Going back to the edge

Danny O’Brien has started a nine-part investigation about how we can avoid the centralization of our sharing and return ‘the data back to the edge’ i.e. back to our personal (but shareable) servers …

The dominance of players like Google is not a fact of nature, but a design decision, so this investigation into the realism of distributed alternatives is very important.

Here goes the intro of the series:

“a trend you couldn’t help but notice in this latest overexcitement is migration of data from the edge to centralised servers. Email moves to webmail, documents move to Google documents, private data moves to Mylinkedfacefriendbook-or-not?, Amazon S3, Flickr – even Blogger.

I’m curious as to what happens when one tries to buck this trend. There are clearly some functions that really should live on centralised servers: I’m not sure I can imagine how you can do web-wide search without camping out in the Googleplex or equivalent (Wikia notwithstanding). But there really isn’t any need for Google Documents to live on Google servers. The two functions that Google Documents provides over desktop applications – shareability and remote access aren’t aspects of Google’s mega-servers. They’re just workarounds for the lack of distributed ID and unfindability of edge nodes. With alternate workarounds that otherwise allow your friends to log onto your home PC to edit documents, and find your home PC in the first place, you could easily host your docs, run your webmail, hold up your end of the social network, store and share files, display your photographs, and run your website, from your home.

If that sounds terrifically inconvenient next to letting Google and Yahoo run the shebang, remember that the move from ghastly inconvenience to one click bliss is always just somebody’s smart UI innovation away. There’s nothing about Google Docs that requires shitloads of servers, except the fact that Google is singlehandedly having to deal with shitloads of users. Lovely though Flickr is, somebody, somewhere could follow its rearlights, and knock up an open source clone that runs on your own machine in the fraction of the time it took for them to polish their UI. Maintaining your own server, handling security updates, fiddling with the optimum settings, are all high hurdles now, but they don’t need to be. Running a Unix desktop used to be a nightmare until MacOS and Ubuntu came along.

There’s also a pressing civil liberty reason to start leaning back towards holding your data close to your chest. Data held by a third-party in the United States just isn’t safe. Terms and conditions deny you any recourse for leaked or lost data; courts and Congress both deny citizens the protections of the Fourth Amendment for *any* data that you share with others. That even means data you expect to keep private, or have no way of keeping to yourself (the key case here is United States v. Miller, where the court decided that you have no expectation of privacy in your bank records, because you *shared them with your bank*!)

So here’s the question: how much of our life that we share with the Web 2.0 giants do we really *need* to share? How much of these services can and should we be running from the comfort of our own homes?”

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