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Freedom Village and the Tech Giants

 

by Joe Mobbs

 

Once upon a time, the community of Freedom Village, creative commoners, free software aficionados and “libristes” all, had an axe to grind. Sick and tired of the greedy Tech Giants locking users in, spying on folk, selling user data, suppressing tech standards, and stifling progress, Freedom Village wanted the Tech Giants, led by Google, dethroned.

So began the renowned campaign of French organisation Framasoft to “De-google-ify Internet“.

A rare glimpse of two battle-hardened elders of Framasoft (CC BY 2.0 Framasoft)

With “liberty” as their watchword

Forged with magical tools released under the banner of free software using ancient know-how handed down from geek to geek since the days of Yore, they maintain a veritable hoard of mighty open source web apps, the equals of which have never before been seen.

Indeed there are a plethora of services, including Framapad (to replace Google Docs), Framasphère (based on Diaspora*, for FaceBook), Framapiaf (based on Mastodon, for Twitter), and Framabee (for Google search). Framadate (Doodle), Framapic (img.ur), and Framaboard (Trello). Not forgetting Framadrive (DropBox), Framabin (Pastebin), and Framalistes (Google Groups) amongst others.

Framatalk for example, a replacement for Skype based on Jitsi Meet, lets you simply video conference from your browser. No download. No account needed. As simple as clicking a button to create a chat room, saying yes to your browser using your microphone and webcam, and sending a link so your interlocutor can find you. It’s easy, anonymous, and secure.

Definition of snooping

Framasoft and its campaign against the Tech Giants “GAFAM” (Google, Apple, FaceBook, Amazon, Microsoft) have found a metaphor in the village under siege in the comic Asterix which stands up to the Roman empire, thanks to the powers given by a magic potion.

Encouraging, sometimes requiring, accounts which link user activity to user identity, the GAFAM Giants know what users read and what users watch, who users talk to in public and private messages, and what they talk about. Using a variety of tricks, the Tech Giants covertly spy on user and non-user activity across the internet far beyond their own websites.

Wiktionary says to snoop is:

1. To be devious and cunning so as not to be seen.

2. To secretly spy on or investigate, especially into the private personal life of others.

Free as in speech, free as in beer, free as in not snooped upon

The De-google-ify Internet campaign demonstrates the same services without snooping, collecting data or misleading users with adverts. Framasoft depends only on the generosity of volunteers and donations and, of course, on open source software.

I bumped into Freedom Village storyteller, Pouhiou, and asked him to Framatalk to me about Framasoft’s epic engagement.

Me: You’re certainly not lacking in ambition if you want to liberate us from the empire of tyrannous giants Facebook, Apple, Microsoft… but what’s wrong with being a slave of Google & Company?

Pouhiou: According to Aral Balkan [1] we are being farmed by big data and lots of people don’t even know that they are being used by these big tech companies. It’s a cultural, economic, political, and psychological problem. We want people to pause and look at what is happening; there is another way things can work, a way that open, free software offers.

Users give their personal data to these big data companies but FaceBook, for example, also collects data on who our contacts and friends are, even if they are not on FaceBook, and secretly tracks us outside of the FaceBook site. We know that FaceBook has experimented in secretly changing people’s moods. That’s a lot of power! We are not free if we do not know how and where our personal data is used. It’s about being aware, free, and having a choice.

You cite the danger of the NSA harvesting our data and it’s certainly worrying that government agencies can use these services as machines for spying on us, but is the sky going to fall on our heads?

Actually what is happening is much more subtle and insidious. We are giving up little bits of freedom, for more safety, for more efficiency in our work, for more comfort, for access to entertainment. And because it’s subtle, we are accepting this bit by bit without realising that we are putting our civilisation in danger because, by giving too much power to our government, we are putting our democracy in danger.

There are lots of individuals and organisations doing battle for the environment, civil rights, labour standards or public services while using proprietary software and services. Are they missing the wood for the trees?

They are certainly putting themselves and the people they communicate with at risk. Anyway, if you are an activist we should join forces, in France we talk about a “convergence des luttes” which is about all the different struggles being branches of the same tree.

However, if you’re an activist, you are a person of interest for the people in power, so make it harder for them to spy on you! In France, former President François Hollande has actually admitted that they used the state of emergency laws to spy on ecologists and force them to stay at home instead of making their voices heard during the COP21 climate summit in Paris. It’s the same to varying degrees across the world.

So if you are an activist you should use free, libre software, it’s more secure, it can be audited, it’s community driven. Before the recent “WannaCry” ransomware attack, Microsoft had a patch for Windows XP but did not deploy it because it knew it would make more money selling upgrades. It’s a world away from libre software. You should use decentralised services, because not having all your eggs in one basket makes it so much harder to spy on you. And you should use encryption because it gives you security. It’s not about being outlaws, it’s about being savvy.

What are liberty, ethics, decentralisation and solidarity doing in your magic potion?

What we do is worth doing because we have a practical way to share core values. We offer services with these values. Liberty, because we want to protect and ensure your freedoms. Ethics, because we try to protect your data and because we share a vision of the world which is not the “everyone-for-themselves” approach of capitalism. Decentralisation, because we don’t want to become the French Google. Solidarity, because we, Framasoft, benefit from community-driven software and donations and volunteers.

Sounds great! How do I rally to Freedom Village?

The first way is by using and sharing these services; the more people that use them, the more the alternatives will spread. If you want to help us, volunteer for us or for the open source communities of the software that we use and promote. We are a bunch of friends who care about free software and have fun doing it. You can also donate money, we depend on donations and this economic model gives us freedom from both political and market powers.

If you can host a service, come and talk to us, we’ve been de-google-ifying the internet for two and half years, each month hundreds of thousands of individual users are using our services, and it has cost only €450 000, the equivalent of just a few hundred metres of highway. So it works, but we don’t want to be the Google of free software, we need to share what we do and we want our model to be adapted, modified, and forked in other countries, so that more people will be freed. The more initiatives there are like ours, the freer people will be.

[1] https://ar.al/

 

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