OAuth Has Many Flaws But It is The Best We Have At The Moment

I was enjoying the REST API Notes newsletter from my friend Matthew Reinbold (@libel_vox) today, and wanted to share my thoughts on his mention of my work while it was top of my mind. I always enjoy what Matt has to say, and regularly encourage him writing on his blog, and keep publishing his extremely thoughtful newsletter. It is important for the API sector to have many thoughtful, intelligent voices breaking down what is going on. I recommend subscribing to REST API Notes if you haven’t, you won’t regret it.

Anyways, Matt replied with the following about my Facebook response:

Kin Lane did a fine job identifying the mechanisms most companies already have in place to mitigate the kind of bad behavior displayed by Cambridge Analytica. It is a good starting point. However, I do want to challenge one of his assertions. Kin implies that OAuth consent is a sufficient control for folks to manage their data. While better than nothing, I maintain that most consumers are incapable of making informed decisions. It’s not a question of their intelligence. It is a question of complexity and incentives for the business to be deliberately opaque.

I agree. To quote my other friend Mehdi Medjaoui (@medjawii), “OAuth is flawed, but it is the best we have”. I would say that “consumers are incapable of making informed decisions”, because we’ve crafted the world this way, and our profit margins depend on customers not being able to make informed decisions. It is how markets work things out, and “smart” people get ahead, and all that bullshit. You see this same thing playing out at the terms of service level as well. As a consumer of online services, I am regularly incapable of being able to make informed decisions around how my data is being used, in exchange for using a free web application. Is it because I’m not smart? No, it is because terms of service are purposefully confusing, verbose, legalize, and mind numbing. Why? So I don’t read them, understand them, and run the other way.

This is intentional. You see this in the Tweet responses from Facebook engineers as they call all of us ignorant fools, and say that we agreed to all of this. The problem isn’t OAuth. The problem is intentional deceit and manipulation by corporations, and for some reason we keep showcasing this type of behavior as being savvy, smart, and just doing business. There is no reason that terms of service or OAuth flows can’t be helpful, informative, and in plain language. Platforms just choose to not invest in these areas, because an uninformed user means more profit for the platform, its investors, and shareholders. The lack of available startups, services, and tooling at the terms of service and privacy layer of technology sector demonstrates what a scam all of this has been. If startups cared about their users, we would have seen investment in tools and services that help us all make sense of things. Period.

I’ve sat in multi-day OAuth negotiation sessions on behalf of the White House, negotiating OAuth scopes on behalf of power customers. I’ve seen how strong armed the corporations can be, and how little defense the average consumer has. I’ve seen technology platforms intentionally complexify things over and over. I’ve also seen plain language terms of service that actually make sense–read Slack’s for an example. I’ve seen OAuth flows that protect a user’s interest, however I haven’t seen ANY investment in actually educating end-users about what is OAuth, and why it matters. You know, like the personal finance classes we all get in high school? (I wrote that shit in 2013!!!) Why aren’t we educating the average consumer about managing their personal data and privacy? Why aren’t we setting standards for OAuth scopes, and flows for technology platforms? Good question!

I’ve spent the last eight years trying to encourage platforms to be better citizens using their APIs. I’ve been aggregating and showcasing the healthy building blocks they can use to better serve their customers, and provide more observability into how they operate. At this point, I feel like the tech sector has had their chance. Y’all chose to willfully ignore the interest of end-users, and get rich on all of our data. I know you all will cry foul now that the regulatory winds are starting to blow. Too bad. You had you chance. I’m going to focus all my energy and resources into educating policy and lawmakers about how they can use APIs, OAuth, and other building blocks already in use to put y’all into check. There is no reason the average consumer can’t make an informed decision around the terms of service of the platforms they depend on, and intelligently participate in conversations around access to their data using OAuth. As Matt said, “it is a question of complexity and incentives for the business to be deliberately opaque.”–regulations and policy is how we shift that.