Privacy, Moglen, @ioerror, #rp12

Privacy, Moglen, @ioerror, #rp12

I gave a talk with Jacob Appelbaum at last week’s Re:publica conference in Berlin.

It seems it had fallen to us to break a little bad news. Here it is.

– We are not progressing from a primitive era of centralized social media to an emerging era of decentralized social media, the reverse is happening.

– Surveillance and control of users is not some sort of unintended consequence of social media platforms, it is the reason they exist.

– Privacy is not simply a consumer choice, it is a matter of power and privilege.

Earlier at Re:publica, Eben Moglen, the brilliant and tireless legal council of the Free Software Foundation and founder of the FreedomBox Foundation, gave a characteristically excellent speech.

However, in his enthusiasm, he makes makes a claim that seems very wrong.

Moglen, claims that Facebook’s days as a dominant platform are numbered, because we will soon have decentralized social platforms, based on projects such as FreedomBox, users will operate their own federated platforms and form collective social platforms based on their own hardware, retain control of their own data, etc.

I can understand and share Moglen’s enthusiasm for such a vision, however this is not the observable history of our communications platforms, not the obvious direction they seem to be headed, and there is no clear reason to believe this will change.

The trajectory that Moglen is using has centralized social media as the starting point and distributed social media as the place we are moving toward. But in actual fact, distributed social media is where we started, and centralized platforms are where we have arrived.

The Internet is a distributed social media platform. The classic internet platforms that existed before the commercialization of the web provided all the features of modern social media monopolies.

Platforms like Usenet, Email, IRC and Finger allowed us to do everything we do now with Facebook and friends. We could post status updates, share pictures, send messages, etc. Yet, these platforms have been more or less abandoned. So the question we need to address is not so much how we can invent a distributed social platform, but how and why we started from a fully distributed social platform and replaced it with centralized social media monopolies.

The answer is quite simple. The early internet was not significantly capitalist funded, the change in application topology came along with commercialization, and it is a consequence of the business models required by capitalist investors to capture profit.

The business model of social media platforms is surveillance and behavioral control. The internet’s original protocols and architecture made surveillance and behavioral control more difficult. Once capital became the dominant source of financing it directed investment toward centralized platforms, which are better at providing such surveillance and control, the original platforms were starved of financing. The centralized platforms grew and the decentralized platforms submerged beneath the rising tides of the capitalist web.

This is nothing new. This was the same business model that capital devised for media in general, such as network television. The customer of network television is not the viewer, rather the viewer is the product, the “audience commodity.” The real customer is the advertisers and lobby groups that want to control this audience.

Network Television didn’t provide the surveillance part, so advertisers needed to employ market research and ratings firms such as Nielson for that bit. This was a major advantage of social media, richer data from better surveillance allowed for more effective behavioral control than ever before possible, using tracking, targeting, machine learning, behavioral retargeting, among many techniques made possible by the deep pool of data companies like Facebook and Google have available.

This is not a choice that capitalist made, this is the only way that profit-driven organizations can provide a public good like a communication platform. Capitalist investors must capture profit or lose their capital. If their platforms can not capture profit, they vanish.

So, if capitalism can not fund free, federated social platforms, what will? For Moglen’s optimistic trajectory to pan out, this implies that funds can come from the public sector, or from volunteers/donations etc? But if these sectors where capable of turning the tide on social media monopolies, wouldn’t they have already done so? After all, the internet started out as a decentralized platform, so it’s not like they had to play catch-up, they had a significant head start. Yet, you could fill many a curio case with technologies dreamed up and abandoned because they could not be sustained without financing.

Give the continuous march of neoliberal public sector retrenchment, the austerity craze, and the ever increasing precariousness of most communities, it seems unlikely the public or voluntary sectors will be the source of such a dramatic turnaround. Given the general tendency of capitalist economies toward accumulation and consolidation, such a turnaround seems even less likely.

Thus, there is no real reason to believe Moglen’s trajectory will come about. The obstacle to decentralized social media is not that it has not been invented, but the profit-motive itself. Thus to reverse this trajectory back towards decentralization, requires not so much technical initiative, but political struggle.

So long as we maintain the social choice to provision our communication systems according to the profit motive, we will only get communications platforms that allow for the capture of profit. Free, open systems, that neither surveil, nor control, nor exclude, will not be funded, as they do not provide the mechanisms required to capture profit.

Facebook is worth billions precisely because of it’s capacity for surveillance and control. Same with Google.

Thus, like the struggle for other public goods, like education, child care, and health care, free communication platforms for the masses can only come from collective political struggle to achieve such platforms.

In the meantime, we have many clever and dedicated people contributing to inventing alternative platforms, and these platforms can be very important and worthwhile for the minority that will ever use them, but we do not have the social will nor capacity to bring these platforms to the masses, and given the dominance of capital in our society, it’s not clear where such capacity will come from.

As surveillance and control is enforced by the powerful interests of capital, privacy and autonomy become a question of power and privilege, not just consumer choice.

It’s not simply a question of choosing to use certain platforms over others, it’s not a question of openness and visibility being the new way people live in a networked society. Rather it’s a fact that our platforms are financed for the purpose of watching people and pushing them to behave in ways that benefit the operators of the platform and their real customers, the advertisers, and the industrial and political lobbies. The platform exists to shape society according to the interests of these advertisers and lobbies.

As such, how coercive these platforms are largely depend on the degree to which your behaviour is aligned with the platform-operators’ profit-driven objectives, and thus privacy and autonomy is not just a feature any given platforms my or may not offer, but determine the possibility of resistance, determine our ability to work against powerful interests’ efforts to shape society in ways we disagree with. As Jake said at our talk “We can’t have post-privacy until we are post-privilege”

Eliminating privilege is a political struggle, not a technical one.

I’ll be at Stammtisch as usual around 9pm, please come by, anybody still hanging around after #rp12 is more than welcome to join us. You can find us here:


  1. ww

    Incidentally as I remember it, the deaths of Usenet and finger were not thought of at the time in terms of being decentralised or not. The former was in terms of resource usage because of the high volumes of alt.binaries.* and the way NNTP worked by copying everything everywhere — the larger providers were expected to carry all groups and this meant a disproportionate amount of disk space and CPU cycles compared to the other infrastructure. The reason finger died was because it was too closely tied to the account that a user was using to go about their business so was too good a way to gather information about who had accounts on a particular system in order to break in, it mixed public information (.plan) with private information (home directory and shell, for example) willy-nilly. There may have been workarounds for these but the cost-benefit tradeoff seemed wrong to many people at the time.

    The effect is the same, and by eliminating these things they were eventually replaced with centralised walled-garden arrangements, but as I remember it the reasoning that said this was a “good thing” was very much post-hoc.

  2. Kerry

    Your bad news is crystal clear and well put. I am weary of trying to save the whales and feed the starving children with my $5 donations. There is no solution if one does not see the problem from the global perspective you make so obvious. Eliminating privilege is a tall order. What can I do?

  3. Dmytri

    Hey Will, as I said on nettime, I never said “usenet died because of it’s decentralized nature.”

    I said “Once capital became the dominant source of financing it directed investment toward centralized platforms, which are better at providing such surveillance and control, the original platforms were starved of financing. The centralized platforms grew and the decentralized platforms submerged beneath the rising tides of the capitalist web.”

    Whatever problems Usenet or other platforms may have had, these issues could have been fixed with investment in the further development of the platform, or perhaps a whole new distributed platform, such investment was never made, while billions where invested in centralized platforms.

  4. ww

    Dima, that’s not how I remember it happening. The ISPs simply gradually exited the business of delivering bits at higher than layer 3. News was just the first casualty because it was the most expensive to run. It took longer but they have by now mostly exited the business of hosting web sites and email as well. This separation of concerns was a good thing.

    That industry then underwent a separate phase of consolidation of ownership, as the smaller providers were bought out by the larger ones. For various reasons this is of concern as well, but the point is that it is part of the history of what happened to the basic infrastructure, and usenet is part of that story. To a great extent the data network infrastructure industry is now mature.

    The story of how services provided by users (including big web sites as a certain class of “user”) on top of the infrastructure developed is similar in some respects, there are certain underlying tendencies that you might be able to pick out, but it is a separate story. There is some overlap but there is also some time lag, it got started some 10-15 years later and is yet immature and far more volatile.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusions. But there seem to rely on causal relationships in your reasoning that weren’t in fact there at the time. As I said, the thinking about centralisation or lack thereof during the dotcom boom of the people making (or investing in) web sites was post-hoc. Of course they looked back on usenet and thought that they didn’t want to make something like that. But that line of thought had little to do with why usenet died — especially since it only developed after the fact.

  5. Dmytri

    Sorry, I can’t really follow. You don’t remember Usenet not being invested in and social media being invested in? I’m pretty sure you do. What do you mean by “how I remember it happening?”

    I haven’t told the tale of what became of Usenet or why, you’re disputing an argument I have not made.

    My article is not about why Usenet was was discontinued, it is about the fact that capital financing has surveillance and control as a prerequisite. Neither Usenet, nor any other distributed system received funding, except attempts to centralized value creation. i.e. Deja News/Google Groups.

    The ones that did receive funding had owners that where able to include profit projections in their powerpoint decks. Most often, these profit projections where based on a business model based on selling ads, which requires centralization. Investors liked this, because, for one thing, they already knew this business model from network television, among other examples.

    At no point in these meetings where administrative troubles of running News likely to come up.

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  12. Poor Richard

    Good points, Dmytri!

    The tools I describe in PeerPoint ( ) are the tools (maybe I should call them weapons) that we need to conduct our political struggle, not afterwards. The community that brought us Linux and Open Office is capable of bringing us PeerPoint or something equivalent if it understands the existential need. If anyone doubts this, look at . If that community does not understand the existential need, somehow we must make them understand it.

    FreedomBox is a great idea, but its almost too little too late. Most p2p projects seem like isolated islands, maybe because free/open/p2p software development is largely self-motivated and idiosyncratic. The bulk of the hacker and FOS community does not yet appear to perceive its enlightened self-interest in this matter. What I’m saying is that we need to help them open their “Doors of Perception” wider, even if we have to give them some mescaline.

    What will it take?

    Poor Richard

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