Keybase has left the building

Published: Mon 11 May 2020

It's a story that most of us have heard before. You found this cool new service, and you sign up and invest time and energy learning how to use it. Things are great! Then at some point it gets bought or otherwise acquired. There will be promises that the service will continue to run as per usual, probably even improve, but sooner or later the announcement comes that it's being shut down. There goes the tool you've relied on for years. If the tool happens to be a social one, where you've had to convince your friends or colleagues to use it, then you are doubly-burned.

You may have seen the recent news that Keybase has been acquired by Zoom. If you haven't heard of them before, Keybase links your social accounts to a Keybase identity in a cryptographically provable way so that people can verify you are who you say you are. On top of that, they also offer end-to-end encrypted chat and secure file storage.

This is looking like an acqui-hire and is probably a good thing for Zoom and Keybase employees. However, if it is an acqui-hire then it's quite likely the Keybase product will be shut down eventually. I hope this isn't the case as Keybase is a great product. However, this is unfortunately an all-too-common exit mode for centralised, closed source systems and while it may be ultimately very profitable for the company being acquired, it very often leaves the users in the lurch. If you (the user) are relying on a particular server to function (or DNS itself) then the product you are using can be taken away from you permanently (or temporarily for that matter) by buying or influencing the owners of that server, or simply blocking them on a network level.

This is why I'm very careful about what new services or software I sign up to. Life is too short! If the software satisfies the following then it has some built-in defences -

1) Open-source

If the software is open-source then, if you really wanted to, you could host your own version of it, or pay someone to set it up for you. Note that this means both the clients and the server need to be open-source. If only the clients are open-source, then you are still locked in and dependent.

2) Allows data export

Being able to self-host is of limited benefit if you can't also export your existing data from the platform. This ties into the broader issue of data ownership.

3) Decentralized

If a service is actually decentralized (not just federated) then you don't depend on a central server at all. In this case you don't actually need to "export" your data, you just migrate server. Ideally, migrating to a different server doesn't mean you lose any social data, or have to tell your friends etc - this is true if your identity is independent of your hosting server.

4) Viable business model with paying users

Finally, if a service has a viable business model where users are paying, then the interests of the business and the users are much more aligned. Contrast that with advertising-based businesses where third-party advertisers and user data are key to revenue.

It may still be premature to say we're losing Keybase, and I hope Zoom listens to the Keybase user community and keeps on offering and developing this product. In the meantime, if any Keybase users are now looking for a replacement storage service - one that has all these defences built-in - have a look around our site and make yourself at home!


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