Perception of privacy in Europe and USA

Discussing with one of Google’s lawyers  about the different perceptions of privacy in Europe and in USA, he was puzzled that European politicians and people always say that for them privacy is very important and they want it protected from “evil corporations”. The somewhat rational explanation that Google gets is that the memory of oppressive regimes (the nazi/fascism and later the communists) is still clear in people’s minds. This should explain why so many Europeans get upset when a corporation stores a picture of the facades of their homes.

But, he asked me, why do Europeans trust the governments that in recent past turned against them and keep giving them huge amount of personal data but don’t trust the corporations?  It’s not rational, he commented.

I think the main reason why Europeans people (still) trust governments is that both share the same cultural background: governments know how to persuade, mediate and communicate directly to their people and spin the most awful controlling measures into ‘good things’. Think of the Telecamera Amica (the ‘friendly camera’) in Florence: every corner of the city has these surveillance devices. It’s a videocamera but it’s not a friend. The city marketed as a security/prevention system, people feel better but as a result they get just more traffic tickets. Another horrible example is the Data Retention Directive, defined as “the most privacy-invasive instrument” by the European Data Protector Supervisor.

My short answer is that it would probably be more effective not to treat the perception of privacy as a rational/irrational issue. I would approach this more with the tools of marketing and diplomacy than with those of the law, working on improving the perception of Google and its tools within European people. For example, increase the visibility of projects like, be a champion of transparency. And, if possible, loosen up the image of the big colonizer corporation from Silicon Valley and be more humble, mingle as a European company.

The future of Free Software

Eben Moglen is helping Free Software to keep the promise of a free society. In his keynote speech at FOSDEM Moglen has laid out the foundation for the future of the Free Software movement: make sure that digital communication between people remains free.

Our freedom depends on reengineering the network to replace vulnerable, centralized services with alternatives which resist government control.

He identified the enemy (the data-mining industry, lead by corporation and governments around the world), gave the enemy a name and an easy target (Facebook) and he gave an action plan (the Freedom Box).

Freedom Box is the name we give to a free software system built to keep your communications free and private whether chatting with friends or protesting in the street.

I noted that he didn’t mention Twitter in his speech, and I think I know why. First of all Twitter has a good track of records when it comes to step up against government requests. What I believe is Moglen’s most clear reason to mention only Facebook is that he wants to give one target to the crowd, and a fat, easy one, too. Facebook must be the evil, much like Microsoft was the only big, fat target for all FSF’s propaganda (not Autodesk or or Adobe or Oracle or IBM).

It’s important to donate now on Kickstarter: Push the FreedomBox Foundation from 0 to 60 in 30 days. I hope that FSF and FSFE now donate to this project, too: I’d be really surprised if they don’t.
PS If you want to read more here are some articles: NY Times, WSJ, BoingBoing, Slashdot, reddit, ZDNet, The New York Observer, New Europe, techPresident, LWN.

The master hack of mr. Zuckerberg

Eben Moglen mentioned not too long ago Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg saying:

Mr. Zuckerberg has […] done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age

I wonder if he foresaw also that this golden boy would also try to hack the US financial system and get funds from Wall Street without actually going to Wall Street. And meanwhile he may be creating a new bubble, with the help of Goldman Sachs, supported by US tax money, according to Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF.

I have the feeling that if the SEC lets it go, this financial hack may be remembered as Zuckerberg’s master hack.

Eben Moglen’s Freedom in the Cloud Talk

I watched Eben’s speech but now I can quote it too thanks to the transcript done by the friends at Software Freedom Law Center. Talking about the problems of the cloud services, Eben hits Facebook hard with his rhetoric:

The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record. He has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age. Because he harnessed Friday night, that is, ‘Everybody needs to to get laid,’ and turned into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to 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’. And it works.  How could that have happened? There was no architectural reason. Facebook is the web with, ‘I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that.’ It’s a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a Panopticon built out of web parts. And it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at ‘spying all the time’, they are not technically innovative. They depend on an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn’t any other business model for them. This is bad. I’m not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists we should fix it.

As Nicole says, Facebook is Internet for the lazy people that don’t know or want to setup a blog on their own and learn how to use search, RSS or even email. And there are many of those.

So what do we need? We need a really good web server that you can put in your pocket and plug in any place. It shouldn’t be any larger than the charger for your cellphone. You should be able to plug it into any power jack in the world or sync it up with any wi-fi router that happens to be in this neighborhood […]
This is stuff we’ve got. We need to put it together … I’m not talking about stuff that’s hard for us. We need to make a free software distribution guys.[…]
Great social networking, updates automatically, software so strong you couldn’t knock it over if you kicked it, and you know what, you get ‘no spying’ for free. We can do that …

A small, personal, portable device, connected to the Internet with a simple and easy way to receive updates via a push mechanism and sync data between different sources. Something similar to what Funambol’s CEO said in Five Reasons To Care About Mobile Cloud Computing and I sketched earlier thoughts about the same topic. We’re facing interesting and busy times ahead.

Read there rest of Highlights of Eben Moglen’s Freedom in the Cloud Talk – Software Freedom Law Center.

Will Nokia become FLOSS best friend?

Google’s power is making more people concerned that their motto ‘do no evil’ is not reassuring enough. Fabrizio Capobianco’s blog post summarizes the concerns of the Winston Smith Project. Google is scary because it controls the access point to the internet for 90% of users and because it’s expanding its reach to the mobile network. But G is not the only one trying to blend the separation between your desktop computer and your cell phone: it just happen to be a very visible one. Look at the chart on Funambol’s white paper on mobile sync opportunities and strategies: everybody is doing the same.

Mobile sync opportunities

Microsoft is not less scary, because with its monopoly on the desktop computers it controls the users’ applications and data. Extending their power from the desktop to the mobile environment is within their reach: after all, they succeeded expanding from the desktop to the server. They can do it again, if they play it right. Apple controls and has access to data for millions of desktop+mobile users: maybe MobileMe is not yet widely used but nonetheless the closed and proprietary nature of all Apple things and the quantity of iTunes+iPod users makes them scary enough.

Nokia is peculiar: it has a huge market share on mobile phones, but its Ovi services don’t have a strong companion on the desktop. With all the other operating systems controlled by competitors, Nokia could start collaborating more with the free software community to better integrate Ovi with Gnome or KDE for example. I think it would be a wise move since there are many GNU/Linux desktops out there, and more will come during 2009.’  Will Nokia become the next Free Software community Best Friend Forever, now that Google has become scary?

Freedom and privacy in hosted applications

I’m not a big believer of hosted applications mainly because they fail to deliver the ‘run everywhere there is a connection to the internet’ promise. Nonetheless, I’m using hosted apps very often, especially for school papers where I have to collaborate with other people on one document. In these cases I would like to have more freedom and more privacy. That’s what I like in Marco ‘Clipperz‘ Barulli’s call for action for a suite of web applications built following the zero-knowledge methodology:

The basic idea was to deliver a no trust needed service, where users had the ability to inspect and verify anything running in their browser. We had to drift the attention away from trusting us and let users focus on trusting the application.

Add the Affero GPLv3 on top of this methodology and you can have a suite of online applications that respect freedom and privacy.’  Not a bad thing to have, not at all.

Whitfield Diffie, genio della crittografia a chiave pubblica, a Roma

Flavia mi segnala un evento importante: giovedì 31 gennaio a Roma presso il Dipartimento di Informatica dell’Università  La Sapienza parlerà  Whitfield Diffie, “padre” della crittografia a chiave pubblica insieme a Martin Hellman e Chief Security Officer of Sun Microsystems.’  Sarà ’  per un incontro con quanti nella comunità  accademica – e non solo – s’interessano al tema della sicurezza informatica.

Diffie terrà  un seminario di un ora sul tema “What’s Ahead in Security” e sarà  poi disponibile per una sessione di Q&A. L’ingresso è libero e gratuito.

Mi avrebbe fatto piacere partecipare dopo aver lavorato anni e anni con Werner Koch, autore’  e maintainer di GNU Privacy Guard, ma il nuovo lavoro e la scuola mi ancorano in Lombardia. Spero ci saranno le registrazioni.

Quando: 31 gennaio ore 10:00
Dove: Dipartimento di Informatica dell’Università  La Sapienza di Roma, via Salaria 113 – 00198 Roma
Aula: Aula Alfa (piano terra)

Facebook admits mistake and changes policy

The protest of people on Facebook made the difference.’  Mark Zuckerberg wrote on FB’s blog

We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it.

The policy changed from opt-out to opt-in, no stories will be published without users proactively consenting and there is now the possibility to permanently opt-out. is happy with the result.

I’m surprised by how long it took for Zuckerberg to speak up and I wonder if he really gets what Beacon has done.’  My impression is that Facebook management doesn’t understand the privacy issue at all.’  They’re young, which helps making mistakes but also helps learning.’  I hope they have learned that Facebook has a big responsibility and won’t repeat such mistake in the future. Personally, I’ll focus my attention on other social networks for a while and put Facebook on the backburner it will take some time before they regain my trust.

On social networks and human interactions

I have received recently half dozen invitations to join social web2.0 services: Roberto pointed me to twitter during a real life chat in Firenze, other invitations came via email to services like Plaxo pulse, Naymz, hi5, Spook and others. Many people are asking to become my friends on Facebook but I don’t remember meeting them and my email archives since 1997 ignore too. I’m starting to feel overwhelmed 🙂

I like experimenting these tools, but I can’t keep up with the pace they start (and die). All of these services ask me to replicate information I have already written down on this blog or on my Linkedin profile. Signing up to all these services would require me to quit my paid activities and spend more time online than offline. At that point Alex Wright on the NYTimes would be right. But I agree with what Dawn Foster wrote about Social Networks, Relationships, and “Friends”:

my online interactions in social networks do not replace physical interactions with real people, they simply provide a way to augment the relationships I have with my friends.

For me it’s also a matter of following conversations as they were described in the Cluetrain Manifesto:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

Noticing Facebook privacy issues, I still wonder if I should keep considering FB as a legitimate place for conversations or quit (it is possible, although difficult). And when did we start using our real names online? I remember the old days when we all had nicknames and everybody was careful revealing his real identity. What made us change our mind?

Facebook: with great power comes great responsibility

I have been playing with Facebook lately to check its potential. Everything started when William Ward invited me there in a moment when I was vulnerable (it was before I started the MBA: a few weeks later and I would have gently declined the invitation). In the last weeks I enlarged my network, joined Politecnico network, started fiddling with the MIP group with my colleague Francesco del Vecchio. I advertised the conference about Open Source as business model in the Politecnico network and I got a taste of Facebook’s potential: 220 subscriptions from Facebook. A success. The room was full all the time, with many students. (5 subscriptions came from FB, see Eugenio’s comment). FSF is also experimenting with it as a mean to raise funds and draw attention to the cause.

Is Facebook too good to be true? I was less excited when banners about impotence started to show up close to my profile. What? Then I read on yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about a more serious privacy issue: Facebook’s knowledge of what you do online extends beyond the domain. In other words, if you buy a Christmas present for your friend, (s)he will see it on the News Feed … so long surprise. David Weinberger explains very well why Facebook’s defaults are wrong.

It’s bad to see things that are so useful and fun being damaged by such unfair practices. Companies must all learn the lesson that with with great power comes great responsibility. Being fair to the users is not an option. Meanwhile I’m joining the MoveOn protest and reinforced AdBlock rules to stop all banners from **.