Social networking the FOSS way with Diaspora

Pod People

Article from Issue 194/2017
Author(s):

Diaspora is a free and open source decentralized social network consisting of millions of independently run pods. Join an existing pod or set up your own with minimal programming skills.

Social networking and privacy hardly go together like peanut butter and jelly. Social network giants such as Facebook routinely track your location; the Chrome extension Marauder's Map will even plot your friend's movements based on data from Facebook Messenger [1].

Even those people who switch off location services or connect via Facebook's "dark web" address are required to register an account in their own name instead of an alias or nickname [2], which has caused trouble for people who happen to share the same name as a celebrity or have a name that doesn't follow western naming conventions.

Worse still, in the past, Facebook has faced allegations of using customers' personal data in unethical ways. This includes allegedly keeping account data even after it's been deleted, tracking users' movements across other websites, using facial recognition to tag people in photos that they didn't upload themselves, a lack of transparency about government requests for data, and even using user "Likes" in advertisements [3]. In brief, in the words of Andrew Lewis [4], "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."

Fortunately, Facebook is not the only social network. The Diaspora Social Network [5] has been in active development since late 2010 and describes itself as an "online social world where you are in control."

The Diaspora Foundation, which is responsible for the project's source code, further elaborates that the core philosophies behind the network are decentralization, freedom, and privacy (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Diaspora emphasizes control of user data and freedom through decentralization and open source software.

Decentralized Diaspora

One of the most exciting features of Diaspora is that user data is not held on any one central server. The Diaspora Foundation itself is part of the Free Software Support Network (FSSN) [6] and as such is much less susceptible to hostile corporate takeovers or gag warrants from shadowy government actors.

In practical terms, decentralization is also achieved through independently run servers or pods throughout the world. Each pod has its own domain name and is managed by volunteers on different servers in different locations [7]. Pods are federated in terms of sharing data, so it doesn't matter with which server users register. For example, if Bob registers an account at US-based diasp.org, he can still share content with Alice who registered at Germany-based despora.de.

Although the fact that the pod is run by volunteers in a country with liberal data privacy laws isn't an absolute guarantee that your content is safe, users remain in control of their data and can delete it at any time. A list of available pods complete with uptime and active users is available on Pod Uptime [8], of which the most popular is Framasphere [9]. Although the servers are based in Germany, the website itself is run by a French community of open source developers known as Framasoft.

When choosing a pod on Pod Uptime, it's advisable to try to find a location without any Orwellian surveillance laws but also to keep an eye on the software version they are running. At the time of writing, the current version is v0.6.99.0. Not all pods are open for registration of new users. Anyone who has trouble choosing a pod can simply click the large red button at the top, and the website will choose one automatically.

Diaspora Freedom

Aside from using free and open source software, Diaspora also protects user's privacy by allowing them to choose an alias or nickname. The only limit is one's own imagination.

The limits of this freedom do not extend only to using an imaginary name or username. Users are free to follow topics of interest through use of hashtags to see what famous people and companies have to say without alerting others. Users can also include tags in their "public profile" to allow others with similar interests to follow them [10] (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The author's Diaspora account in the name of the fictional character Allan Quatermain. Users can add hashtags to their profile to allow others with similar interests to find them, such as #linuxmagazine.

As with Facebook, some of the data on users' profiles is public and some is private. Users who have specifically chosen to share information with one another can see their "extended profiles" (i.e., biography, gender, location, and birthday). Unlike with other social networks, users do not have to fill in this information. Public profiles are visible to any visitors to the website and simply consist of a user's chosen name and profile photo, as well as any posts they've specifically chosen to make public. These settings can be changed from the account page so that everyone can see a user's extended profile.

Diaspora Privacy

Diaspora's Privacy features go much further than masking profiles. The chief difference between Diaspora and other major social networks like Facebook is that there is no advertising and therefore no money to be made in analyzing your browsing activities. The source code can be examined to verify that it's used for no other purposes than connecting and sharing data with users' family and friends. Only admins of pods with which you interact can view user data [11]. Privacy can be further ensured by hosting your own pod (see below).

By default, searches for other users are accomplished by searching for user@pod (e.g., macumazan@despora.de) or, if two people are using the same pod, simply by searching for their username. Each user remains in control of whether their profile can be found by other users through the search bar, resulting in much greater anonymity [12].

Sophisticated control of data is also possible through the use of aspects. Aspects are simply the way contacts are grouped in Diaspora. By default, the categories are Family, Friends, Work, and Acquaintances. Sharing is asymmetrical, meaning that by default people cannot see others in their own aspect, nor does it follow that because a user adds a person to their aspect that the reverse is true (Figure 3).

Figure 3: By default, posts are visible to all of a user's aspects. This can be changed to a public post or one or more aspects as needed.

This level of control is markedly different from Facebook and is best illustrated by an example. Imagine Diaspora user Allan phones in sick at the office to spend the weekend in London with his wife, Marie, and his son, Harry. To avoid being exposed for malingering, he can choose to share his holiday photos with only people within his Family aspect rather than with his colleagues. Marie, in turn, may have her own Family aspect, which includes Allan, Harry, and her sister, Stella. If she shares her holiday photos, these will be visible to her sister as well as her husband and son.

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