After recent revelations of National Security Agency spying, it's difficult to trust large Internet corporations like Facebook to host our online social networks. Facebook is one of nine companies tied to PRISM - perhaps the largest government surveillance effort in world history. Even before this story broke, many social-media addicts had lost trust in the company. Maybe now they'll finally start thinking seriously about leaving the social-network giant.
Luckily, there are other options, ones that are less vulnerable to government spying and offer users more control over their personal data. But will mass migration from Facebook actually happen?
According to a Pew study released weeks before news of PRISM broke, teenagers are disenchanted with Facebook. They're moving to other platforms, like Snapchat and (Facebook-owned) Instagram, the study reports. This is the way a social network dies - people sign up for multiple platforms before gradually realizing that one has become vacant or uninteresting. Myspace, for instance, took years to drop off the map. By 2006, Myspace reached 100 million users, making it the most popular social network in the United States. But by 2008, Facebook had reached twice that number, less than two years after allowing anyone older than 13 to join the network.
Benjamin Mako Hill, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, thinks Facebook's ability to connect people and bind them to the social network is overrated to begin with. "Facebook didn't exist, what, 10 years ago," he says, and in 10 years, he thinks, "a company called Facebook will exist, but will it occupy the same space in our culture? That's certainly not something I'm willing to take for granted."
Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other new flavors of the month all use centralized servers that are incredibly easy to spy on. But there are other places to go.
For years, the free-software movement has been developing and using social networks designed with user privacy in mind. Unlike Facebook, these social networks are not hosted by a single entity's privately owned servers but rather by volunteers across the world who share server space in order to maintain a decentralized, robust network. When a company like Facebook hosts the data of more than 1 billion users, it's not hard for the government to simply ask for permission to access that data, conveniently stored all in one place.
Gabriella Coleman, a professor of scientific and technological literacy at McGill University, points out that companies like Facebook would be collecting data on individuals regardless of government requests. That's how the vast majority of free online social networks make money; they use data mining to sell targeted, contextual ads. "In some ways," she says, "that's the source of the problem, the fact that we've just given up all of our data in return for free services."
Community-hosted, decentralized social media, on the other hand, allow people to maintain ownership of their data. These platforms use a principle called "federation" to connect a vast network of servers to one another. If the NSA wants to collect the data of all the users on a decentralized network, it has to contend with a large number of disparate server owners who could be anywhere in the world, a much more complicated task than issuing a single subpoena or hacking into a centralized server.
There's a resiliency to having data spread across multiple sites; that's the way the Web was intended to work, and we need to bring that back," says Christopher Webber, the founder of MediaGoblin, a federated, free-software replacement for YouTube, Flickr, SoundCloud and other media hosting services. Other projects, like Identi.ca (which is similar to Twitter), Diaspora, and Friendica are replacements for conventional social-media networks, and they work. The number of users on federated networks is hard to calculate - again, their data are spread out instead of stored centrally - but Identi.ca alone counts 1.5 million users.
PRISM could be the impetus that gets more communities to begin using these networks. Last week, activists launched prism-break.org, a site that offers a menu of options for those looking to "opt out" of government surveillance.
The NSA's spy apparatus worked because of the centrally owned and operated networks we have relied on to socialize. How the PRISM story will play out politically remains uncertain, but there are more immediate ways for users to regain privacy. Try another social network, and bring your friends to experiment with you. If you oppose turnkey government spying, go where the NSA doesn't have a backdoor.
April Glaser works at the New America Foundation's Media Policy Initiative. Libby Reinish is an employee of the Free Software Foundation.