Progress on leaving the user data selling walled gardens

As I wrote earlier this week after the Cambridge Analytica event came to light my nagging feeling that I needed to get off these Facebook, Google, etc. platforms crossed a threshold.  It was no longer something that I thought I should do but something I was going to actively do.  In one week I’ve made progress in pretty much every dimension (scroll down to the bottom if you just want my list of alternatives).

What is progress in this context?  First, I have to be able to live in the 21st century on the internet.  I need to be able to have conveniences that I expect with getting to my data and using services.  Second, I need to have control over my data fully.  That means that I don’t need to worry about whether they opened up a new API that let’s buyers trawl my information, regardless of whether it is anonymized or not.  That means that I don’t have to worry about where they may be shuttling that information off to for various illegitimate reasons as well.  I want to be sure that I’m not helping to contribute to people who would use these tools for their own nefarious purposes with my tacit endorsement and no means to correct it.

To hit all of those targets that would be looking to a service that is hosted in or uses hosts in countries with good civil liberties protections, whose model is solely servicing the users and not giving “free” service to users so they can be the actual product sold by the company.  The service needs to have policies about protecting the user’s privacy, not selling user data, etc. and a track record of living up to that policy.  That is the bare minimum requirement, however an ideal service would have a few more features.

I’m a big proponent of open source software.  I would prefer that the service that I’m using be built completely on open source software as well and also publish their client and server code with an open source license as well.  I’d prefer that they are hosted on systems that are not contributing to the same huge pool of data as these other systems are, therefore using smaller hosts that also value open source like Digital Ocean or Linode.  These last pieces are nice to haves not requirements though.

So now nearly a week in how do things look?  My biggest systems that were used regularly were: Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps.  I’ve successfully made it most of the way down this list.

To replace much of Facebook and Twitter I’ve been using another social media platform called Diaspora .  Diaspora is a federated social media platform rather than one huge central system.  I’ll go into detail on Diaspora in another article, but suffice it to say that while it’s been around for several years it is still a budding and small social media platform with just under 700,000 registered users and about 17,000 active users a month.  Despite the relatively small size I’m finding the experience very enjoyable and now spend most of my social media time in there rather than Facebook and Twitter.  I’ve created a personal account as well as one for N=1 .  If you’d like to join Diaspora you can do so here .

To replace Facebook Messenger I’ve been looking at several options, including going back to the old messenger systems.  They all have their own problems.  There are several alternatives but I wanted one that actually could be usable by people who are not tech-savvy.  For that I found a system called Wickr .  Wickr is like Snapchat but with more of a privacy focus and one where it has a business model about selling subscription access to finance itself.  The communications are peer-to-peer (directly between the users) so there is no data for it to mine or to accidentally leak (that does have one downside: if you ever lose or forget your password you get to create a new account).  Wickr is not open source however.  While there were some open source options I wasn’t as comfortable with them for various reasons, including the issue of usability by regular users and stability of the system.

To replace Google I use the search engine DuckDuckGo .  As I said previously I’ve been using this search engine for quite some time.  However now I’m hyper vigilant about it.  I also installed the DuckDuckGo plugin in my browser which blocks a lot of the incipient data tracking that goes on on websites.

Unfortunately after that I’m starting to run into some static.  I haven’t found a good replacement for YouTube yet.  There are some options but none that I have totally converged on.  I’m looking forward to exploring more and coming up with some options.  I have also not had as much progress replacing Gmail.  There is always the worst case option of going to self-hosting, but I don’t want to administer my own e-mail system ever again.  On top of that I want a system with a web interface that has powerful search capabilities.  Having a POS UI on top of an IMAP server is probably not going to cut it.  So, again, more progress needs to be made there.  I am having similar problems with replacing Google Drive, although I did find some hosted NextCloud options.  Lastly the Google Maps conundrum.   On my phone this is an easy checkbox, I simply use Apple Maps instead.  However for the desktop I don’t have a good alternative to recommend yet unless you are on a Mac, where you can still use Apple Maps.

For less than a week of idly doing this I’m pretty pleased with my progress, but looking forward to making more of it.  In summary, which I’ll update in future posts as a rolling status:

  • Replacement for Facebook and Twitter: Diaspora
  • Replacement for Facebook Messenger: Wickr
  • Replacement for Google: DuckDuckGo
  • DuckDuckGo plugin to block data sipping services:
  • Replacement for Facebook Groups: TBD
  • Replacement for Facebook Events: TBD
  • Replacement for YouTube: TBD
  • Replacement for Gmail: TBD
  • Replacement for Google Drive: TBD
  • Replacement for Google Maps: TBD