So I wrote the following for a Facebirk group I'm in (off-grid lunatics like me and Ben who live locally). It will be posted there tomorrow. Comments appreciated.Me in another place wrote:
The Free Tech Manifesto for Off-Gridders in a Crisis
This manifesto was written in and for a very specific context -- the Covid-19 lockdown in Catalunya (starting in March 2020) and its implications for the online community around the Facebook group "Off Grid Friends Tarragona" (OGFT). However, the issues it brings up and the solutions it proposes are applicable more generally to any individuals or groups of people wishing to communicate online in a safe, secure and private way. It is written from my own perspective -- I believe in Free and Open Source (FOSS) software, I believe that being able to host your own services is a good thing and I believe that my data is my data and your data is your data.
The current crisis (and previous ones like last May's fire near Flix) have set all our minds in a number of directions. Questions like "How can I be more self-reliant?", " How can I be a good neighbour?", "What and who do I rely on?", " How do I communicate quickly and reliably with my neighbours?" and so on.
One of the aspects that has struck me is how reliant us off-gridders are on the internet. Groups like the aforementioned OGFT or "Ebro Chat" on Facebook, Twitter feeds of important services and instant messaging (like WhatsApp or Telegram) have become part of our networks and real mechanisms of support, reassurance and help. This is a Good Thing™ in my book, but I have some problems with it.
The major one is depending on corporations that don't have our privacy, security and priorities as their priorities. I have written elsewhere at other times of the dangerous (and illegal in many jurisdictions) behaviour of the WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram triumvirate with respect to data harvesting and other such issues, to name just one example. Google and Apple are not in anyway better in this regard.
I have tried in the past to steer folks in the direction of alternatives, but I started thinking a little bigger. What is it that people need? So I donned my anarcho-techy hat of freedom to work out what would be needed, what would be useful and whether this utopian vision is possible. This manifesto is a modest first step in that direction.
What is needed?
I am happy to talk about the technical aspects of any of the following, but the primary focus is non-technical and I am trying to write for a non- or marginally-geeky audience.
If you don't own a mobile phone network (and I don't), email is your base -- where do you getting password resets sent, for example?
I already run an email server at elsmussols.net. It is not as fully functioned as I'd like -- I don't provide webmail for example -- but it works, people use it and I have a plan for making it more capable of fulfilling others' needs and wants rather than just my own.
2: social networking
Facebook and Twitter alternatives are required. The ability to have conversations with each other, to organize in groups, run events, share information, insights and kitten/puppy/baby goat pictures.
Such a thing exists: it's called Hubzilla and I have been a user and "hub" administrator for it and its antecedents since 2011(ish). It is premised on security and privacy -- your data is your data. Who you share it with is not only your business and no-one else's, but also within your control.
You can look at my page here:
Hubzilla is fully-featured and mature, it has many other aspects that are not strictly relevant to this text, but include communication with other social media platforms, building webpages and wikis, file sharing, calendars and the like.
3: instant communication
There are no perfect solutions to this problem as the two obvious solutions are both flawed but in different ways (please note that I consider WhatsApp to be fundamentally flawed).
The obvious WhatsApp replacement is called Telegram. As a drop-in replacement it's arguably better than (and at least as good as) WhatsApp in feature set but has two great advantages: security and privacy. Security: 0 critical security flaws in the last 6 years, WhatsApp had 7 in the last 12 months, for example. Privacy: strong policy statements (backed with action) on backdoors into the software and explicit and clear data protection policies.
The disadvantage: still a centralized service. Self hosting is not an option.
Matrix (the network) and Riot (the software) is actually the solution. It does it all. You can run it on laptop or a mobile. It's a great messenger system, it's self-hostable and most important in this context can talk to other services (like Telegram amongst others). The downside: it's a bit geeky at the moment. The development strategy was to built the system to work properly first and then file off the rough edges and make it more user friendly. The developers are in the polishing and refining stage.
I do not host a Matrix server at the moment, but would really like to.
4: data security
If your data is important to you, it is important to make sure it's safe. Automatic and seamless back up of important photos, contacts, calendars, documents (and kitten pics) is easy. Of course there is iCloud and there is Google Drive, but in the drive for self-reliance we look to Nextcloud.
I have run a Nextcloud instance since 2013.
Addons a plenty that I haven't investigated.
What is to be done?
It is worth pointing out at this point that this manifesto is not slamming anyone (except perhaps Facebook, Google and Apple) -- it is specifically not having a go at the admins who put time and effort into running OGFT successfully. It is also not denigrating users of the software and services I have problems with -- the network effect ("I'm only there because everyone else is") is very strong. Most people are not aware of the options available, nor the extent of the bad behaviour the corporations and the software and services they push.
So, I want to run an experiment. I want to investigate how self-reliant we can be. I am looking for testers, for people who are willing to take a flier on learning something and expanding their horizons.
The folks I would need would need to be low-end-of-medium technically proficient (for example, can you install an app on your phone or a program on your computer unassisted?).
I would need folks to contribute and engage with content in the same way they do now, but in different places.
From the "What is needed?" section above, it will be noted that most of the bits are somewhat in place, apart from a Matrix server. I would need to take out another server to do this (Matrix's needs are particular and wouldn't play well with what is already in place).
If enough people show interest, I will do this. I will also set up a donation system to pay server costs it comes to that.
Questions, discussions and comments are welcomed. Thank you for reading.