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Opinion: Are ownCloud Servers a Democracy or Just a Platform?

is ownCloud a platform just like Facebook and Amazon? If yes, who makes the decisions on an ownCloud server? A plea for more democracy.

The first time I realized the power of Facebook was when I wanted to quit, but couldn’t bring myself to. I was so dependent on this privacy-abusing corporation, that I didn’t want to quit only for my privacy’s sake.

Finally they deleted my account, because someone reported my made-up last name. That was the second time I realized Facebook’s power. I lost a lot of friends on that day. Some of them I never found again, neither online nor offline.

facebook pills

The message is clear – some platforms make you dependent on them.

Nowadays, I need a Facebook profile for my job. That’s only part of how the power of platforms like Google, Amazon, Uber, and Facebook is no longer limited to the Internet. It has reached the meatspace long ago.

One example is how Facebook is blamed for endangering democracy is the Cambridge Analytica scandal 2016. And just recently, Facebook announced its own currency. The calls that Facebook and other platforms need to be held accountable grow louder by the day.

So What Exactly Is a Platform?

Michael Seemann, a philosopher with focus on the Internet, has coined the term of the platform – a paradigm of order which is about to oust the institution as central paradigm of organizing society.

Michael Seemann at the re:publica 10.

In his book Das neue Spiel, he argues that platforms are more efficient than institutions, and therefore take over their tasks, their trust, and their power. States begin to fear the power of platforms, while they don’t have fully taken over yet.

The difference to institutions is that institutions try to solve the problems of their ‘users’ directly in a micromanagement way, centrally controlled. In contrast, platforms offer their users some resources to solve their problems themselves, and automate the control.

Using an institution feels a bit like riding a train – there is a fixed route, and I can get in or not. Platforms offer me a car: they let me decide where I want to drive myself. And where institutions like a train network need central control, Uber can engage as many drivers as they want, while the control costs don’t rise.

Another good example is what Amazon did to the retail industry: when you only have limited assortment, you have to exercise control centrally. Amazon doesn’t need to care – it just offers the platform and profits.

Both institutions and platforms work by standardization; that’s how they exercise control and do their tasks. But because platforms are better in standardization and can handle more cases more efficiently, they can outperform institutions. (Das Neue Spiel, p. 99ff)

Platforms are the winners of the internet, because they have a very efficient way to exercise control. A perfect recipe for the cyberpunk dystopia which fascinates me – and which I want to avoid.

ownCloud – a Cloud Collaboration Platform

ownCloud empowers users in many ways. They don’t have to transfer files with a USB drive anymore, they don’t have to worry about Dropbox spying on them. With an OnlyOffice or Collabora integration, they can even collaborate on documents.

And in one way, ownCloud is a better platform than Facebook or Amazon – with those monopolies, if you don’t like their rules, you can only complain or leave. Those are all the participation rights users have. (Das Neue Spiel, p. 206)

ownCloud error 155 democracy not found

There is not really a 155 HTTP error.

ownCloud offers you more autonomy, because it is Open Source: you can also host it yourself, and federate with other instances. You are not locked out of the platform just because you disagree with the admin.

Online Democracy or Admin Dictatorship?

But it remains a fact – with ownCloud, on every instance, an admin is the dictator. Because admins have the control over the deployment, they can disable every protection ownCloud could build for the users.

This makes sense in an Enterprise context – most companies have strict hierarchies. For companies, “keep your data under your control” means the control of the company owner.  Owners want to protect themselves from rogue employees and whistleblowers just as from hackers and industry espionage.

That’s why there are Enterprise apps; large companies have strict guidelines for data access, and are happy to pay for exclusive features which guarantee compliance. This model ensures that the development of the Open Source project is continued, and ownClouders can pay their rent.

With community ownCloud instances, it transfers the power to the nerds. Not everyone has the technical skills to set up an ownCloud instance themselves if they need one. This way, people without IT skills have less rights.

As an ownCloud admin, this annoys me. I would love to give more power to the users, to enable participation in my ownCloud instance. But at the moment I can only listen to feedback – the tools are missing.

An anarchist way would be to give all my users root access to my server. Unfortunately this is an IT security nightmare. Instead, the solution will be a soft one, built on communication and human interaction: the democracy app.

occ market:install democracy

In my friend’s circle we have this joke about nerds. Nerds see how technology causes political problems, so they go forth and find a technical solution for it – they don’t even think of a political solution. I’m a nerd, so I want to write an ownCloud app which takes care of democracy.

A democracy app would open options for collective decision making. All users of an ownCloud instance would be able to view transparency information in the app, discuss the ownCloud configuration, and vote on changes.

Some ideas include:

Transparency:

  • Who is admin, how can I contact them?
  • Which apps are installed?
  • Disk usage – is my data limit fair?
  • How is the server configuration?
  • How much does the setup cost monthly? Who pays for it?

Discussions:

  • A (minimalistic) forum with topics concerning the ownCloud server – e.g. extension requests or configuration requests.

Polls:

  • Which ownCloud apps do we need?
  • How big should data limits be?
  • Do we want this or that configuration?
  • Do we want to invite a certain user to the ownCloud or not, do we want open registrations?

Other ideas? I appreciate any feedback. Just post something into the comments, or open an issue at the GitHub repository, where I’m currently collecting ideas.

The success of such an app is highly dependent on whether the users even want to participate. E-Mail notifications for new topics would probably be good for getting traction, but that already goes far into the details.

I’m interested in your opinion: could an app like this help preventing ownCloud from becoming just another example of the emerging cyberpunk dystopia? Do I see dangers where I have nothing to fear?

Anyway, I’m really interested in writing this app. The new Phoenix frontend is approaching the first release, and I’m looking forward to build on it. If you want to contribute, please get in contact with me.

 

Let’s build a more democractic Internet!

 

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