Facebook, Not Microsoft, Is the Main Threat to Open Source


In the future, Facebook won't be a social-media site.

Facebook is under a lot of scrutiny and pressure at the moment. It's accused of helping foreign actors to subvert elections by using ads and fake accounts to spread lies—in the US, for example—and of acting as a conduit for terrorism in New Zealand and elsewhere. There are calls to break up the company or at least to rein it in.

In an evident attempt to head off those moves, and to limit the damage that recent events have caused to Facebook's reputation, Mark Zuckerberg has been publishing some long, philosophical posts that attempt to address some of the main criticisms. In his most recent one, he calls for new regulation of the online world in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. The call for data portability mentions Facebook's support for the Data Transfer Project. That's clearly an attempt to counter accusations that Facebook is monopolistic and closed, and to burnish Facebook's reputation for supporting openness. Facebook does indeed use and support a large number of open-source programs, so to that extent, it's a fair claim.

Zuckerberg' previous post, from the beginning of March 2019, is much longer, and it outlines an important shift in how Facebook will work to what he calls "A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking". Greater protection for privacy is certainly welcome. But, it would be naïve to think that Zuckerberg's post is simply about that. Once more, it is an attempt to head off a growing chorus of criticism—in this case, that Facebook undermines data protection. This is the key idea:

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won't stick around forever.

Although that may sound like unalloyed good news for Facebook users, it's also a big plus for Facebook. Since end-to-end encryption will be employed, the company won't be able to see what people are sharing in their private chats. That being the case, it can't be required to police that content. If Facebook can bring about that "shift" to private messaging, it will reduce the public and political pressure on the company to try to check what its users are up to. The big problem with this approach is that it will not be possible to monitor who is sending what, and so the authorities and other observers will lose valuable insights about what kind of disinformation is circulating. There's another key driver of this much-vaunted emphasis on privacy and encryption. As Zuckerberg writes:

We plan to build this the way we've developed WhatsApp: focus on the most fundamental and private use case—messaging—make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.

Zuckerberg needs to make his services "as secure as possible" not so much to protect users' privacy, as to engender enough confidence in them that people will be willing to trust Facebook for everyday financial activities. That is, he wants to turn Facebook from a social-media site to a platform running every kind of app. Facebook is running out of people it can easily add to its network, so it needs to find new ways to generate profits. Taking a cut of every e-commerce transaction conducted on its new secure service is a great way of doing that.

Although a bold vision, it's hardly an original one. It's precisely what the Chinese internet giant Tencent did with WeChat. Initially, this was just a way to exchange messages with small groups of friends and colleagues. In 2017, Tencent made it possible to run "Mini Programs" on its platform. Wikipedia explains:

Business owners can create mini apps in the WeChat system, implemented using JavaScript plus a proprietary API. Users may install these inside the WeChat app. In January 2018, WeChat announced a record of 580,000 mini-programs. With one mini program, consumers could scan the Quick Response [QR] code using their mobile phone at a supermarket counter and pay the bill through the user's WeChat mobile wallet. WeChat Games have received huge popularity, with its "Jump Jump" game attracting 400 million players in less than 3 days and attaining 100 million daily active users in just two weeks after its launch, as of January 2018.

Today, WeChat has more than one billion monthly active users, and it's effectively the operating system of Chinese society. With his shift to a "Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking", Zuckerberg evidently aspires to turning Facebook into the operating system for everywhere else.

That is a huge problem for open source. Even though Linux underlies the billions of Android phones in use today, there is precious little sign of free software running on them. As people start to install Facebook Mini Programs—or whatever Zuckerberg decides to call them—on Facebook, running on Android, the fact that everything depends on Linux becomes even more irrelevant. Whether the new Mini Programs are open source or not, Facebook's platform certainly won't be, no matter how much Zuckerberg loves free software. Facebook will become the new Windows, with the difference that swapping in GNU/Linux instead of Windows is straightforward; doing the same with Facebook's new platform, will not be.

The community could doubtless come up with a better Facebook than Facebook—after all, the open-source world has some of the best coders around, and they love a challenge. It probably would be a distributed, federated system with privacy and security built in. But the technical details really don't matter here. The hard part is not crafting a better Facebook, but convincing people to use it. Network effects make breaking Facebook's grip on social media incredibly hard. Once Zuckerberg has established Facebook as a complete platform, and people use it routinely and reflexively all the time they are awake, it will be even harder. What role will open source have then?

Glyn Moody has been writing about the internet since 1994, and about free software since 1995. In 1997, he wrote the first mainstream feature about GNU/Linux and free software, which appeared in Wired. In 2001, his book Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution was published. Since then, he has written widely about free software and digital rights. He has a blog, and he is active on social media: @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+.

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