Data portability is useless. Hardware is a privilege


And no “freedom box” should make us forget these facts.

Freedombox is a combination of hardware and free/open source software to run your very own server for social networking, blogging, email and so on, in order to “escape the large platforms that control our data and our lives”. One week ago the FreedomBox Foundation released its first commercially available FreedomBox hardware kit. Among the many reactions to the announcement, an article about using FreedomBox… to regain control of your online privacy helps me to make (again) a couple of crucial points.

Portability? DUH

That article rightly notes that “people will be reluctant to move off popular services like Google and Facebook”. However, it is wrong, or at least way too optimistic, in saying that that problem might be eased if there were good tools for exporting social media data to other platforms.” And the reason why it is, as a minimum, very optimistic is this:

Data portability is useless. Hardware is a privilege /img/dilbert-videophone.gif

In and by itself, data portability is absolutely useless when it comes to communication services. The reason is shown in the Dilbert strip above, and explained in my comments about the limits of the Warren proposal to “break up Facebook”:

“reversing the Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram mergers would merely keep everybody stuck into the same, unbelievably stupid situation we have been for years now: unable to directly, transparently exchange messages between Facebook, WhatsApp and any other instant messaging provider. Which is just as smart as, for example, Huawei phones unable to call iPhones, or Vodafone users unable to call Verizon ones.”

Indeed, this showstopper is acknowledged in that article, when it says that the real trouble is not “to move to a new system [but persuade] all one’s friends and family to do the same.” But for me it is THE showstopper. Let me insist on this: seamless data portability alone is as useful as a smartphone that can take your SIM card with all your contacts, but has no antenna. It’s a joke, nothing more. And we let it happen.

When I first proposed the percloud, back in 201213, interoperability with Facebook was possible. I myself showed how one could read her Facebook wall or post to it WITHOUT ever using the Facebook website or app. Later on, taking advantage of everybody’s self-distraction with just breaking it up, or providing “data portability”, Facebook removed this possibility. But real interoperability remains the first, if not the only thing to “regulate” in Facebook and other platforms!

First crucial point: All the obsession on data portability is useless, if not counterproductive, if it is not preceeded by real interoperability. If you have that, you may even not need data portability in the first place.

Hardware is for people who can buy and plug it somewhere

The same article notes that “it is not recommended to run the software permanently in the cloud because doing so loses many of the key protections afforded by using your own physical server under your direct control.” As true as it is, this assertion crashes with the reality hidden in this picture:

Data portability is useless. Hardware is a privilege /img/freedombox-hardware-kit.jpg
Total cost of FreedomBox: about 60 dollars... PLUS decent power grid and bandwidth

The reality is that many current users of Facebook, WhatsApp and similar walled gardens, including THESE ones:

Data portability is useless. Hardware is a privilege /img/migrants-in-mediterranean.jpg

and, in general, the overwhelming majority of Facebook’s “bright, planetary next billion users” would have no reason to buy any FreedomBox. Even if they did have 60 bucks to spare for it.

Because the second crucial point is the same I wrote about more than six years ago: any hardware-based solution is only accessible to “individuals with constant access to safe places with affordable, stable electricity and Internet connectivity, in which they could host their boxes.”

This is why I insist that, if the goal is rescuing enough people from Facebook, soon enough, the very first thing to do is provide quick and dirty PERMANENT, PERSONAL clouds as a service. This is about communication, which needs real interoperability and universal access to basic services, much more than any “data portability”.

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