Reclaiming your identity – distributed social networks

Posted February 2nd, 2010 by konrad

Tin can telephoneIt’s good to see that there is a growing movement that aims to free the online identity and the social graph from silo platforms with dubious privacy agreements and to offer decentralized entities as new harbors. While I like the idea of the Diso Project that tries to implement decentralized social networks by extending server-located platforms like WordPress (and luckily being heavily based on open standards) there is another approach to tackle the problem – by putting the identity in your browser. Aza Raskin stated that identity will be one of the defining themes of the web in the next five years and made hopes that Firefox will offer such functionality in the future. Unfortunately it looks like the Firefox community has only some mocks to offer currently. Interestingly there has been some research going on in this field in the last years that might point to solutions for some of the problems which have to be overcome: There are social networks that are based on the P2P concept (more precisely F2F) and offer a high level of privacy granularity by working with a so called Matryoshkas concept. One of the main problems is the persistence of a user’s personal data in the case that he is offline. There is a good introductionary paper discussing (and solving) these issues and proposing an implementation called Safebook [1]. Other early stage projects are Lifesocial and Persona. While I think the basic idea of P2P-based distributed social networks is the right direction I think it is done wrongly by not integrating it into the browser which is the natural habitat for the online identity. This might be partly due to technical limitations of browser plugins.

Another issue is the following: As far as I understand the profile data would be displayed in the browser for users that use this networking functionality. But in many cases it would be needed to present parts of the identity to the public e.g. on a plain web page. So based on the privacy setting the underlying identity data would have to be rendered to HTML and send to a server. Sounds technically trivial but might have further privacy implications.

For me there is also the burning question of how the concepts could be applied to replace specialized networks with many different purposes and requirements (like Couchsurfing) to get “one to rule them all”.

Currently it is not clear that decentralized networks will win against their centralized counterparts in the near future. The raising awareness of privacy and of the value of online identities might be driving forces to make that shift happen. I expect that we will observe quite some development in this area soon.

[1] Cutillo, Leucio Antonio;Molva, Refik;Strufe, Thorsten,
Leveraging social links for trust and privacy in networks, INetSec 2009. Open Research Problems in Network Security. April 23-24, 2009. Zurich, Switzerland

Photo by fadderuri.

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