When we talk about the internet's problems and solutions, we tend to focus on Big Tech, the monopolizers who dominate our digital lives. That's only natural.
But there's another internet, one that deserves our attention: The Public Interest Internet.
The Public Interest Internet is a "wider, more diverse, more generous world. Often run by volunteers, frequently without institutional affiliation, sometimes tiny, often local, free for everyone online to use and contribute to, this internet preceded big tech."
EFF's ongoing series on Public Interest Internet highlights public, volunteer film scholarship:
and music recommendations and metadata:
Today, I've published a new installment in the series, "The Tower of Babel: How Public Interest Internet is Trying to Save Messaging and Banish Big Social Media," about the projects that link together messaging platforms with multiprotocol clients.
These projects grew up with messaging itself. Back in the days when we were being asked to choose between AIM, ICQ, IRC, MSN and Yahoo Messenger, many of us instead chose "all and none of the above."
Tools like Adium and Pidgin let you talk to all of those services using a single tool, so you wouldn't have to juggle a half-dozen clients and keep track of which one you used to talk to whom.
For a while there, it looked like we were going to be free of the need for this kind of tool - a time when even companies like Google and Facebook embraced a common messaging standard that let users talk to one another across their walled gardens.
The same toolsmiths who tackled messaging fragmentation in the 2000s are still at it in the 2020s, in a higher-stakes environment where laws like the DMCA and CFAA pose chilling legal risks. Nevertheless, they're plugging away at this unglamorous, essential work.
Take Gary Kramlich, the sole full-time developer on Pidgin. Kramlich quit his job in 2019 and has been living frugally on his savings and a small grant while undertaking a top-to-bottom refactoring of Pidgin's venerable code-base.
He's got another month or two before he'll have to go back to a day-job (unless he finds a funder!), but in the meantime, the giant cyber-arms dealer Zerodium has offered a $100k bounty for weaponized exploits in Pidgin's code that can be used to attack Pidgin users.
$100k is about four years' budget for Kramlich - money he pays out of pocket - while Zerodium is willing to scrape that up from behind its sofa-cushions to pay for weapons that hurt Pidgin users.
Kramlich describes his work in human terms: "It's all about communication and bringing people together, allowing them to talk on their terms. That's huge. You shouldn't need 30GB of RAM to run all your chat clients. Communications run on network effects.
"If the majority of your friends use a tool and you don’t like it, your friends will have to take an extra step to include you in the conversation. That forces people to choose between their friends and the tools that suit them best."
I agree with him about network effects and I want to add something here about switching costs. You might join an messaging service because of network effects (you want to talk to the users who are already there), but you *stay* because of switching costs.
If you quit a service, you quit the friends who use it. If those friends matter a lot to you, then the service operator can do pretty terrible things to you (like invading your privacy) and you'll still stick around.
Multiprotocol clients like Pidgin attack those switching costs head on, letting you escape a service provider's walled garden and still pass messages to the people who aren't ready to leave yet. Not only does this make your life better, it makes their life better, too.
Because when it's easy to leave a service - when the switching costs are low - the service has to worry about losing users, and that limits how badly they can abuse the users that stay behind.
Multiprotocol clients are a perfect example of Adversarial Interoperabitlity (AKA Competitive Compatibility or comcom) - plugging new stuff into existing stuff, even if the people who made that stuff object.
The fact that tiny groups of volunteers can self-fund hugely important tools that positively impact the daily lives of millions of people is partly the reason that early internet advocates fell in love with the possibilities for networked communications.
As my colleague Danny O'Brien wrote, these are "a renewable resource that tech monopolies and individual users alike continue to draw from....'
"When Big Tech is long gone, a better future will come from the seed of this public interest internet: seeds that are being planted now, and which need everyone to nurture them until they’re strong enough to sustain our future in a more open and free society. "
@pluralistic as always a fantastic read and a great thread.
My only annoyance is with the EFF, who seem to shun interoperability and open protocols (and places like the Fediverse), and have for years. I speak from experience, having talked to EFF folk in public and in private.
I just don't get EFF's almost hostile approach to services that are not mainstream walled gardens. It baffles me.
Vercors, yeah I read Cory's articles on EFF a while ago and watched several of his talks. Adversarial interoperability is a beautiful thing. This world needs more of it, and governments should absolutely not grant those companies any protections against it. As in, if you're running Facebook in a headless browser on your server and interacting with it on behalf of a consenting user, Facebook shouldn't be able to sue you for doing this.
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