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Google backslides on federated instant messaging, on purpose?

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Mar 15, 2013 02:40 PM
Google users can still send subscription requests to contacts whose accounts are hosted elsewhere. But they cannot accept incoming requests. This change is akin to Google no longer accepting incoming e-mail for @gmail.com addresses from non-Google domains. That would be unthinkable.

by John Sullivan, Executive Director, and Ward Vandewege, CTO

Update: Google has now done the right thing and corrected this problem.

Earlier this year, we announced an instant messaging service for our members using Jabber (XMPP). This service is federated, so like email, you can talk to people whose account is hosted somewhere else than the FSF. Your account is, say, johns@member.fsf.org, but you could still seamlessly talk to someone who is sergey@gmail.com.

Until now. Recently, some of our members started reporting that they were no longer able to add contacts at GoogleTalk, which is the Jabber service Google provides to Gmail users. Since Google has run a fully federated Jabber service for a long time and ours is new, we investigated under the assumption the problem was on our end.

Turns out, Google has started blocking invites sent from non-Google Jabber servers. Subscription requests just disappear mysteriously, confusing both users and server operators.

Google users can still send subscription requests to contacts whose accounts are hosted elsewhere. But they cannot accept incoming requests. This change is akin to Google no longer accepting incoming e-mail for @gmail.com addresses from non-Google domains. That would be unthinkable.

According to a public mailing list thread, Google is doing this on purpose, to handle a spam problem. We sympathize; we spend a disappointing amount of energy combating similar problems on the services we provide for the free software community. But the solution can't be something that breaks legitimate communication channels, and especially not in a way that enhances Google's disproportionate control of the network. While Google is offering to whitelist servers whose operators write to them, this just accentuates the inequality and doesn't realistically solve the problem.

We hope that Google will retract this change and find a solution that does not undermine the distributed nature of the Internet. We have already reached out to them toward this end.

Meanwhile, we will continue offering our Jabber server as part of our commitment to the vision of the Internet as a place of free federation. You can join the FSF as a member and start using yourname@member.fsf.org anytime.

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