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Join the federation

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Jul 10, 2017 11:45 AM

Since 2004, online interaction between friends and people with shared interests has slowly become dominated by a few giant social networking sites. You probably know of them: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are among those with the most users, and focus on sharing images, links, video, and chat.

These sites want to control your computing. They use their own servers, which you can't access. They force you to run their preferred systems for accessing these sites. They promote use of nonfree software by serving users nonfree JavaScript (for example, Facebook does this for some features) that runs on runs on users' local machines, and by promoting and distributing proprietary mobile apps to use their services.* They control what technologies you can use to access their servers, what you are allowed to do on their site, and the data you generate.

  • Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all use and contribute individual components that are available under licenses included in the GNU Project's list of free software licenses.

Federated and free: why it's good

Luckily, there's an option that allows more people to have direct control over their social network activity: free software federation. There are many reasons why free software federation is great, including:

  • Freedom: In theory, federated networks can include nodes pushing proprietary software, but in practice, it's an approach favored more by free software. You can examine the code yourself in order to understand what it does and determine whether it can be trusted. You can modify it, too. The microblogging software Mastodon is an alternative implementation of GNU social--and that's possible because GNU social is free software. So the ideal social web isn't just federated -- it's a federation of free software nodes.

  • Interoperability: On a federated (also known as distributed) network, people whose accounts are located on different instances can communicate with each other.

  • Resilience: Because a federated network is made up of multiple instances, each used by a different set of people, rather than being operated by one company with all users relying on the same server, the failure of one instance doesn't affect all users.

  • Privacy: Using a federated network means it is harder for a large company to spy on you. And if you run your own node in the network, you can inspect the code to make certain that the privacy of data associated with your account is being respected.

  • Preserving your data: When you place photos or other documents that are important to you in the hands of centralized, corporate-controlled social media software, you could unexpectedly lose those things if the company that controls the servers decides to discontinue the program or block access to your account. If you host your own instance, you decide.

Federation sounds weird. How does it work?

In practice, someone using a federated social network is likely to detect only a slight difference. Take the experience of GNU social versus Twitter, for example. If you want to use Twitter, you need to create an account on twitter.com, nowhere else. You can only reply to another person if they also have an account on twitter.com, and each handle looks like this: @fsf. Yes, the FSF does use Twitter, in a way that avoids using any proprietary software.

But if you use a federated social network, like GNU social, you might create your account on a GNU social instance, like https://quitter.se/, but that site is only one of many options. If the FSF (fsf@status.fsf.org) wants to talk to 2016 Free Software Award winner Alexandre Oliva, we would tag his full handle: @lxoliva@social.libreplanetbr.org.

The protocols underlying free software, decentralized social media are continuing to advance. Three years ago, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created a social web working group whose goals include creating a Web protocol for “federating social information such as status updates,” explicitly to “facilitate access to social communication on the Web.” The working group's charter includes in its use cases user control over personal data and cross-organization ad-hoc federation. Unlike other efforts by the W3C, it's nice to see the social web working group engaged in some freedom-respecting goals.

Now that you understand a bit more about how federated social networks behave, and why they're good for your freedom, why not try one? Visit a diaspora pod for a general social network, a GNU social or Mastodon instance for microblogging, or a GNU Mediagoblin instance for sharing media like video and images.

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