Did I get your attention with the title? Good. In this post I will outline something that I have been thinking about for some months:
I believe it is possible to build a system with the simplicity and functionality of WhatsApp or Viber, which provides end-to-end encryption, is built on free software and open protocols, that supports federation and is almost decentralised, and that would allow interested companies to turn a profit without compromising any of these principles.
This is the first post of a series that I will be publishing in the next few days. Many parts of these posts will be technical, but I expect that the main concepts can be understood by a wider audience.
What I am proposing seems like a bold statement, I know. Maybe there is some fatal flaw somewhere in my thinking, and that is why I am publishing this: I hope to get constructive feedback, and maybe get enough traction to start implementing it Real Soon Now™.
I have been thinking about this problem since February, when I discussed this extensively with friends at FOSDEM. I have already published a critique of Telegram, which had way more impact than I ever imagined, showing that there is people out there interested in this kind of stuff. The last posts about DNSSEC and DANE were part of my musings about this, too.
There are many components that need to be built for this to happen. But more importantly, this can only be useful if it gains a critical mass. And that's why I think making this a viable business tool is very important. At the same time, that means I need to think extra carefully to make it impossible for any for-profit company to mutate this effort into Just Another Walled Garden.
My goals for this architecture are:
- First and foremost, target the same people that nowadays is using a plethora of walled gardens for their instant communication needs. That is WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, Facebook messenger, etc.
- It must focus on mobile, that is what people care about, without forgetting about other use cases.
- Creating an account and placing the first call/text message should be as easy as it is currently with the competition.
- All communication must be encrypted end-to-end with public-key cryptography; nobody but the user has access to the private keys.
- Most components must be decentralised, and allow for competition.
- There should be as little trust as possible placed on any part of the system.
- Anybody can set up a compatible service provider and offer it to its users, while having full interoperability with other providers.
- Compatible services which are not part of the network must be able to interoperate.
- Contacting a person should happen even if they are not subscribed to the service. The client application must fall-back seamlessly to using interoperability gateways, PSTN termination, or the mobile network.
- Interoperability with the competition is desirable, but possibly is better left to be implemented by the client applications.
I have identified a few components needed for this to work, I will expand on each one later.
- A flagship mobile application for Android and iOS, based on Lumicall or CSIPSimple, but with several important modifications.
- One or many directory and authentication services, based on ENUM and DNSSEC. These are the most critical piece of this idea, and possibly must only be operated by community-governed non-profits.
- One or many service providers, that offer simple account creation, registration, and optionally PSTN termination (which can be the main way of generating profit). An API needs to be defined for operations that are not part of the communications protocol, like account creation, credit purchasing, and balance querying.
- A network governing charter, and a trusted non-profit organisation that oversees that any participating parties are following the charter. This organisation defines which directory services are to be trusted (and possibly operates one of them), and which service providers the client application can use to create accounts.
Some of the issues that need to be solved are:
- How to handle and distribute public keys securely without the user understanding anything about security.
- How to make registration painless and password-free, while offering an acceptable level of security.
- How to fund development of the client application, and maintenance of the directory services.
- How to get companies interested in this, so them would bring users to the network.
- How to allow the user to migrate from one service provider to another, to improve competition.
- How to prevent any party from subverting the spirit of the network.
- How to make the client application work everywhere and have reasonably quality.
To be continued
I think I have answers to most of these problems. I will elaborate in the next few days, stay tuned!
The name is something I've chosen a name in less than 2 minutes, while starting this post, so probably is awful.
The distributed part is only half true, as the directory services need to be centralised, but I think it's good enough.
I am aware that Lumicall seems to be trying to build something similar. I only found about that recently, when I was thinking about this design. Sadly, I think it has several shortcomings, but it is definitely one of the building blocks of this project.