Social Networks

Ello: A New Era of Social Media Privacy?

In the last few months, Ello, the social network that claims to be “simple, beautiful, and ad-free,” has made a big splash in the tech-media universe and on the internet at large. With its promises not to run advertisements or sell its users’ data it has attracted the interest primarily of those dissatisfied with other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Though giants of the tech world, both services have triggered the ire of a number of groups of late. From drag-queens frustrated by Facebook’s “real name policy” to journalist-types on Twitter fuming at the prospect of Facebook-style algorithms determining what ends up on your timeline. Suffice to say, not everything is peachy-keen in social media land, and that may leave an opening for a new player to enter this much crowded field.

But it remains to be seen whether Ello will meet that demand. Given that Ello is still in its early beta form, its lack of certain features such as privacy settings, blocking other users, or even a proper search function has disappointed some. Still more controversial is whether Ello will live up to its promise of staying ad-free and anti-data mining forever. The website’s designers clearly seem concerned that users’ will be skeptical of these claims from the get-go – to the extent that they even devoted a whole page to explaining that their intentions are completely sincere.

That, however, has not stopped commentators from weighing in and criticizing the budding social network’s good intentions. Most just do not think that it is a viable business model, particularly for a company running off of venture capital. As former Kickstarter CTO Andy Baio put it (on a much-shared Ello post, no less), “VCs may invest in things they think are interesting or want to exist, but they primarily invest money in startups to get a return on their investment, on behalf of their limited partners.” Once that seed funding dries up, Baio surmises, Ello will slowly move towards monetizing its number one asset – users’ data.

Even if Ello cannot live up to its promises, though, the conversation it has started could well be more important for internet privacy in the long run. Beyond that, the amount of interest Ello has sparked demonstrates that there is serious user demand for privacy-respecting technologies – it may simply be that social media is the wrong place to start. Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the Massachusetts ACLU, addressed this issue in particular while discussing the fight for internet privacy today more broadly:

“I think we're in a tough spot when it comes to social media,” she noted. “If things are free, obviously the users end up being the products somehow, and there's also no evidence that people will pay for a private social networking service.” There is the possibility of a not-for-profit, donation-based, or foundation-driven social network respecting users’ privacy, she mentioned, but that too is an untested theory. Naturally, one issue in particular makes this a tough market to break into: “…again, social media networks really only work when everyone you know is on them.”

I asked Crockford about other technologies that have the potential to advance the cause of privacy and freedom from surveillance on the internet today. One example that came up is Signal, an iPhone app that allows users to make free, encrypted phone calls to other Signal users and users of Redphone, Signal’s android sister-app, anywhere in the world. “The code is open source, so the likelihood of there being some sort of a back door into the encryption system is small.” Open source technology allows anyone who can to examine the architecture that makes the software tick, and that prevents developers from adding “back doors” that government agencies or data-miners can sneak in through to gather your information. “[Signal]’s an example of a technology that's totally free and does provide anybody who has a smartphone with secure communications.” The catch: “you have to get your friends to install it.”

Now, one objection that frequently comes up in conversations about privacy is that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” This is simply untrue, and it fails to recognize the fact that corporate surveillance has outstripped even government surveillance. At least we can pretend the government is discriminate in its snooping for criminal activity, whereas with huge tech companies like Facebook everyone knows that most of the vast sums of data they suck up – from “hey,” “yo,” “sup,” to “nm hbu?” – is utterly inane.

Is there anything more nauseating than imagining the portrait the data miners assemble of us when they have access to our most personal, most mundane messages? Shouldn’t we be distressed by this? Corporate surveillance affects everyone, like it or not, and if there are tools that help avoid having our communications sucked into the data-vortex, everyone should adopt them.

Signal and Ello are not the only examples, either. Though switching email addresses may seem like a Herculean task, there are alternatives to Gmail (some of which are more economical than Gmail for people running a business). There is the curious case of Firechat, which helped Hong Kong protesters stay in constant contact with one another even when cell phone signals and 4G service were too clogged to work.

And then there is the fascinating and encouraging example of Aral Balkan’s project for an “indie phone,” which aims at nothing less than crashing Apple and Google’s party in the phone market with a phone that doesn’t use your data for evil. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of that last example is that, while users expect many services such as webmail or messaging to be free, phones are something we universally expect to pay for – and that means that the indie phone could have a viable business model on its hands.

But beyond just adopting these technologies, there are bigger things that can and must be done to advance the cause of privacy and equality on the net. Again, Kade Crockford had some thought-provoking words here: “the internet itself is a technology that can and should be used in the service of liberty, freedom, democracy, struggles for equality and justice, and it is. The only problem is that we have allowed powerful forces that do not want to protect internet freedom to control the internet.” Her solution: “We have to reform the law, frankly.”

She pushed back against the notion that laws just cannot keep up with 21st century technologies, citing the example of how wiretap statutes in different states make it illegal for private citizens to record others without their knowledge. Because of these laws, most surveillance cameras in the US lack the ability to record audio. “So, you can see that a decision that was made by a legislature – wiretap statutes – can have far reaching effects, not only on how technologies are implicated, but actually how they are built.”

Ultimately, Crockford noted, “We have to think very creatively about how to create new laws for the 21st century that protect our social location information from warrantless search and seizure. The only thing stopping us from doing this is that we aren't sufficiently organized.”


James Neimeister is a freelance writer


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James Neimeister

James Neimeister spent 2013-2014 in Russia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and is a freelance writer.

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