WASHINGTON - In ways both obvious and subtle, Facebook may be the best proof of the old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
The social network is free for anyone to join but in exchange it’s constantly vacuuming up public and private data about its members. And that’s often done in hidden ways.
For example, following the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, millions of Facebook users recently modified their profile picture with a simple app created by the social network. The app overlays a transparent rainbow filter on pictures, giving users an easy way to voice their support of the decision.
It seems trivial, but in fact there may be more behind it than just a nice rainbow.
Facebook is constantly collecting data about the behavior of its members, and in the past has even intentionally manipulated its algorithms to conduct experiments on users – all without their knowledge or consent.
Even for something as simple as how people change their photos, and later change them back, observers are already asking how Facebook engineers will quietly use this rainbow filter data for the company’s benefit without users’ knowledge.
Privacy activists have long complained that large social networks like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and others use members’ private information without consent or transparency. But so far, there have been few alternatives.
That’s something Bill Ottman is hoping to change. Ottman is the founder and CEO of a new social network called Minds.com, a social network that’s free, completely open-source coded, and fully encrypted.
Still only a few weeks old, Minds has already received one high-profile vote of confidence from the privacy-centric hacker collective called Anonymous.
“Those things are all very important, because we know about all the surveillance activity happening on social networks,” Ottman said. “Users are essentially being denied access to information that could potentially empower them. We wanted to build a network that was totally transparent and would protect people’s freedom.”
Among the privacy features offered by Minds, Ottman says one of the most popular is full, end-to-end encryption of all users’ passwords, emails, and messages with each other.
“We at Minds have zero knowledge of the content of user’s messages,” Ottman said. “Zero-knowledge is a cryptographic principle where the company puts a wall of privacy between themselves and their users. Even if we were requested to hand those [messages] over, we couldn’t. We did that intentionally, because we don’t believe it’s our place to be the man in the middle.”
FBI director James Comey has been warning of the dangers of zero-knowledge encryption, saying it threatens to take the country into “a very dark place.” But Ottman says it’s clearly an option that users want, and even noted a recent U.N. report that called access to encryption “…necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.”
Another unique feature of Minds is a system that rewards users for each action they take while online with a credit. Those credits can then be spent expand the reach of users’ posts.
“For every action on the app, you’re earning virtual coins,” Ottman said. “You can then use those coins to boost your own content to totally new audiences. Just for participating in the larger community, we will expand your reach by letting you earn this currency and then spend it to boost your posts.”
Another major difference from networks like Facebook that claim license to user’s posted materials, Ottman said Minds allows members to either reserve all rights for posted content, or license it under Creative Commons.
“If they want their material shared, they’ll still receive attribution under the Commons license; if they don’t want anyone to have license to it, including us, they’ll also have that right,” he said.
But while privacy-minded potential users might find these options attractive, Minds – like other social network start-ups – faces a major challenge: attracting a critical mass of users to make the site work.
“Facebook is the biggest social network in the world; just about everybody’s there, even though they have all these questionable practices” Ottoman said. “Even if you don’t want to be there, you’re really pressured to be there if you want to communicate with certain people. We think that’s too bad.”
Ottman said rather than thinking of either/or, Minds gives privacy-minded users an opportunity to have both, and diversify their social networking experiences.
“Everyone wants to be heard; everyone wants a voice,” he said.