Creating an open source distributed communication app like Jami is not a simple task. The lack of server gives rise to numerous obstacles that make this architecture challenging to implement without affecting the user experience. In this article, we will discuss the main ethical reason that motivated us to make this design decision.
“We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.”
- Jaron Lanier (2018)
Our primary motivation for creating the Jami distributed communication platform is ethical. As Jaron Lanier explained in his 2018 TED talk, the most popular Internet communication tools monetize their services by analyzing their users’ information in order to predict and influence their behavior with targeted ads. This creates an incentive structure that leads them to make their platforms as addictive as possible in order to maximize the time that their users spend on them, the personal data that they generate and the ads that they see. We believe this is wrong and we wanted to create an alternative that protects users’ privacy and gives them full control over their personal data. In countries where freedom of speech is a real issue, tools such as Jami can provide their citizens the means to mitigate the risks of retaliation from their government when they share prohibited content. As we have seen with the Social Credit System of China and the elections involving Cambridge Analytica, access to personal data can give powerful entities the ability to oppress and manipulate people.
Allowing our users to communicate directly with each other without having to rely on any central authority makes it extremely difficult for anyone to be eavesdropping on them, even for us. In theory, it is also possible for centralized services to prevent themselves from being able to read users’ data if it is encrypted and the key is never on the server. However, they could still access metadata such as time, size and recipient of the communications. Furthermore, distributed architectures have the advantage of reducing the number of intermediaries who could exploit vulnerabilities in the encryption algorithm. When it comes to privacy, nothing is perfectly secure, but a distributed architecture combined with end to end encryption is much better than either of those precautions by itself.
Even those who think that they have nothing to hide from governments and corporations should be concerned about what the tools they use are optimized for, which is usually to influence behaviors and increase addiction. Rather than questioning why to care about privacy, they should wonder why their data is so valuable to those organizations. As long as business models are based on ads, users’ personal data will be leveraged to capture attention for as long as possible and make ads more personalized, because that is what generates revenues.
Jaron’s proposition to resolve this problem was to incite companies to stop offering services for free online. While this could indeed reduce incentives to collect personal data, most economists would say that the demand for free services is not about to stop and as long as it is possible to monetize them there will be someone to provide them. Therefore it is unlikely that free services will ever disappear from the Internet, but what Jaron seems to have neglected is that they don’t necessarily have to be financed by advertising. In next week’s article we will discuss the other more practical advantages of Jami’s distributed architecture and how our business model can leverage them to provide a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to everyone without collecting and monetizing user data.
By François Naggar-Tremblay – Jami Product Manager