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Collaboration that doesn’t give others a license to distribute your stuff

A team of researchers has made a new word processor similar to Google Docs but with more security and privacy. Image: Public domain

If you use many web services to store your files, you give them a license to modify and distribute your work.

‘We use Google Docs as if it’s our local word processor, but it is not,’ said Dr Samer Hassan, from Complutense University of Madrid in Spain.

In fact, Google’s Terms of Service say: ‘When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google … a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works … communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.’

And it's not just Google, it's a policy that is common to many of the big internet companies. Facebook's Terms of Service say: "... subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License)."

Dr Hassan’s team has developed an app which creates online documents that anyone with access can edit, in a way similar to Google Docs, as part of the EU-funded p2pvalue project. However, the advantage of the app, called JetPad is privacy.

JetPad was built using SwellRT, a software suite developed by Pablo Ojanguren Menendez at Complutense, meaning communities can store their documents on their own central computers, allowing them to enforce their own levels of security and privacy.


The idea behind it is to make life easier for coalitions of programmers that work on the open source software behind websites such as Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia, or the Linux operating system, an alternative to Windows.

Known officially as Commons-Based Peer Production, such communities tend to lack the rigid hierarchies of a traditional business, and their members are often not driven by money, but by altruism, their reputation within a group, or simply enjoyment of the work.

‘We use Google Docs as if it’s our local word processor, but it is not.’

Dr Samer Hassan, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain

With this in mind, the idea behind SwellRT is to make it easier for developers to build software in which users can collaborate in real-time (like JetPad and Google Docs), while still maintaining control of where their code is stored and who can see it.

Historically, the commons referred to parts of the natural world that were used and shared by everyone, not privately owned, such as farmland and rivers. Today, the definition of the commons has been expanded to include software and web resources created by communities who are brought together in pursuit of a common goal, much like a neighbourhood community centre.

These software and web resources are open source, meaning that they may be altered by a user within a set of rules set out by the group that created it, and are usually available for free, maximizing access to them.

Lion’s share

One issue these communities face is the division of labour, as often a small number of core members do the lion’s share of the work.

The p2pvalue project has also focussed on improving this division of labour by creating the Teem app, which aims to increase participation by the members of a community.

By allowing users to see the current state of a project and what jobs need to be done, the app can help turn audience members into contributors, and contributors into core members.

The p2pvalue project tested its software using their own homemade collection of servers and virtual computers, as this enabled them to more closely mimic the conditions under which their end users would use their software.

However, internet-based research projects often need similar types of tools and test systems, and the EU-funded Fed4FIRE+ project is the largest federation of internet testbeds in Europe, with 23 facilities covering everything from wireless internet to simulations of multiple users.

‘Fed4FIRE+ has built on multiple projects … but also on software developed worldwide,’ explained the project coordinator, Professor Piet Demeester from Ghent University, Belgium.

He explained that the idea was to ‘reach a broader community of experimenters, both industrial, research institutes and universities’.

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The Issue

Despite having many of the world’s top universities, Europe isn't home to enough fast-growing innovative companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Part of the problem has been translating technological breakthroughs into marketable apps and services.

The EU has responded by helping stimulate investment in high-tech firms, by funding cutting-edge research into new online technologies, and supporting the development of the future internet.


More info