Clearly, this is not the first time that new technology has invoked urgent inquiry into ethics, and it will not be the last. I would like to share with you my take on a data privacy dilemma of the past in relation to current issues, and how decentralization of data persistence into small autonomous nodes is an inspiring motif that may bring hope to e-freedom fighters.
When digital audio media first became all the rage, it was not long before Napster came along and dragged us all into an ethical dilemma by facilitating a digital music sharing space for free. Music labels felt the heat when they noticed a drop in sales. After a few years of legal battles, the labels successfully put a stop to the file sharing shenanigans associated with Napster. However, the "pirate" file sharing traffic continued, and even gained momentum for years after Napster's decline.
The problem with Napster was that all of the pirated data was in the same place. The physical centralization made it easy for the RIAA to target the exact source of file piracy. This set the stage for a protocol called Gnutella. Gnutella was developed specifically for the purpose of searching peer-to-peer (decentralized) networks. To make an analogy, it works like a complex game of "telephone", where peers help each other find what they are looking for by participating in a clearly defined message-passing algorithm. Fast forward to a point in time where people are beginning to wonder about how much they can trust Internet giants with all of their personal information. This is where the historical parallel comes in. Much like the trend toward peer-to-peer file sharing after the decline of Napster, the next step for privacy security today is smaller, autonomous nodes of data.
So could a modern social network function with a distributed architecture of small data nodes? There is at least one foundation that believes it can help. The Diaspora* Foundation aims to support the development of open-source software that enables a distributed community of social networks. For users, this means that big companies are not profiting from aggregations of private data accumulating on their servers. The idea of distributed social networking that truly puts users in control of their own data is technologically feasible, however the motivation for users to make informed choices about where to invest data will not exist without an increased awareness that private, personal data has become a precious currency for big business. It's time to stop printing money for them, friends.