Although Twitter has denied reports that they are blocking the “#wikileaks” and “#cablegate” hash tags from their list of “trending topics”, the important thing to remember is that they can if they want to.

And, although Facebook has not shut down Wikileaks related accounts, they can if they want to as well.   In the past, Facebook has closed accounts used for union organizing and for promoting things like breastfeeding.

What this clearly illustrates is the need for decentralized user controlled social networking tools that aren’t controlled by corporate cyber moguls.

Fortunately, there are projects in the works dedicated to accomplishing this task.

The most ambitious project to date is the “Diaspora* Project”.   The developers of Diaspora*  were inspired by a presentation given by the Software Freedom Law Centre‘s Chief Counsel Eben Moglen at New York University in February, 2010.

In his presentation, Moglen described Facebook as “free web hosting with a few PHP doodads in exchange for twenty four hour a day seven day a week spying” on it’s users.   He challenged the free and open source software community to come up with alternatives and a small group of young NYU computer programming students answered the call.

Diaspora* plans to be the “anti-Facebook”.    Instead of user data being stored on centralized servers, personal data can be stored on your own personal server if you wish (and have the technical capability), or on a server that you trust.

You completely control your personal information, photos and video and decide who to share it with.

The Diaspora* software is being released under a mix of “free as in freedom” and “open source” licenses.  This means that computer programmers across the planet can easily collaborate in the development of the project.

One of the other problems with commercial social networking sites is that it’s quite difficult to share information across various services.

Those of us who made use of online services in the 1980’s and early 1990’s remember this  well.   America Online (AOL), Compuserve and Prodigy didn’t talk to each other.   The development of open e-mail systems and the world wide web made these services obsolete.

Diaspora* will enable you to share information between various social networking services.   You might have a Facebook account, but a friend does not.  Through Diaspora*, you’ll have the ability to share your Facebook information with friends who don’t have a Facebook account.

You might post photos on a site like Flickr.   Again, via Diaspora* you’ll be able to share your photos with your non-Flickr using friends.  The silos will be broken.

Will this all work?   Time will tell.

Diaspora* won’t be ready for mainstream use till well into the new year.   Right now, it’s in the “Alpha” stage of development.   For non-geeks, this means that it’s ready for very adventurous folks who don’t mind dealing with a lot of bugs.   Playing with the software and squashing the bugs will help the community to collectively build out Diaspora*.

If you’d like to try it out you can go to their site and ask for an invite to join the service.

Another attempt to build an alternative social networking site is Unionbook

Unionbook is a project of the extremely successful Labourstart labour news web portal founded by Eric Lee in 1998.   Development of Unionbook has been challenging and the number of worldwide users is still only in the thousands.   But if nothing else, nobody will ever try to shut you down for trying to organize a union.

Activists can no longer blindly use proprietary services like Twitter and Facebook without taking a critical look at who owns and controls the underlying technologies.   We need to support the creation of community controlled alternatives.    The survival of democracy in the 21st century may very well depend on it.

Bob Chandler

Bob Chandler

Bob Chandler is a blogger and has been a labour and social justice activist his entire adult life and then some! He’s also a geek with a capital “G”! He’s so geeky...