The internet was intentionally designed to be decentralized. Early on there was an optimism that this decentralization and openness would usher in a more transparent, just world. In some ways it has, but it has largely become a digital space controlled by a handful of tech giants, all with business models based on surveillance and enclosure.
We now find ourselves in a Catch 22. On one hand most of us resent the surveillance capitalists who monitor and manipulate our communication with one another. On the other hand, we need to reach people where they are at, and in the clutches of big tech is where most of us are.
How can we drop our reliance on these platforms when their network effect is so strong?
One answer, much like our political organizing, is to build dual power. That is, to begin to carve out spaces that we own and control, while continuing to use corporate platforms when necessary. And this is already happening.
First, to understand what dual power means in the digital space, it's important to have a shared understanding of a few key concepts.
There is No Cloud, Servers Explained
The internet is a protocol allowing computers to talk to one another. In theory, many of the tools we use to communicate online we could run on our own computers. When we run services on our computers, it's called self-hosting. I could host my own email account or website on my computer, for example.
This, however, gets costly and labor intensive. The more services that run, the more powerful the computer needs to be. Plus, it means the computer needs to be running all day. And if something goes haywire, I'm on the hook to fix it.
So, most of us rely on others to run these services for us. These computers are called servers. A server is just another name for a computer.
If I can't host my email account on my own computer, the next best thing is to have it run by someone I trust and who is accountable to me. It could be a tech savvy friend of mine with a collection of powerful computers, a tech collective of several people who do this, or a company. Whoever they are, we call them a hosting provider.
Eventually, companies started calling servers "the cloud." I'm not sure why, but I don't like it. It implies that our data and the software we rely on just magically exists in some nebulous space. The reality is that the cloud is someone else's computer. Whose computer that is, is very important.
We must be able to use software and store our data on computers/servers we trust. When we don't, we are spied on, censored and manipulated.
Hosting Providers I Trust
There are several hosting providers out there that I trust to handle my data and run the software I use. Here's how I judge them:
- Reliability - do they have the expertise and resources to keep services running?
- Security - are they committed to and capable of protecting my data?
- Transparency - do they use software that is trustworthy and can be audited?
I've listed a few of these community hosts at the end of this post.
Free (as in freedom) Software
Which brings us to the next technical topic - free software. Early in the software world, code was shared between programmers. If one person figured out how to do something, they shared their code with others - much like how we share recipes with one another. Eventually the software community was at a crossroads. Should all code be shared freely or should some of it be privatized and only visible to the person or company who wrote it?
Hackers and many other programmers believed that all code must be free to be viewed and shared. This ensures that we know what the software we use, actually does. And if it does something we don't like, we can change it. When code is proprietary, we are now at the mercy of whoever creates that software. If it does something we don't like, we can ask the company to change, but ultimately we have no power to do anything about it.
A term was coined, free software, to describe software that respects our freedom. It specifically defines four freedoms to empower and protect us:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).
By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this. Another name for "free software" is "open source software." An important note here is that your data in these free software projects is not publicly available, only the software code is. This is what makes free software the preferred choice for many security experts - by having the code out in the open, a whole community of people are prodding and testing for vulnerabilities that can get fixed quickly. Proprietary software on the other hand, only has the people at the owning company looking for vulnerabilities.
Much of the software we use today is free software: Firefox, Wordpress, Linux, Signal, to name a few. It's no coincidence that these projects are leaders in respecting our privacy.
However, most software is proprietary and unsurprisingly violates our privacy and freedom. Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram are all examples of proprietary software. All of them do things we wish they wouldn't and all of them have been caught lying about what their software actually does.
Additionally, because these platforms are all proprietary and running on servers they own and control, all of our activity and all of our data happens on their servers. Every single tech giant has been caught lying about who they share our data with too.
Building and Supporting Alternatives
This brings us back to the Catch 22. We hate the fact that we are reliant on these tech giants to connect with one another and yet, what choice do we have?
Luckily there are alternatives.
For almost every corporate platform we use, there is a free alternative (oftentimes several!).
Here are some examples:
- YouTube | PeerTube
- Twitter | Mastodon
- Slack | Signal
- Gmail | Thunderbird
- Safari | Firefox
- Google Search | DuckDuckGo
- Google Drive | Cryptpad
- Zoom | Jitsi, BigBlueButton
Some of you may already be using some of these alternatives. Of course, every tool varies in terms of what it can do and how easy it is to use. Corporate, proprietary technology is usually very user-friendly because these companies have large budgets to make sure as many people use them as possible.
Free software projects, in contrast, must find other ways to support themselves. Many rely on volunteers to build, maintain and improve the software because they believe in its mission. Oftentimes users donate to the project to help pay people to work on it (as well as pay for things like servers and other infrastructure). Some projects find other ways to bring in money such as grants or charging for a related service.
Proprietary tools treat us and our data as something to extract from and manipulate to maximize their profits. Free software projects treat users as collaborators. When we make the switch, shifting our own relationship to that tool is important. We're no longer simply "users" but members of a larger community. If we encounter a bug, taking the time to report it benefits the project and its community of collaborators. Suggesting a new feature gives the maintainers insight into what is important for people. You can even devote your own skills and talent to improving the tool, or simply donate to support others doing that work.
Overcoming the Corporate "Network Effect"
Still, even when we find independent alternatives we like, it can be hard to use them if our friends and family are still using the dominant proprietary platforms.
Significant progress is being made to overcome this challenge. DuckDuckGo grew a record 46 percent in 2021, now serving more than 27 million Americans. 48% of websites run on free software. Signal is experiencing unprecedented growth. The greatest strength that free software has over proprietary software is its openness. While Amazon and Google are feuding, Instagram prevents linking in posts and Apple refuses to adopt widely used standards, free software projects are making it possible to interact with one another.
For example, I can now follow someone on PeerTube from my Mastodon account. I can subscribe to my friends' blogs with an RSS reader. I can still email anyone else, regardless of who their email provider is.
Another way to overcome the "network effect" is to keep in mind that networks are strongest when the bonds between people are deep, rather than shallow. Corporate platforms encourage the reverse - large, superficial connections with one another. The more people on their platform, the more data they can gather and sell to advertisers.
To build networks intended to support one another and shift power, we need a different orientation - one that values quality over quantity.
We can start with the people closest to us. If you have a family chat of 7 people on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, recruit them to Signal.
If you have a close friend group of 6 who use Instagram to stay in touch, help them switch to Mastodon.
We don't need everyone at once to use and support free software in order to build power. Firefox, for example, is the browser of choice for only 8% of the world and yet continues to set standards for what we expect from a web browser, influencing what Google, Microsoft and Apple build.
Investing in Our Collective Liberation
Participating in the solidarity economy deepens positive feedback loops. We enjoy tools designed for solidarity, not predation, and we improve those tools with our usage and contributions.
Here is a list of co-ops and collectives hosting free software -
MayFirst - a member-owned cooperative
- Video conferencing
- File Sharing
Meet.coop - a member-owned cooperative
- Video conferencing
Riseup - a tech collective
- Crabgrass (wiki, file sharing and decision making tool all rolled into one!)
Social.coop - a member-owned cooperative
- Mastodon (microblogging platform)
- Matrix (chat)
Here's a list of nonprofits creating and hosting free software -
Mozilla - a nonprofit
Signal - a nonprofit
- Signal (messaging app)
XWiki SAS - an employee-owned company
- Cryptpad (secure Google Docs alternative)
And while the following are more traditional companies, they're still much more independent and ethical than the big five and are running free software.
Big tech banks on us believing their narrative that their dominance is inevitable. But as sci fi writer, revolutionary and all-around badass Ursula K. LeGuin said,
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
That resistance through art includes the medium through which it is expressed. When we choose tools rooted in liberation, our power is amplified.