OSCON: Open source lazy about social Web services

A Gnome Foundation executive challenges open-source coders to work on more social-networking apps

While open-source coders have done a remarkable job of providing a complete open-source software stack, they haven't kept up with the emergence of Web services, charges an executive from a prominent open-source foundation.

"When it comes to Web services, we've gotten lazy," Stormy Peters, executive director of the Gnome Foundation, told an audience of largely open-source developers at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON), being held this week in Portland, Oregon.

"A lot of people have made sacrifices so that we could all use free software ... but when it comes to Web services, we don't have those freedoms," she said.

Peters also warned users that they do not have direct control or even exclusive ownership of the data they keep on many social Web services, such as Facebook or Yahoo Mail. Her statement was timely, given that Facebook announced on Wednesday that it now has 500 million users.

The Gnome Foundation supports the development of the Gnome desktop environment, one of the open-source components in many Linux distributions.

It is one component in what is now a complete stack of open-source programs that can be run on a server or desktop computer. For this work, Peters praised the open-source developers. "They believe we all have the right to use technology, to use software, regardless of how much money we have, or what language we speak," she said.

This intention, however, has not had much impact in the realm of social Web services, she said.

Peters sees the use of commercial services as potentially problematic for a number of reasons. One is the fact that the provider could discontinue a user's service without warning, either temporarily or permanently.

"How many of you back up your e-mail? How many of you have an alternate location for your e-mail?" she asked the audience.

Another problem is with ownership rights. In many cases, the Web service may own, or co-own, the data you provide.

"It is time to think about your freedom: Who has your data and what are they allowed to do with it?" she said. "If you upload your pictures, are they still yours or do they also belong to somebody else?"

Peters noted that in many cases, even if a user leaves a site and closes the account, the provider can still reuse the data, depending on the terms the user agreed to when signing up for an account. She recounted one example of a husband finding a photo of his wife in an ad for a dating service, which she submitted to the service back when she was single.

Peters noted a few open-source-run social-networking services. One is Identi.ca, a microblogging service similar to Twitter, but one that is run entirely on open-source software, and does not claim any ownership rights to user data.

Another open-source service she mentioned is the Gnome Foundation's recently launched Tomboy, a service for sharing notes across multiple computers.

Certainly the issue of open sourcing social networks is weighing heavily on at least some of the conference-goers here. On the Sunday before the conference, representatives from a number of social-networking services, both of the open-source and the proprietary varieties, assembled to discuss the technical feasibility of having social-networking services communicate and share data with one another. Representatives from open-source providers such as Status.Net (which runs Identi.ca) and Diaspora, as well as representatives from Tumblr, Mozilla and Facebook, attended.

Peters' talk was one of a number of brief keynotes kicking off this year's OSCON. Marten Mickos, CEO of open-source cloud software provider Eucalyptus, talked about how infrastructure cloud providers are mostly proprietary in nature. And Intel chief Linux strategist Dirk Hohndel discussed Meego, a Linux-based operating system being developed for smartphones, netbooks, tablets and other mobile devices.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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