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What Moglen presented was less an abstract theory than a beautiful, hypnotic manifesto—a puckish meditation aimed at waking listeners from their torpor. He described a world in which the fantastic possibilities of the Internet, its once-great freedom and creativity, had been curdled, truncated, within a few years. Gullible civilians—the ordinary users of Facebook, iPhones, and Gmail—had given themselves up to the spymasters. Because they didn’t understand their own machines, or code itself, they’d been brainwashed into believing this was a fair trade, convinced their natural role was to be clients, reliant on servers. In order to gain access to online intimacy, they’d been trained to accept (in his sardonic refrain) “spying—for free!”

At the center of the speech was a call to arms, aimed at those who had the tools ordinary users lacked. Geeks spoke the language that made things happen. (There’s a reason some coders call programs “incantations” and “daemons.”) These powers could catalyze freedom, rather than take it away. “What we need is to make a thing that is so greasy there will never be another social-networking platform again,” Moglen announced, to applause. “Right? Can we do it? Yeah. Absolutely. In fact, if you don’t have a date on Friday night, let’s just have a hackfest and get it done.”

“We need to learn to see privacy as more than ‘the one secret I don’t want anyone to know.’ ”

The four friends were electrified. Moglen was speaking not only to the make-it-yourself impulse of their club, but to the utopian, communal roots of computer science in the sixties. He described what he called a “Freedom Box,” a handheld device that would enable users to carry their data with them and unplug it at will. Allowing users to share with one another as they did on Facebook, Moglen said, should be a breeze, something any decent programmer could pull off—a bunch of “PHP doodads.”

Raphael Sofaer’s older brother Mike, a software engineer, was visiting from San Francisco. After the speech, he listened as the four undergraduates raved excitedly for hours, hashing out the implications. “There was a feeling like ‘we could do anything,’ ” says Mike.

The original plan was to hole up at Sofaer’s family’s house in Palo Alto, put their heads down, and code. Instead, they took up an offer to work with Mike at Pivotal, an airy dot-com hive where they could gain insight from more-experienced programmers. Salzberg, Grippi, and Zhitomirskiy rented cheap rooms two blocks away, while Sofaer moved to the Mission. On the afternoon I visited, streams of Ruby code flowed down one screen in blue, orange, and red. On another was the rudimentary Diaspora* interface, with the Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) commenting on one another’s status.

Salzberg and Zhitomirskiy joined me by the kitchen—near programmers playing Ping-Pong—and began describing their biggest hurdle: grokking the ordinary user.

The week before, they’d had a “come to Jesus” session with one of their advisers, the consultancy firm Luxr’s Janice Fraser, “a total badass chick and super-innovator,” in Salzberg’s description. They were too concerned with impressing fellow geeks, she argued—that Aspergian cadre of revolutionary coders who wanted the ultimate in security and flexibility. This group they playfully call “the beards.”

Instead, they needed to get into the heads of the larger world, the ones they referred to sometimes as “normal people” and sometimes as “the girls.” Your ordinary user, in other words—trading party photos and article links. An international group whose privacy needs ranged wildly from “I don’t want my mother to see this” to “If the government sees this, I will be decapitated.” In other words, everyone.

To give Diaspora* the widest possible appeal, the team decided on a two-tiered release. First, on their promised release date of September 15, they would dump the raw code, a “pre-alpha” program full of bugs. The open-source project would begin, with beards pitching in to make it workable.

Then, later in the fall, they’d release Diaspora* for real. Unlike Facebook, which requires users to store profiles on its company’s servers, Diaspora* would be decentralized. Users could store their “seed” of data on a traditional web host, or in a cloud-based host, or at a trusted friend’s server, or on their own computer, much like e-mail. Anytime they wanted, they could transfer (or “beam”) their profile onto another server, or delete it entirely. No data could be “scraped” by outside parties; all data transfers would be encrypted.