We all know every time you tick a terms & conditions checkbox without reading it, you sign away a bit of your soul. Or less metaphorically, whenever you sign up to use a service (especially free ones) you can be near certain your usage data will be aggregated, mined and sold to make you more docile to advertisers.
The problem of course is you can’t beat the price of free. Usually signing up to these soul-sucking services is super easy and convenient while more ethical approaches require effort, planning, and sometimes financing. Of course going ethical has many advantages such as software customisability, true control over your data, full administrative sovereignty, supporting the FLOSS movement, and, you know, doing the right thing.
Here follows a list of programs and services you can use to reclaim your soul (i.e. ethical alternatives to morally corrupt privacy violating services).
Get yourself a server
You might not want to hear this, but as it stands there is no completely free way to go ethical. The reason the big boys like Google and Facebook can provide their services for free is because of the highly-effective targeted advertisements they push onto you. Since going ethical means protecting your data from these sharks, you may need to drop a few bucks to make it happen.
And the best place to drop these bucks is into your own Virtual Private Server (VPS). This is because with a VPS you can install all the open source programs your heart desires and configure them exactly as you want to serve your needs, securely. There are thousands of VPS providers out there, but I recommend you pick a local one. So look up VPS providers in your area and rent out a small server you have full access to. Shouldn’t cost you more than $20 a month, and whatever you do don’t use Google Cloud Platform, Amazon Web Services, Azure, etc, because these big corporate types are killing small businesses left right & centre.
You may not be keen to cough up an extra $20 a month, but if you think about it this is legit all that’s required to provide yourself all the digital services you need, totally ethically. And with your one server you can probably run all your nuclear family’s digital services too (depending on their usage). What you could also do (and what I strive to do) is to round up a few close friends, and their nuclear families and run your whole community’s digital services on one medium-sized server (say $50/mo) and have everyone chip in. By economies of scale, this will end up being cheaper for everyone.
You also need a domain for easy referencing of your server from any device and app. You should also use it for your email addresses (more on that below). Look for a domain registrar in your country — they’re usually pretty cheap at around $8 a year. If you’re a real penny pincher you can use a free ddns provider, but that gives you limited DNS control which is important for setting up a lot of the apps and mail config that’s coming up shortly. Best bet is to grab a free .tk domain, if you don’t mind the odd extension.
Your own cloud, but actually
File hosting providers often claim if you use their services you’ll get “your own personal cloud”, and that’s somewhat true if you believe “your own personal cloud” means “a cloud accessible to you and also data mining algorithms that will sell your behaviour to the highest bidder out of pure greed”.
Enter NextCloud, an open source cloud service you can install on your own server and set up to do just about anything. Right out the box it has support for multiple user accounts, each with their own files, as well as some nifty features like real-time text editing collaboration, file sharing by link and email (with expiration dates), and webDav access (which allows you to mount your cloud as a drive connected to your PC).
On top of all that, it has its own little app store that you can use to install extra components to your cloud. I installed the contacts and calendar apps, which gives users access to (you guessed it) their own contacts and calendar services (the latter of which actually also includes todo tasks). These all have no restrictions by the way, so you can have unlimited contacts with unlimited fields and groups, as well as unlimited events, and distinct calendars per user. Truly beautiful.
There are tonnes of other services you may want to host yourself, like a custom blog or website, a photo server, media streaming platform, or even a Bitcoin mining node (not recommended on small servers). To this effect, I strongly recommend the r/selfhosted reddit community. Every day there are posts about open source software people have created to extend their own little cloud. There’s also an aggregate community listing of all these apps, but be warned: you will get sucked into the multitude of options very quickly.
The first thing you need to reclaim your mobile soul is an Android device. Now I know what you’re going to say: “but Google is just as bad if not worse with privacy violations compared to Apple.” And you may be spot on, but the reason you’re getting an Android is because they’re much easier to install a custom ROM onto. That’s right — you’ll be dropping that stock Google-infested OS the moment you open the box and installing any custom ROM your heart desires onto it. They’re all open source, so just take your pick.
After you do that you need to install FDroid, which is the Google Play Store’s better counterpart that exclusively deals in open source apps. All the standard utility apps you could possibly need are there (e.g. contacts, calendar, camera, media players, etc.). To sync your contacts, calendar and tasks you can install the lovely open source DAVx5, which you can set up to sync from your NextCloud server.
One tricky switch to make is the chat app. If you’re part of the so-called Restern world then you and all your peers probably use WhatsApp for communication. They claim that all your messages are end-to-end encrypted, but since they’re owned by Facebook I’d take that with a fat pinch of salt. Ideally we should all use the open source Signal or Matrix as messaging app, but that is a difficult change to make precisely because it requires a mass movement. Telegram is another open source solution which offers more features and so makes the move more palatable for most. I recommend using an open source messenger for most of your personal messaging and calling needs, but maintaining a minimal presence on WhatsApp for your monolithic work and social groups.
Nuke your socials
Speaking of social things, nuke it all! Seriously, Facebook and Instagram have been shown to cause serious mental harm to its users (not to mention treasonous behavioural manipulation). Delete all your social media accounts ASAP. For your everyday private individual there’s no reason to stay on them. Give your friends a call every so often and ask them how they’ve been doing — you really don’t need to find that out through their social media.
Some companies have hiring policies that require candidates to have LinkedIn profiles or some online presence. While I think this is utterly ridiculous, it may be enough of a reason for you to maintain a LinkedIn account or similar. There are also some sites that really don’t have any alternatives, such as this very Medium. But at least Medium and sites like it stay up mostly through membership fees, which means they have reduced incentives to sell ads.
But whatever you do never forget the mantra Privacy is Power. Keep as much personal data to yourself as you possibly can.
Emails on lock like Snowden
One of the most important aspects of keeping your online persona private is your by securing your email account. I used to be a naive Gmail user until one day I saw an ad inside Gmail for swimming pool covers. Now this was very odd because I don’t have a pool. But after checking my recent mails I realised the only way they could have known is from a pool cover quote my mother forwarded me. The fact that Gmail scans through my emails to advertise to me makes me sick to my stomach. My doctor’s appointments, exam results, blood test results, and receipts for just about every online purchase I’ve ever made. How much personal data must they not have on me?
The first thing I did after this realisation was to set up my own mailserver using Postfix, and boy was that a festival on wheels. Configuring your own mailserver I can recommend to any programmer the same way I can recommend say building a cupboard from scratch. A little bit unnecessary, but a great learning experience and a serious tester of patience.
Fun as it was, it turns out running your own mailserver is a shaky business because unlike the other services your can run on your VPS (contacts, calendar, tasks), email services must interact with other mailservers in the world to fulfil its purposes (receiving and delivering mail). And most big-time mailservers like Gmail and Outlook have mega strict spam policies — to the point where they will sometimes refuse to accept and send mail from and to my server because of its configuration. This may be because of its SSL certificates not being authorised strongly enough (something that can cost up to thousands of dollars) or SPF or ARC settings, or the SMPT interaction format, or a million other things. Their error messages are extremely vague and support is limited. So essentially whenever I would send an email through my Postfix service, I’d be rolling the dice on whether it goes through the right chain of intermediate servers and ultimately gets delivered.
The best solution here is to move to a trustworthy mail provider who can take care of all these nitty gritty mailserver configs. PrivacyTools has a great list of morally decent mail providers. Any one of these should do, but I chose ProtonMail mostly because they have a free tier. But worry not — their services are paid for by membership fees, plus they have some cool extras like automatic PGP encryption, and calendar and contact management (which you can use to replace parts of your NextCloud if you want to).
Another super cool mail service provider is AnonAddy, which essentially puts a barrier between you and spammers by giving you access to unlimited email addresses that can be used for forwarding you mail. So if you set up an anonaddy account with the username e.g. “vhusi” you can sign up to a newsletter using your own custom email address like “firstname.lastname@example.org”, which will automatically securely forward you all the relevant mail, but will give you full control over the address allowing you to delete it whenever you want. Check their website for more details. I highly recommend them, largely again because they have a membership-sponsored free tier.
An OS for the people
The computer you so dearly use for your work and day to day tasks that requires a bit more oomph than your phone can provide, most people either use Windows or MacOS. And this simply because they’re the default OS’s on any PC you buy these days. What if I told you you could install any OS you want on your PC, and that there are really great even-easier-to-use open source free OS’s out there ready to serve your needs? Well, it’s absolutely true.
There are literally thousands of Linux distributions, but for simplicity and community support I strongly recommend Ubuntu (it was originally started by a South African, which I’m super proud of and makes me a little bias). But whatever Linux distro you pick, you can be certain it will suit all your needs (after getting used to all the FLOSS software).
There are some limitations here and there, but where there’s a will there’s a way. You can manage your emails, browse the web, stream content, create spreadsheets, edit videos, code in any language, and pretty much everything else you can do on Windows and MacOS, but with Free and Open Source Software.
Reclaiming your soul takes some effort, but then again, why would the devil make it easy? To care for your digital and mental wellbeing, to support the beautiful free software movement, and for the good of all mankind — go face the kings of the underworld and get back control of your data!