CERN dumps Facebook Workplace for open source

By Marilyn de Villiers
Johannesburg, 03 Feb 2020

In what appears to be part of its ongoing campaign to “take back control” of its computing activities, CERN, the Geneva, Switzerland-based European Organisation for Nuclear Research, has announced that it is dumping Facebook Workplace and replacing it with open source alternatives.

This followed its announcement last year that it was moving away from Microsoft commercial software to open source as part of its ambitious Microsoft Alternatives project (MAlt).

At the time, CERN, which operates the Large Hadron particle collider and is perhaps best known for its discovery in 2012 of the Higgs Boson “God particle”, emphasised that the MAlt project extended beyond Microsoft to all other commercial software including such as Skype for Business in order to “minimise CERN’s exposure to the risks of unsustainable commercial conditions”.

In a statement issued last week, Kate Kahle who heads the Editorial Content and Development Sections in the CERN communications group and Dr Tim Smith who leads the Collaboration and Information Services group in the CERN IT department, made it clear that CERN regarded the introduction of new account plans for Facebook Workplace users as one of those unsustainable commercial conditions.

Facebook Workplace is Facebook’s corporate-focused product for internal real-time communication and related communication within organisations.

Kahle and Smith pointed out that when Facebook made Workplace available to any company or organisation in October 2016, they made a particularly “enticing” offer to CERN to waive any associated fees.

In light of this, and despite some less than positive reactions from people within CERN who preferred not to use a tool from a company they did not trust in terms of data privacy, CERN took advantage of the “no fees” offer to test the platform within several of its departments and sectors.

Since then, about 1 000 members of the CERN community created a Workplace account, but usage of the platform has been limited to about 150 active users per week.

Losing control of our data was unacceptable, as was paying for a tool that was not part of our core offering for the CERN community.”

Kate Kahle and Dr Tim Smith, CERN

Then, in July 2019 Workplace announced its new account plans. CERN was given the choice of either paying to continue with its formerly free set-up, or downgrading to a free version that, according to Kahle and Smith, would remove administrative rights and CERN single sign-on access and send all data to Facebook.

“Losing control of our data was unacceptable, as was paying for a tool that was not part of our core offering for the CERN community,” they said.

CERN’s utilisation of the Workplace platform therefore formally ended on January 31, 2020 with its functionality disabled within CERN and all content removed.

In its place, CERN is making a suite of alternative, open source solutions available to its community.

This includes Mattermost and Discourse. Mattermost, an open source messageing platform that enables secure team collaboration, is widely regarded as an alternative to Slack and Microsoft Teams; while Discourse – billed as 100% open source – is a discussion platform that can be used as a mailing list, discussion forum and long-form chat room.

An alternative to the Workplace automated email alerts for CERN content and a new newsletter tool are also on the cards for release later this year.