After recent revelations of NSA 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."

Teens may be turning to Instagram and Snapchat, but those services don’t offer the deeper levels of social networking that Facebook users are accustomed to, with photo albums, event invites, fan pages, and connections to old friends. Ultimately, teens may be smart not to consolidate all of their social networking on one platform—but Instagram, Snapchat, and some 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 that 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 (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 alone counts 1.5 million users.

PRISM could be the impetus that gets more communities to begin using these networks. As of Monday morning, nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition that calls for an investigation of the NSA's spying program, and last week activists launched, 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.

Disclaimer: Libby Reinish is an employee of the Free Software Foundation, which is a member of StopWatching.Us, a coalition of more than 75 organizations calling for a full congressional investigation of the NSA's spying program.


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tarek  Tarek Amr was one of the main speakers of the “Networked revolts” public event organised in Athens, Greece by journals Re-public and Konteiner. This is the transcript from his speech, followed by the video including simultaneous Greek translation.
  • I am mainly going to talk about the effect of social media on our Egyptian revolution. First, let me start with the past and mention two different cases that illuminate the relationship between social and traditional media. Both occurred about two years ago. The first case had to do with an Egyptian male who was raped by Egyptian policemen. Such cases are normally ignored by traditional media but thanks to iphones and YouTube bloggers who kept sharing the video depicting the incident on blogs and on YouTube, (especially a blogger named Wael Abbas published it more than once) everyone became aware of the incident. The traditional media were then practically forced to publish the incident that would have normally been ignored and finally the person responsible for this crime was discovered, faced trial, and was put in jail. The other incident is totally diverse from the first one. In 2009 during the Football World Cup qualifications, Egypt was scheduled to play against Algeria in Sudan. At that time, Egyptian traditional media started spreading lies about the Algerian fans. They accused them of planning to bring guns to the game with the purpose of killing Egyptian football fans. Even us, as bloggers, we fell prey to these lies and we verbally attacked Algerians during that time. Later on, perhaps a whole year after the event, we started to realise that we had believed in lies… even celebrities who appeared in the media claiming that they would die in this match, were lying. These lies were purposely diffused by the media under the orders of the Egyptian regime. These two incidents might not be directly related to the revolution itself, but they can help us to understand how traditional and social media have a mutual effect on each other.


  • Let’s move to the revolution itself and focus on the role of social media. In general, social media had two divergent effects. First, a long term or ongoing effect: through the social media you get the opportunity to become friends with people who participate in protests or are activist organisers…They are now next to you, you speak to them directly, they share their stories or their experiences with you all the time. This effect made all of us activists in a way. I don’t identify myself as an activist, for instance, but through being accompanied by so many activists, in a sense I have become an activist as well. Another effect is that through the use of social media, geographical locations tend to play less importance or they simply vanish. The Tunisian people, whose revolution preceded ours, started sharing their experience with us…sharing first-hand information like how to wash your face with coca-cola after a teargas attack or how to spray police cars in order to blind them and make them unable to see you. And above all they shared their hope and encouraged us to start our own revolution.


  • As you may know, the Egyptian revolution is often named “the Internet revolution”, since it began with the posting of a Facebook event. In 2008, a youth movement of social disobedience arose also from the Internet – the “April 6th movement”. Although this movement wasn’t very successful, at start, it constitutes an indication about how social media and the Internet, be it Facebook or Twitter or whatever else, have the ability to bring about political change. Although some have called it the “Internet revolution” during the first six days of the revolution Internet access was cut off throughout Egypt. Also in the first days all the iphones were switched off. It sounds paradoxical: we had an Internet revolution but without the Internet. Analysts have also baptized our revolution as the “Youth revolution”. I have taken this photo in Tahrir square, on January 29, 2011 and you can see this person who doesn’t seem like a part of the youth at all.


  • Although activists used the Internet, the Egypt government did the same. At first the government tried to block access, but then it realized that it would be in its best interest to use it for its own propaganda. Still, we cannot deny the fact that the uprisings spread all over the Arab region thanks to the contribution of new media.


  • After the revolution, on March 19, 2011 a referendum was held in Egypt. Some constitutional amendments were proposed by the Egyptian army and there was a huge debate over the blogosphere and the Internet whether we should accept those amendments or refuse to accept them. I collected my friends’ avatars and Facebook profiles and, as you can see in this graph, (those in green were going to vote “no” and the ones in red were going to vote “yes”) a large majority of them publicly said that they would vote against the constitutional amendment. Still, in the actual referendum the people who voted in favour of the amendments reached 77,2%. I know that this is not a scientific way of analysing statistics, but still this anecdote shows that what we see in the Internet is not the whole world…the Internet is not affecting everybody.




The spread of the revolution, I think, had to do with the streets – you have to note that 40% of the Egyptian people are illiterate. So maybe the Internet was the spark that started everything, but later on, the demonstrations themselves, in the street, were the ones that delivered the message to those who are not connected. And that is why we believe that our task today is to try to disseminate what is being discussed by the intellectuals all over the Internet, in Facebook and Twitter, in the streets. Especially since the situation in Egypt after the revolution still carries many similar characteristics to the Mubarak era, although we still have hope, that things will eventually change. The revolution is not over yet, we believe it has just started. The fall of the regime is not the end of the story, we still have to learn how we will gain political experience to pursue our struggle further.


  • I would, finally, like to refer to a quote from Malcolm Gladwell who wrote a book about how ideas spread throughout a group of people. In sum, he has divided people into three categories, the Mavens, the Connectors and the Salesmen. The mavens are the ones who invent the idea. Still, there have to be other people who spread this idea to those who are not connected. So those who can read must spread the ideas to those who can’t and those who are connected to those who are not connected to the Internet and the intellectuals must diffuse these ideas to the masses. I finally want to thank you for the opportunity to talk about our pursuit for democracy in the country that invented democracy.


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