Where’s My Private, Free, Open-Source Personal Web?

Why we need public benefit alternatives to popular Internet products like Instagram–before it’s too late.

Where’s My Private, Free, Open-Source Personal Web?

When businesses buy software, they don’t expect to take what’s off the shelf. They get everything customized as they like, open to tweak and update, and with their own privacy and data kept under lock and key.


But in the consumer world of free software, browsers, and apps, you get what you pay for–terms of service are totally dictated by the company. The exception is in open-source alternatives, like WordPress for blogging and Firefox for browsing. There the communities of users and creators have the freedom to control their own domains, and collaborate to improve, customize, and update the product.

Aza Raskin, founding member of Mozilla Labs and creative lead of Firefox 4, is no longer officially part of Mozilla. But he urges the nonprofit to accelerate their strategy of “fast follow”–or cloning popular products, and making the clone open-source.

Take Instagram as an example. Now owned by Facebook, it’s already weathered one terms-of-service backlash. Not only would a nonprofit Instagram be easier to trust, says Raskin, but it might be more fun to play with.

“We can make it open and add the ability to analogously “view-source.” Why not use Javascript to modify, create and share new filters? Or change the layout of your profile? Or clone and host your own version of Instagram that has video? In other words, let both users and developers remix Instagram,” he writes.

In doing so Mozilla could become a powerful second-mover in the market. But why stop with Instagram? We should be prying open Mailbox, Gmail, AWS, and many others. By amplifying an existing product and injecting it with our DNA, Mozilla can defend the open web.”

(If you like the idea of an open-source Instagram, here are several different versions to try.)

Online education is one area where remixable, secure, private platforms are both important and are taking hold.
As massively open online courses (also known as MOOCs) get more popular, they’re starting to be hailed as the solution for cash-strapped public university systems. But there’s a high likelihood that the free offerings of venture-funded startups Coursera and Udacity will be subsidized somehow with the use of student data. Luckily, EdX, a nonprofit funded by MIT and Harvard’s endowments, offers a widely used MOOC platform that is open-source. They aim to become “the Linux of education.”

Fast follow needs to be pretty fast. Once a closed-source platform, like Gmail or Twitter, gets established enough, there are too many costs to switching to even the best-intentioned open web solution. There’s also a question of how all of this open stuff will be funded. About 99% of Mozilla’s $163 million in revenue comes from search fees from Google, Bing, Amazon and others–in other words, the very for-profits to which they aim to provide an alternative.


But consumers could use more public benefit alternatives–for privacy, for freedom, and for innovation.

[Image: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.