Rise of the Facebook-Killers

At the pinnacle of the social network's success, its critics are busy building its replacements

Rise of the Facebook-Killers

On a cold Friday evening in February two years ago, with a historic blizzard bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard, a small crowd of people bundled into a New York University lecture hall to hear a talk that would become something of a legend, a shot heard 'round the Internet.

The speaker of the evening was Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School and the founder of the Software Freedom Law Center. A stocky man with a white beard, glasses, and a high, nasal voice, Moglen spoke casually and rocked back and forth on his heels as he turned to make eye contact with his audience.

"So, of course, I didn't have any date tonight," Moglen began, deadpan. "Everybody knows that. My calendar's on the Web. The problem is that problem. Our calendar is on the Web. Our location is on the Web. You have a cell phone, and you have a cell-phone-network provider, and if your cell-phone-network provider is Sprint, then we can tell you that several million times last year, somebody who has a law-enforcement ID card in his pocket somewhere went to the Sprint website and asked for the real-time location of somebody with a telephone number and was given it. Several million times. Just like that."

A longtime champion of the free-software movement, Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen predicts Facebook will be extinct in a matter of months.
Emily Berl
A longtime champion of the free-software movement, Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen predicts Facebook will be extinct in a matter of months.
An activist and programmer, Sam Boyer is helping to build the Federated General Assembly, a decentralized network designed for the Occupy movement.
Emily Berl
An activist and programmer, Sam Boyer is helping to build the Federated General Assembly, a decentralized network designed for the Occupy movement.

In short, Moglen said, "the deal that you get with the traditional service called telephony contains a thing you didn't know, like spying."

Moglen wasn't there to talk about cell-phone surveillance, but it served as a good metaphor for his larger point: The technologies we rely on to stay connected to one another are infected with destructive overlays of surveillance that can only do us harm. Tracing the history of the Internet, Moglen found many culprits in the transformation of the Web into a tool of control and surveillance, but he reserved special blame for one person.

"Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record," Moglen said of the founder of Facebook. "He has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age."

Why? Because, Moglen said, Mark Zuckerberg had harnessed the energy of our social desires to talk us into a swindle. "Everybody needs to get laid," Moglen said. "He turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality, and he has to a remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal. Namely, 'I will give you free Web hosting and some PHP doodads, and you get spying for free all the time.'"

It was hardly the first time this sort of critique had been leveled against Facebook, but Moglen wasn't just carping.

"I'm not suggesting it should be illegal," Moglen told the audience of the Internet Society of New York. "It should be obsolete. We're technologists. We should fix it."

Fixing it wouldn't be hard, Moglen argued. There's no reason the architecture of a social network has to include the kinds of privacy invasion endemic to Facebook. In fact, the hardware and software necessary to build a network in which people kept direct control of their information, with no middleman, already exists. So Moglen challenged his audience: Build a better system.

"Mr. Zuckerberg richly deserves bankruptcy," Moglen said. "Let's give it to him."

The rise of Facebook has been one of the defining stories of the young century. From its (somewhat) humble origins in a Harvard dorm room in 2004 to its present network of more than 800 million people, Facebook has redefined our conception of communication, inaugurating a new age of interconnectedness we call social networking.

To many, Facebook is social networking. It is the medium that brings us together in ways that we couldn't have imagined before, delivering on a promise that was always implicit in the World Wide Web but only partially realized. Facebook offers us a space in which to talk, connect, and share music, pictures, and the stories of our lives, a space to express who we are and learn about one another and our world. We like it. A lot. We spend nearly eight hours a month on the site. By August, 1 billion human beings will be on Facebook.

And now, after building a network unprecedented in history in its breadth and penetration, Facebook is enjoying a further triumph: It's going public with an expected valuation of as much as $100 billion. It's the biggest technology offering ever, and it catapults Facebook into the league of PepsiCo, Verizon, Disney, and Goldman Sachs.

But as the business press and slavering investors look on eagerly at Zuckerberg's coronation, many believe that the seeds of Facebook's downfall have already been sown. The company might have brought people together like never before, but exploitation is woven inextricably into its DNA. Facebook makes its money by commercializing personal information, watching its users, analyzing their behavior, and selling what it learns.

Not everyone finds that troubling, but some people do. They believe that we can have all the benefits of a social network without paying for it with constant surveillance. They imagine alternative networks where users can talk, share, and collaborate with whomever they please without allowing a third party to memorize their face, what they read, and their shopping habits. They imagine that given a choice between a network committed to extracting as much information from them as possible and one with built-in controls and protection, eventually they'll choose the latter. And they're not just imagining these new networks. They're building them now.

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