stress that the proposal here is not an “all or nothing, NOW” proposition).

Online publication, without some private company taking you offline in a second, just because they go out of business, or feel like it? Personal websites like this and many, many more have been using WordPress for years and are very happy with it. Federation, that is automatic connection of many independent WordPress websites with already existing mechanisms like OStatus, would provide social, Facebook-like discussions without the need for a Facebook account (and no place for Comment Nazis).

I could continue, but I hope the overall concept is clear by now.

Installing (even on cheap hosting accounts) all this Free Software applications and others I didn’t mention for brevity on a virtual Linux server you get one single blob of living bits that lets you do everything you need online, with all the privacy you need and NO fear that the “landlord” disappears or kicks you out in the street without notification. Because you can do all the complete copies and backups you want, and move the whole blob of bits, without particular problems, to a new hosting provider.

Of course, you are thinking yes, strictly speaking it’s clear but…

What’s missing?

If all this already exists, why isn’t everybody doing it? Well, simply because there is no integration at all among all those objects. I am sort of a geek, so personally I have no problems to install everything one piece at a time and do a lot of manual configuration work. Heck, I even like it, most of the time. Besides, I couldn’t care less if every windows (email, chat, news…) looks and behaves different from ALL the others, and ALL are ugly as sin. For almost all human beings, however, this is an unbreakable wall.

But creating one, single, turn-key bundle of Free Software that contains:

  • all the pieces, already configured to work together
  • one single, coherent and beautiful visual look
  • predefined GUI procedures for external backups, adding users, software updates from trusted repositories etc…

is not that difficult! Sure, it takes a non negligible amount of time and some online infrastructure to distribute the result, but it’s not rocket science. And if such a software “product” existed, everybody could do what todays happens with WordPress, for every part of his or her online life: “download and run it yourself if you want, otherwise click here to start a blog on our server, with the certainty that you can migrate it in any moment without problems”//. Heck, there could even be a nice service business here…

But that is another issue, my point is that all this is possible. And the sooner it’s done, the better, whoever does it. What? Me? Well, since you ask… :-) I do have the both motivation and the skills to do a good part of the job and coordinate the rest. I am not doing it because, as I said it would take a lot of time, which I can’t afford to give for free. But if any sponsor is listening, feel free to contact me :-)

13 thoughts on “The alternatives to Apple, Facebook & C already exist. Shall we package them?”

  1. You are absolutely right! This is critically important, the pieces are there, and it should all just be put together!

    But thankfully you don’t have to do this all alone. Someone is already working on it. It’s lead by Eben Moglen, famous for the GPL and Software Freedom Law Center, and it’s called the FreedomBox. I’m absolutely sure they need all the help they can get, and I hope you will join them! It’s a big task, so we should all work together on this one!

    I’ve written a blogpost about the importance of federated social networks that I think you might like. Feel free to look at it if you want :)

  2. Your idea is admirable and I hope that suitable sponsors come forward. In the meantime, there are some preconfigured downloadable virtual appliances available from Turnkey Linux: although not all the applications you mention have been built

    1. Hi Ovigia. No, to my knowledge, cfr my summary of Moglen answers in my other comment, this integration of existing FOSS apps is not what the freedom box is about . Or at least “was about” when I contacted him. For example, I have never heard anywhere that the Freedom box would include something like the virtual personal email server (VPES) I outlined here

  3. Greeting everybody, and thanks for your interest. With respect to Freedombox: I know very well what the Freedombox is.

    The Freedombox is first and foremost hardware. What I describe here is only software. That _could_ also run into a freedombox. _when_ it will be available. But could and should run everywhere, as soon as possible.

    All hosting providers could benefit from a software package like this. Apart from that, my point is that if people have to buy a freedom box to use these services, they HAVE to first, wait till it’s available, second, get one.I think people should be helped to get these benefits asap, and on whatever platform they want.

    Now, speaking of software: when Diaspora was announced, in May 2010, I immediately wrote to Eben Moglen the points summarized in this comment, plus my concern that ordinary users wouldn’t try it even om their own computers, unless it was a one-click install.

    1) Back then, Moglen answered that “Diaspora is part of a larger project [the freedom box, of course] and… a set of infrastructure APIs, not a user interface”.

    2) from what I saw and read around since 2010 (I also got a diaspora account), Diaspora seems to “only” do social networking. The software bundle proposed above is much more complete. My own understanding is that Diaspora code may very well be a part of that bundle, and probably should, not the contrary.

    3) Still in May 2010, I also told Moglen about the only part of this “vision” of mine that at the time was already defined in my own mind:

    > [I recently published something] that looks very much (to me at least) like the email part of the Freedom Box:

    I never heard back from Moglen, and I didn’t insist. Eben Moglen is a great, very busy guy, so I am NOT upset that I got no more feedback, especially after those explanations. After all, if their focus was hardware and APIs, and mine turn-key sw bundles for end users, there was no direct overlap or pressing need to look for it, right? Besides, while Diaspora could be a wonderful component of the bundle, this proposal makes and has lots of potential users regardless of the existence of Diaspora and the Freedom Box.

    This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t love to work with Moglen and/or the Diaspora, of course! All the contrary! It’s just an explanation of why I didn’t focus on them.

    1. Good point in this article.

      From what I’ve read and seen in videos of presentations, the freedombox project may have a different focus than what you propose (their priority is security and privacy for individuals in really critical situations) but it is certainly foremost a software project. They just chose the plug computer as a first hardware platform since it’s already available. I’ve heard or read freedombox people say several times that they hope better, cheaper, opener hardware comes along.

      I’ve been interested in friendica, whose tagline is ‘the internet is our social network’. Haven’t quite figured out what it’s about, but it seems a similar philosophy to what you propose.

      1. Thanks for your feedback, Hans.

        I’ve discovered Friendica recently and yes, it does seem another good component for the bundle I’m suggesting. It is also true that “really critical situations” are not THE first and main focus here.

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