The Startup Challenging the Centralized Internet

By Joe Moon

After years of centralization of photosharing, OpenPhoto wants to give control back to users.

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The growing centralization of the Internet -- manifested in our increasing reliance on "The Cloud" -- threatens the nature of our relationship with the technologies that shape modern life. The user interface changes that invariably enrage some contingent of users are just a trivial edge of the total space that describes the consequences of relinquishing control over our software to large commercial enterprises. There are entire categories of larger consequences.

Some are the kinds of low-probability, high-consequence risks that James Fallows wrote about in his November 2011 article on his personal experience with his wife's hacked Gmail account.

Others are higher-order in nature, such as the way companies like Facebook and Google deal with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. There's also the issue of algorithmic censorship, which can take distinctly non-obvious forms.

An interesting example, as Ben Fino-Radin reports, is YouTube's removal of a video that incorporates spammy metadata into its conception as artwork.

The video, likely known to most readers, features Cortright mundanely clicking through the stock effects of a $20 webcam, gazing bored into the screen of her computer, trance playing in the background. Far from offensive content. The violation lies in Cortright's use of keywords. The video description contained 733 keywords, ranging from "tits, vagina, sex, nude, boobs" to "san francisco, diego, jose, puto, taco bell, border patrol, mcdonalds, KFC, kentucky fried chicken, trans fat".

Andy Baio investigates another vector on which emerging art and culture are colliding headlong with proprietary services and broad legislation. YouTube's necessarily automated and algorithmic enforcement of copyright simply cannot make distinctions about fair use, and as a consequence is in some sense destroying the notion altogether. Mashups, remixes, and cover songs are routinely taken down with very little recourse for users.

While I'm willing to put up with periodic changes to my workflow, I'm much less willing to compromise on parental control over their children's accessibility or the emerging definitions of our collective cultural heritage. Fortunately, there are people building alternatives.

For years, WordPress has been an inherently decentralized blogging platform. It's at once a company (Automattic) that hosts blogs on WordPress.com, an open-source blogging application you can install on hosting of your choice, and a platform that supports rich add-ons and themes. It provides a powerful set of tools for people and organizations of all sizes to publish without centralized gatekeepers in their way.

Jaisen Mathai is a Web developer who left Yahoo! last year to test the WordPress model in a context he's passionate about: photography. Raising over $25,000 on Kickstarter, he started the Open Photo Project, an open source photo storage and sharing platform aimed at photography Web sites like Flickr, SmugMug, and Picasa.

Over email, he told me "OpenPhoto is a platform on which applications can be built. This is interesting because Flickr, Smugmug and Picasa are applications on which other applications can be built. The difference is subtle but profound."

The subtle, profound difference being that users retain control and ownership over the photos, where and how they're stored, as well as where and how they're presented.

One of the guiding principles of the project is to always have at least two options for any given part of the platform: data, hosting, application.

The real significance is that once you decouple these things and make them interchangable you wind up having something that's never existed before. I also believe that this could only come from a grassroots movement because Google, Facebook and Yahoo are not at all interested in providing their users with the ability to leave their platform the way OpenPhoto does.

On top of the platform, Mathai and his team have already started building a Web, iPhone, and Android app called OpenPhoto, also open source. While this is all geared toward developers and advanced users for now, the goal is for it to be accessible to end users.

I believe that services like [Amazon Web Services] will become more consumer friendly. At any point a user can export their entire account from the storage which we provide to one of their own. This does make even the "simple" signup different from existing services.

Dropbox is a great example. Since they are a consumer focused service it's trivial to link your hosted OpenPhoto account with your Dropbox account. Even non technical users can do this. This also differentiates OpenPhoto from existing services.

Our goal is to get users' photos into their own control and we'll employ whatever services make it easiest for them to do so.

Mathai's vision of the future involves users that own and control their own photos and the associated metadata, with a thriving ecosystem of apps built on an open platform. A lower barrier to entry for developers who can leverage a new user's existing data store to more quickly and easily develop innovative experiences. And another integral part of this vision is BrowserID, the spiritual successor to the mostly failed OpenID initiative. It's a decentralized identity platform that allows the development of apps that users can sign into without having a separate siloed identity with a new username and password for each separate service.

"We want OpenPhoto to run anywhere possible," says Mathai. "[We] have open issues to get OpenPhoto running on Orchestra.io (acquired by Heroku), PHPFog (now AppFog*) and PagodaBox. In fact, an employee at Orchestra.io submitted a pull request after he added support himself."

While Mathai is working on the deployment of OpenPhoto, platform-as-a-service companies like those he mentions are becoming more mature and competitive. They provide more generalized platforms for developers to build on top of without having to worry about the details of system administration and physical server maintenance. And developers can make their apps easy enough for even non-technical users to deploy. For example, Expert Labs has a social activity analysis app called ThinkUp that now has a two-click deployment process on PHPFog's free hosting.

Mathai's focus is on photos because it's a context that he has specific interest in. He's scratching his own itch. But he's also testing the generalizability of the WordPress model. If he hits even a fraction of the success that WordPress has, it will raise the question: What else can this work for? Email? Music? Check-ins? Status updates? Shared links? Comments? Likes and favorites? Contacts? Social graphs?

A simple extrapolation of these trends points toward a future in which we mostly replace our computers with data stores and hosts that we pay for on a subscription basis, and standardized, inter-operable applications that we install on them, much as we install applications on our computers now. It's a future in which we have more direct control over our data and a more direct stake in what we do online. In which we own an online identity (or more than one) that remains transparently persistent, even as we change the applications, hosts, and data stores that we use. In which we even have more control over our upgrade paths, and potentially over individual interface elements. It's a future in which we each have our own personal cloud with full control over it.

It certainly isn't a foregone conclusion. I still have a lot of questions about how a decentralized social graph would work, and how it would wrest users from the deep well of social interaction that is Facebook. I wonder about the viability of revenue models in this sort of environment. But if you squint at the horizon and cock your head just so, you might just be able to make out little clouds on the horizon.

* Full disclosure: I am in talks to work part-time at AppFog.

* Correction: In a previous version of this post, I failed to properly make the distinction between WordPress, the blogging application, and Automattic, the company that provides hosted blogs on WordPress.com.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/the-startup-challenging-the-centralized-internet/250008/