I attended the Data Sharing Summit last Friday and it was definitely the best value (with regards to time and money invested) that I've ever gotten out of a conference. You can get an overview of that day’s activities in Marc Canter’s post Live blogging from the DataSharingSummit. I won’t bother with a summary of my impressions of the day since Marc’s post does a good job of capturing the various topics and ideas that were discussed.

What I will discuss is a technology initiative called OAuth which is being cooked up by the Web platform folks at Yahoo!, Google, Six Apart, Pownce, Twitter and a couple of other startups.

It all started when Leah Culver was showing off the profile aggregation feature of Pownce on her Pownce profile. If you look at the bottom left of that page, you’ll notice that it links to her profiles on Digg, Facebook, Upcoming, Twitter as well as her weblog. Being the paranoid sort, I asked whether she wasn’t worried that her users could fall victim to imposters such as this fake profile of Robert Scoble?  She replied that her users should be savvy enough to realize that just because there are links to profiles in a side bar doesn’t prove that the user is actually that person. She likened the feature to blog *bling* as opposed to something that should be taken seriously.   

I pressed further and asked whether she didn’t think that it would be interesting if a user of Pownce could prove their identity on Twitter via OpenID (see my proposal for social network interoperability based on OpenID for details) and then she could use the Twitter API to post a user’s content from Pownce onto Twitter and show their Twitter “tweets” within Pownce. This would get rid of all the discussions about having to choose between Pownce and Twitter because of your friends or even worse using both because your social circle spans both services. It should be less about building walled gardens and more about increasing the size of the entire market for everyone via interoperability. Leah pointed out something I’d overlooked. OpenID gives you a way to answer the question “Is leahculver @ Pownce also leahculver @ Twitter?” but it doesn’t tell you how Pownce can then use this information to perform actions on Leah’s behalf on Twitter. Duh. I had implicitly assumed that whatever authentication ticket returned from the OpenID validation request could be used as an authorization ticket when calling the OpenID provider’s API, but there’s nothing that actually says this has to be the case in any of the specs.

Not only was none of this thinking new to Leah, she informed me that she had been working with folks from Yahoo!, Google, Six Apart, Twitter, and other companies on a technology specification called OAuth. The purpose of which was to solve the problem I had just highlighted. There is no spec draft on the official site at the current time but you can read version 0.9 of the specification. The introduction of the specification reads

The OAuth protocol enables interaction between a Web Service Provider(SP) and Consumer website or application. An example use case would be allowing Moo.com, the OAuth Consumer, to access private photos stored on Flickr.com, the OAuth Service Provider. This allows access to protected resources (Protected Resources) via an API without requiring the User to provide their Flickr.com (Service Provider) credentials to Moo.com (Consumer). More generically, OAuth creates a freely implementable and generic methodology for API authentication creating benefit to developers wishing to have their Consumer interact with various Service Providers.

While OAuth does not require a certain form of user interface or interaction with a User, recommendations and emerging best practices are described below. OAuth does not specify how the Service Provider should authenticate the User which makes the protocol ideal in cases where authentication credentials are not available to the Consumer, such as with OpenID.

This is an interesting example of collaboration between competitors in the software industry and a giant step towards actual interoperability between social networking sites and social graph applications as opposed to mere social network portability.  

The goal of a OAuth is to move from a world where sites collect users credentials (i.e. username/passwords) for other Web sites so they can screen scrape the user’s information to one where users authorize Web sites and applications to act on their behalf on the target sites in a way that puts the user in control and doesn’t require giving up their usernames and passwords to potentially untrustworthy sites (Quechup flavored spam anyone?). The way it does so is by standardizing the following interaction/usage flow


  1. The Consumer Developer obtains a Consumer Key and a Consumer Secret from the Service Provider.


  1. The Consumer attempts to obtain a Multi-Use Token and Secret on behalf of the end user.
    • Web-based Consumers redirect the User to the Authorization Endpoint URL.
    • Desktop-based Consumers first obtain a Single-Use Token by making a request to the API Endpoint URL then direct the User to the Authorization Endpoint URL.
    • If a Service Provider is expecting Consumer that run on mobile devices or set top boxes, the Service Provider should ensure that the Authorization Endpoint URL and the Single Use Token are short and simple enough to remember for entry into a web browser.
  2. The User authenticates with the Service Provider.
  3. The User grants or declines permission for the Service Provider to give the Consumer a Multi-Use Token.
  4. The Service Provider provides a Multi-Use Token and Multi-Use Token Secret or indicates that the User declined to authorize the Consumer’s request.
    • For Web-based Consumers, the Service Provider redirects to a pre-established Callback Endpoint URL with the Single Use Token and Single-Use Authentication Secret as arguments.
    • Mobile and Set Top box clients wait for the User to enter their Single-Use Token and Single-Use Secret.
    • Desktop-based Consumers wait for the User to assert that Authorization has completed.
  5. The Consumer exchanges the Single-Use Token and Secret for a Multi-User Token and Secret.
  6. The Consumer uses the Multi-Use Token, Multi-Use Secret, Consumer Key, and Consumer Secret to make authenticated requests to the Service Provider.

This standardizes the kind of user-centric API model that is utilized by Web services such as the Windows Live Contacts API, Google AuthSub and the Flickr API to authenticate and authorize applications to access a user’s data. I suspect that the reason OAuth does not mandate a particular authentication mechanism is as a way to grandfather in the various authentication mechanisms used by all of these APIs today. It’s one thing to ask vendors to add new parameters and return types to the information exchanged during user authentication between Web sites and another to request that they completely replace one authentication technology with another.

I’d love to see us get behind an effort like this at Windows Live*. I’m not really sure if there is an open way to participate. There seems to be a Google Group but it is private and all the members seem to be folks that know each other personally. I guess I’ll have to shoot some mail to the folks I met at the Data Sharing Summit or maybe one of them will see this post and will respond in the comments.

PS: More details about OAuth can be found in the blog post by Eran Hammer-Lahav entitled Explaining OAuth.

*Disclaimer: This does not represent the intentions, strategies, wishes or product direction of my employer. It is merely wishful thinking on my part.

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