This is a month old and yet for non-techies or other users who haven’t seen it, it’s a salutary warning about Google:
In the midst of the major press blitz surrounding its annual I/O Conference, Google dropped some unfortunate news about its instant messaging plans. In several places around the web, the company is replacing the existing “Talk” platform with a new one called “Hangouts” that sharply diminishes support for the open messaging protocol known as XMPP (or sometimes informally Jabber), and also removes the option to disable the archiving of all chat communications. These changes represent a switch from open protocols to proprietary ones, and a clear step backward for many users.
Allowing federation between services lets users make these choices themselves. Here’s an explanation of the importance of federation from Google’s own documentation of its Talk platform, in a section called “Open Communications”:
“[Service choice] allows you to choose your service provider based on other more important factors, such as features, quality of service, and price, while still being able to talk to anyone you want.
Unfortunately, the same is not true with many popular IM and VOIP networks today. If the people you want to talk to are all on different IM/VOIP services, you need to sign up for an account on each service and connect to each service to talk to them.”
The new Hangouts protocol raises precisely the concerns Google outlines above. Users are given only the choice to use Google’s chat servers or to cut themselves off from people who do. Worse, Google users aren’t presented with any notice about the change: their buddies who use jabber.org, member.fsf.org, or any number of other XMPP servers, will simply not appear as available for chat.
No official Google client supports Off-the-Record (OTR) encryption, which is increasingly a critical component of secure online communication. If both participants in a chat are using Off-the-Record encryption, they’ve got a secure end-to-end line, which means nobody except the two of them—including their service provider—can read their messages.
You get the general idea. Techies I know won’t have a bar of Google as they’re well aware of what it’s up to. I’ve stayed with it till now because I’ve nothing in particular to hide which Google has any access to and yet, it is my choice which data I allow out and which I don’t. It’s also my choice when Google makes it so difficult to use its services that I start looking for new ones, e.g. the feeds.
Google is obviously banking on the average social network users not being all that bright in cyber terms, people who think it a grand thing to be able to communicate through chat and fora, without being either aware or concerned who’s watching and which government agency is getting the raw data. I’d put Skype in that category too.
It’s not as if the government doesn’t have you pegged anyway – I’m very much on the grid and my life story is a known-known but as you know, it’s the principle of the thing.