Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Online Privacy and MeWe vs. Ello

Since everything has an analogy in aviation, we’ll start out on June 30 1956 over the Grand Canyon as two airliners collide in flight for the first time, this sparks a paradigm shift in air traffic control strategies. From this point on, staying safe in the air no longer meant doing nothing and hoping for the best…

This doing nothing and hoping for the best is now derisively referred to by pilots as the "big sky small airplane" theory of traffic avoidance. The "big sky small airplane" theory of traffic avoidance is analogous to how I thought of online privacy for most of my online life.  The database of users is so big I reasoned, and I am so unremarkable, that the odds of me being targeted for discrimination are so low that I might as well ignore them. One might call this the "big database, little-old-me" theory of online security.

This theory of online security can no longer be trusted. It is now not only likely, but inevitable, that some people will get unjustly targeted for their online activity. There are two reasons for this.

1. Big data analysis tools from large governmental and non-governmental entities are now good enough to identify any demographic of people they wish.

2. There are people with the will to discriminate against all sorts of demographics. Even people in powerful governmental organizations like the IRS. Don't believe the IRS did it? Perhaps this love song will change your mind...

These two facts taken together give me reason to worry, and with this worry comes a desire to control my online data to avoid being targeted for God-only-knows-what.

I'm not the only one who wants to feel safer online and in response to the demand for privacy, two new social networks have arisen that promise to protect you from those who would use your data against you. The first one to launch was Ello last month, and just today MeWe launched. These online communities are very different and in very different stages of development, a comparison of the two should help you make decisions about how and if to use them.

Since MeWe is the exciting new kid on the block, let’s check it out first. This is what the top of your browser will look like once you've logged in to MeWe:


MeWe is ambitious. It incorporates cloud storage, email/messages, contact/calendar management and a fully featured social network in one very seamless and attractive package.

The privacy features that set MeWe apart are described in their Values Statement and in their Privacy Policy. Basically MeWe makes a number of promises:

  1. They will never scan your data, mine your data, sell your data or do any analysis or copying of your data at all. The only things that will ever be done with your data is what you directly do with it.
  2. They will never run social experiments on you as Facebook has famously done for sometime.
  3. They will submit themselves to third party audits to prove that they are being totally honest with their users.

MeWe was founded by Mark Weinstein, a widely respected privacy expert recently listed as the number 4 privacy thinker in the world. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of HTTP client-server communication (basically the internet... no really) and long time internet freedom advocate has recently joined MeWe’s Advisory Board..

MeWe is committed to not collecting and selling your data but they also have very straightforward answers to the question of “Well, how do you plan on making money?” Their recent press release shared four targeted revenue streams.
1. Cloud storage (8GB is free, then you can buy up to 500GB),
2. Photo printing: MeWe has a revenue sharing agreement with Walgreens and plans to expand the revenue sharing model to other service companies as well.
3. A coming App Store
4. A coming paid Enterprise edition for large organizations.

MeWe is surprisingly good. It still has a few rough edges but much of it is clearly better than what Facebook offers; in particular audio messaging, symbolic messaging and group communications are superior to Facebook's implementation of these features. Speaking of Facebook, a key feature of MeWe is that it can be easily integrated with Facebook (as well as Twitter and LinkedIn) so that Facebook content automatically shows up on MeWe and vice versa preventing you from having to post things in more than one location.

I think all users, particularly those concerned with privacy should check it out at

While MeWe is a direct Facebook/Google+ competitor, Ello is more of a Twitter/Tumblr competitor that also has some Facebook-like functionality. Ello, while it publicly launched before MeWe, is not as far along in the developmental process and is officially still in beta, meaning it has limited functionality. When you log in to Ello the top of your screen will look like this:


When signing up for an Ello account the way that you prove you’re human and not a spam robot is to drag an “Ello” smily face on top of the face of a cat, which is cute and really quite innovative, unfortunately it rejected my first 4 attempts to prove I was a human. I suspect this is an issue that only occurred because I was using a ghetto old iPad 3 with iOS 8.

Sharing content on Ello is easy once you get a hang for the interface which is simple to the point of being sparse. Ello was founded by “seven well-known artists and programmers” but only one of them, film maker Paul Budnitz, has revealed his identity. The other 5 mysteriously exist under the aliases “Berger & Föhr” and “The Mode Set.” Further description of Ello's founders is on the Ello site here.

While MeWe’s way of protecting your data is by structuring the site (and servers) so that only you can control it/download it. Ello plans to keep you safe by preventing anyone from knowing who you are so that your data cannot be attached to the real you. Ello also supports “do not track” requests but by default Google Analytics and other other data analysis may be performed on your data. Learn more about how Ello handles your information on their website here.

Ello hasn't publicly stated how they intend to monetize their site, something Ello’s critics are wary of. Ello's lack of a revenue model (only hints of future premium services have been made thus far), and the fact that they’re Venture Capital backed has led to speculation that they'll eventually have to compromise on their No-Ad model or charge a monthly fee or sell their business to a data giant, something they would probably like to avoid.

I think Ello is a good fit for the web-savvy reddit crowd and anyone else looking for an anonymous platform, it still feels largely unfinished but it has potential. Check it out at

My opinion? Right now I think MeWe is the better product by a wide margin, so good I've invested a small amount of cash in it. It has all the functionality required to replace Facebook and then some, I also know much more about its founders and board members which helps with the trust angle.

Ello’s still-anonymous founders give it a hacker feel that I don’t entirely trust and I’m more a Facebook user than a Twitter/Tumblr user myself. That said I’m happy that we now have options, online privacy can now be had without making significant sacrifices.

Yayyyy for progress!