Social Networking Vulnerable, Federate It To Protect It, Part 3

Tuesday, 2011-April-19 at 03:43

This is part of a continuing series. Parts 1 and 2 have already been written and posted. (NOTE: links point to Amplify, but this series also appears on Tumblr, Posterous, Xanga, Typepad, and WordPress.)

It is difficult to observe the events that have occurred recently (and are still occurring as of this date) in the Middle East without recognizing that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be used to organize protests and other political activity. If the cause attracts sufficient interest and enough people believe the cause is urgent, those protests can topple governments.

Social networking is a tool that can be used to organize and coordinate the activities of large numbers of individuals. Whether your cause is toppling dictatorships or removing genetically-altered organisms from the food supply, these tools may be helpful to you.

But that comes at a price. We saw the wikileaks site chased off of its cloud-hosting service and we saw its payment processors sever their ties. We saw Tunisia blocking access to Twitter and Facebook. We saw Egypt cut off Internet traffic with the rest of the world (something which may have also occurred in Libya). Those who are in control can take action to prevent protesters from accessing any particular site or they can shut down the entire Internet.

Federation is a necessary mechanism to help prevent such blocking. It has limits, to be sure. When a nation’s Internet carriers shut down border gateway protocol with the rest of the world, nothing we can do will allow us to regain connectivity outside the country. When a nation’s Internet service providers completely shut down Internet access, even sites inside the country will be unreachable.

What federation provides is the first level of target dispersion. If 50% or more of protest organization takes place on Twitter and Facebook, blocking those two sites might possibly be enough to disrupt your group’s activities. If, on the other hand, you are using multiple sites which are members of federated networks, it is not as easy to disrupt your group. Recognize that federation is only the first step toward resilient networks.

Over time, we will have to evolve our networks to be resilient against the kinds of attacks we have recently seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iran, China, and other countries. This is true whether your group seeks a political goal or not.

We must, however, start by moving much of our social networking activities to federated sites like Friendika (demo site at http://demo.friendika.com/), Diaspora (official alpha site at https://joindiaspora.com/ and other sites at http://diasp.org/ and http://diasp.eu/), and StatusNet (main site at http://identi.ca/ see also here).

It isn’t that centralized sites like Twitter and Facebook are evil. It is that they are an easy chokepoint for those whose agendas conflict with yours. If your small business threatens the dominance of a large and wealthy corporation, watch out. There will be ample incentive for some kind activity meant to disrupt your ability to organize and coordinate the group’s activities. If centralized sites like Twitter and Facebook are the hubs of your internal communications, they will find ways to bring it down.

If your group’s agenda threatens the agenda of some political group, there will be ample incentive for some kind of action meant to disrupt your ability to organize and coordinate your group’s activities.

Again, I cannot stress this enough: recent news out of the Middle East says that any activities that threaten someone powerful could lead to blocking access to sites, attempts to break into accounts (for impersonation and destroying reputations or as a way to prevent opposition from coalescing into an effective foe), or even nuking the entire Internet within a country or a part of a country. And since powerful corporations have the ear of politicians, it does not have to be a political issue.

In fact, that is the more important factor. Perhaps you wish to advocate on the behalf of farmers, particularly organic farmers, against corporations that sell gene-modified seed to neighboring farmers, then sue the organic farmers when the modified genes bleed over into their fields. Do not let yourself be fooled into thinking that you can’t be targeted by these same tactics. You don’t have to be against the government to become a target.

If your group’s organization and coordination activities are based around the use of a centralized service, you need to make sure to move most of your actions to a federated service such as Friendika or Diaspora, RStatus, or StatusNet. Now, don’t just move everything to another brand of central hub. Group members should use various sites that are members of the federated web, so that $BIG_COMPETITOR can’t stop your activities simply by preventing access to one or two sites.

Diverse networks of sites which all follow the same basic set of functionality (including common protocol suites, for the technically inclined) are harder to successfully target. StatusNet and RStatus, for example, both aim to fully support the OStatus protocol suite. This means that you can install StatusNet on commodity hosting and I can install RStatus on my laptop, and users of each system should be able to subscribe to updates from the other system.

There is much to do beyond federation. The entire Internet is designed more for efficiency than for resistance to these kinds of attacks. As more and more of our personal, business, financial, political, and governmental communications move online, we must pay even more attention to these unresolved issues. However, it starts with federation, encryption, and peer-to-peer. We will discuss more of these issues later in this series.

Entry filed under: Federated Social Networks. Tags: .

Social Networking Vulnerable, Federate It To Protect It (Part 2) Thinking About Independence Day


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