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Updated: June 26, 2011 18:38 IST

Ushering in the future of Internet: distributed social networks

S. Raghavendra
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S. Raghavendra, networking engineer and Free Software activist. Photo: Special Arrangement
The Hindu
S. Raghavendra, networking engineer and Free Software activist. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Internet, when conceived, was an autonomous conglomeration of end-user machines present at the edge of the network. It was decentralised, free (as in freedom) and neutral (as in unbiased).

The nature of the Internet, off late, owing to the nosy interventions by big corporations, is no longer neutral and/or free. From being decentralised, it is steadily converging to become a centralised infrastructure with little or no freedom to end-users.

As users, we need to be concerned about the safety and probable misuse of data we entrust to the biggies in the Internet game.

Consider the instance where more than 500 million users on a famous social networking site have voluntarily handed over their data to a single company, under highly privacy infringing terms and conditions. It is not unlikely that all this private information could be compromised by the firm.

Decentralise them

One prospective solution to the underlying menace of centralised social networking is to decentralise it. This can be accomplished by firstly creating simpler and smaller online social networks, and then federating them together. These networks will be centred on users instead of a faceless hub. This technology, which facilitates decentralisation of online socialising, is called as distributed/ federated social networks.

Diaspora is one such distributed social networking initiative. It was started by four talented programmers from NYU Courant Institute, after having heard Eben Moglen talk about “lack of privacy and free spying in the Cloud”.

The simple and small social networks that can be run on a server and made available online are called as Pods. These Diaspora Pods can be accessed via their ‘handles' — name given to the URL of the Pods. Because Diaspora is a Free (as in freedom) Software, these Pods can be installed and run even on a personal computer, and be made available to users on a small network for online socialising, like they would on any other centralised social networks. The profile or account a user creates on these Pods is called the Seed.

For now, there are numerous community-supported Diaspora Pods with different ‘handles' such as, and many more that will soon be able to communicate and share data (Diaspora Seeds) with each other. Once all the Pods are federated, users on any of these Pods can move along freely from Pod to Pod, with their new social graph, i.e., the unique Diaspora Seed. In the near future, these Seeds will be able to aggregate all the information of a user, including Flickr images, Facebook profile and tweets, automatically using the extendable plugin framework for Diaspora. Social networking will just get better when the users have control over their data, adding to the numerous other exciting possibilities with Diaspora.

Diaspora, by virtue of being a distributed social network, ensures privacy while still keeping the users connected. With Diaspora, users will be able to share data on their own terms.

The Diaspora blog reads, “Our real social lives do not have central managers, and our virtual lives do not need them”. Decentralised frameworks that put users in control in social networking will be the future of the Internet. Without decentralisation, essential traits of the Internet such as democracy and neutrality face the threat of fading out in time.

(The author is a networking engineer and Free Software activist)

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