FarceBook have been getting a lot of heat since the mosque shootings were livestreamed on their platform. But the software freedom movement seem to be able the only people talking about the ambitious solution that’s really required; replacing FB with ethical services controlled by the people who use them, not a tech corporation and its data buyers and advertisers. There are a people saying that we need a federated replacement for FB, using free code software. But is that really a viable solution? Here’s what I think would be required to create one.

First, we’d need a large-scale, crowdsourced UX (User eXperience ) design project. This would involve current FB users explaining exactly what features they use and how they use them, and a group of designers gradually building up mockups of a replacement UX. The designers would go through a number of iterations of presenting their mockups to the users for feedback and tweaking their designs in response. The outcome of this project would be a coherent UX design for both a website and native apps for desktop and mobile platforms.

During the course of the UX design project, a list of required features/ functions would need to be compiled. Decisions would need to be made about which of these could be implemented on the client-side (as many as possible, particularly data storage) and which would need remote servers. The second part of the project would involve identifying which of the features required by the UX could be implemented using existing free code components, which ones would need new code, and how the whole service could fit together efficiently. This would be a complicated set of decisions, because although building completely from scratch would be reinventing the wheel, the alternative requires evaluating hundreds or thousands of potential dependencies for code quality, and how likely it is to be maintained effectively in the long term.

The third part of the project, once the choices about initial design and back-end component re-use/ development had been made, would be to put the whole thing together as a proof-of-concept service. At this point, people who participated in the original crowdsourced UX design project could be contacted to see if they would like to be beta testers. Again, there would need to be a number of iterations where the service and UI was tweaked in response to tester feedback.

Unless there is some way to make our FB replacement an entirely serverless system like Jami or Briar, the long-term organizational and financial durability of instances (servers running the federated server software) is a problem that needs to be solved before federated social networks are ready for mainstream use. During the prototyping phase some serious thought would need to be given to how to provision the servers the production services will rely on. Our experiences with the fediverse so far have shown that we can’t just rely on random people setting up instances, which may vanish without a trace at any time. If our FB replacement ties users to a domain name, as the ActivityPub fediverse does, there will need to reliable organizations running instances (like cooperative businesses, associations with paid membership, or well-funded charities). It would be better if it used Zot (like Hubzilla and Zap), configured in such a way that every user’s account exists on at least two instances at any given time, so if one goes down, the account is automatically copied from the surviving one to another one.

Once the alpha and beta phase of prototyping was finished, and a stable 1.0 release of both the client-side apps and server-side software was available that included tools for importing users’ data from their FB account (a tasks that I imagine FB do everything in their power to make as difficult as possible), there would need to be a massive organizational and promotional effort to get reliable instances set up, and convince groups of users to set up accounts and start using them.

Some might say I’m making this seem way more complicated than it needs to be. After all, we’ve already created a federated replacement for Titter. But my whole point is that FB is a much more complicated system to replace and people are much more dependent on it. Titter has only two features, a public micro-blog (short text messages published on the web), and private text messages, and the fediverse as a whole has only implemented the first one. Some fediverse apps have “private” messages, but they don’t yet federate reliably across all apps and most (eg the Mastodon/ Pleroma DMs or “Direct Messages”) are private only in the sense they are not displayed publicly on those platforms. DMs sent to servers running other fediverse apps are liable to just treat them like any other public post. Only servers running Zot apps have any kind of encryption or proper controls over private messages and media.

FB consists of a wide range of features; not just posts, but an event system, encrypted realtime chat (including voice/ video), photo-sharing and galleries, web video and video livestreaming, pages, groups, and more. Many of these features have both public and private versions. While FB’s privacy protection is far from exemplary, a system being promoted as an ethical replacement would need to take this seriously. Many existing free code projects offer some of the elements needed to create a FB replacement, but none of them are anywhere near incorporating them all, and the problem of hosting remains unsolved.

In summary, I’m sceptical about trying to replace FB with a single service. I think we’re more likely to succeed by disaggregating its many features, replacing them with apps that do one thing well; chat clients, media-hosting services, events systems etc, and finding ways to bundle them together into community-hosted services that can each inter-operate with each other.

Firstly, my heartfelt condolences must go out to everyone affected by the tragic events in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) last Friday. Secondly, I’d like to express my admiration for all the young people who took part in the School Strike for Climate activities that same day. Even while we express our sadness at being in the shadow of a dark cloud, we must remember that there is so much more power in the sunshine than in the darkest cloud.

Laura O’Connell Rapira, Director of ActionStation.org.nz, sent out a wonderful email about how we can support the survivors of Friday’s tragedy, which I totally endorse, with one very important exception. Here’s my reply:

 

Kia ora Laura,

Thanks for your compassionate and helpful email at this difficult time. I have signed the petition on banning public ownership of semi-automatic weapons in Aotearoa. I note that having Police roaming the streets with guns in their cars did nothing to prevent this tragedy, while that policy has led to a number of tragedies of its own making. I hope to see ActionStation campaigning to end the policy of providing beat cops with firearms, and redirect resources into making sure our appropriately trained Armed Offenders Squads have everything they need to respond quickly and effectively when things like Friday’s tragedy happen.

Moving on to the rest of your email, I agree with most of what you say, but as I’ve expressed in previous emails, I have some serious concerns about this part:

“TAKE ACTION TO END HATE SPEECH 

For the last few months, our team has been researching the links between online hate, online misinformation and the rise in hate crimes

One thing is abundantly clear: Extreme words lead to extreme actions. We need to do all we can to stop both.

Sign this petition that we’re delivering in a couple of weeks if you want our government to crackdown on online hate and misinformation

I support an end to hate speech and misinformation online.”

I certainly share this goal, as an activist who has been involved in running internet forums since the 1990s, including about 7 years in the editorial collective of Aotearoa Indymedia. But with all due respect, I have to say I think you are going about it exactly the wrong way.

I strongly believe that venues where people can express ignorant opinions and have them firmly but respectfully challenged are - aside from being essential to a functioning democracy - also an essential safety valve that can help to prevent more tragedies like what happened on Friday. What better venue could there be for this than the internet? On the net, arguments can’t escalate to physical violence between participants, as they can in person. Online, we can all make informed decisions about whether or not to engage in the spaces where these kinds of discussions take place, and if we do, use the opinions expressed as a guide to who we might want to connect with, ignore, mute, or even block from seeing or contacting us. Online discussion platforms need to be engineered to put that power in the hands of us, the end users, not corporations or governments. For example, the open source community designing software using the SSB (Secure Scuttlebutt) protocol have a set of principles for how they are going about that.

I think the censorship strategy ActionStation is arguing for is not only ineffective in achieving our shared goal, but counterproductive to it. Why?

For a start, I don’t accept your generalization that “extreme words lead to extreme actions”. I think it’s just as arguable that extreme actions can result from an inability to blow off steam through words, or from feelings of frustration, alienation, and injustice, that can arise in people unable to openly express their honest opinions.

It’s also important to consider the psychological principle of “negative reinforcement”, which states that whenever any behaviour earns someone attention or reactions it is encouraged, even when that attention is negative. Positive Parenting courses integrate this principle by encouraging parents to give their children lots of attention for behaviour they like (”caught being good”), and minimal attention to behaviour they don’t like, ignoring it completely if possible. On the net, this principle is known as the “Streisand effect”, and it’s long been recognized that trying to suppress anything online only increases interest in it, multiplying the problem like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice chopping up his broom.

So not only is trying to suppress racist speech online likely to have exactly the opposite effect, it may also have a more dangerous one. As Three Arrows pointed out in his web video debunking Jordan Peterson, Nazism - like all forms of xenophobic ethno-nationalism - thrived by cultivating a sense of collective victimhood. Excluding people expressing white nationalist ideas from the normal protections of our democratic rights to speak our minds, assemble, and organize, only serves to reinforce that sense of victimhood. So it’s likely it actually helps groups planning racist violence with their recruitment, rather than hindering them.

I strongly suggest you watch the documentary ‘Taking Liberties’, which explains how the governments of the Allied countries - including New Zealand - carefully studied how the Nazis came to power, and why the majority of Germans who didn’t support the Nazis were unable to effectively resist them. As a result of this study, many of the civil rights we now consider essential to democracy were strengthened or even created after World War II, specifically to prevent a resurgence of fascism. Arguably, it is as a consequence of the erosion of civil liberties in democratic countries since 9/11 that we have seen the rise of toxic enthno-nationalism and its associated violence, not as a result of too much of the wrong kinds of speech.

I also don’t accept that the ends justify the means. Even if it was true that giving the state absolute power to stop people openly saying racist things would fix racism, that wouldn’t mean it was the right thing to do. Killing the entire human population might fix climate change and prevent the extinction of many other species, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. In this (admittedly extreme) example, the negative consequences are obvious, but in designing policy, we also need to be very mindful of the risks of unintended consequences.

There’s a parallel here with the well-meaning attempts by US legislators to suppress sex trafficking - another goal we all support - with FOSTA/SESTA. As Norman Shamas of Open Privacy explained in an interview with Final Straw Radio, not only do these laws make life harder for a lot of innocent people, they also make the jobs of the people who investigate sex traffickers harder too. When sex traffickers can’t hide their communications in plain sight among legitimate ads put up by sex workers, it doesn’t stop them communicating. It just pushes them deeper into the darknet where it takes a lot more resources to find and investigate them. Exactly the same is true for communications among white supremacists.

It’s much safer for everyone if people with racist views discuss them on mainstream platforms, where they can be monitored by both law enforcement and civil society watchdog groups like ours. This is such an important discussion that I’m going to post the text of this email on the Disintermedia blog, and submit it to TheDailyBlog.co.nz as a possible guest blog. I welcome you to engage with me by private email, or on either of those platforms.

Kia manawanui,

Danyl Strype

My apologies to my three readers, and to the hard working organizers from The Open Coop, for not getting around to a write-up on Open 2018 yet. One positive outcome from that event is that attendees who are working on ‘Open App Ecosystems’ of various kinds were able to compare notes, and as a result, there has been a wave of new members and activity on the OAE Loomio group. Open 2018 was a fantastic event, and I encourage anyone interested in potential collaborations between the software freedom movement and the cooperative movement to attend in 2019.

I will soon be heading to Hong Kong for another platform cooperativism conference, ‘Sowing the Seeds‘, taking place from 28-29 September at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). This event is a collaboration between a number of cooperatives from around Asia, and the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, based at The New School at NYU (New York University). I’m also hoping to attend the cooperative hackathon taking place over two days before the conference (watch this space!).

A number of the speakers and participants at this conference were contributors to ‘Ours to Hack and Own‘, a book of essays that attempt to map out the transition from data farms that benefit corporations and investors, to digital cafes that benefits their members and workers. It’s a great book, and while I encourage you to buy a copy if you can afford to, I’m aware of at least one place you can download a gratis digital copy (see our Notable Books library).

It’s a privilege to be able to attend these events, and learn more about the fantastic work being done by cooperative organizers and free code hackers around the world. At the same time, it’s taking some effort to get my head around this new social movement, and how it relates to the pre-existing economic democracy and digital freedom movements that I’ve been involved in for decades. Expect to see more writing on this blog about both the organization and technical aspects of platform cooperatives over the next year or so. It may be that some of this writing will provide the ending I’ve been looking for to complete the story I want to tell in ‘Email At My Life‘. Again, watch this space!

Filed September 23rd, 2018 under News, open source

At the end of last month, Mozilla Hacks announced a new series of “DWeb” posts on decentralized software projects, which aim to redistribute the power to host and share information on the web, and on the internet in general. Obviously it’s of great interest to Disintermedia, and this blog’s 2 readers. So far, there are articles on Scuttlebutt/ SSB, WebTorrent, and Beaker Browser (see the list at the end of the DWeb announcement article). Thanks to the fedizen - a citizen of the “fediverse” of federated social networks -  who brought this to my attention, sorry I can’t remember who it was right now.

I’m back in the studio, and intending to resume normal transmission next week. This will start with a run-down of the talks and workshops I attended at Open 2018 in London.

Update 2018-11-29: Rich Bartlett wrote an excellent piece on his experiences with trying to get paid for contributing to the commons. Rich is an activist, writer, and hacker, associated with Enspiral, Loomio, and The Hum.

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A couple of years back, I decided to see if I could actually get funded by the communities who I created Disintermedia to inform and support. I started gathering information about different ways people could pay me over the internet, and adding it to a page called Help Disintermedia, which was initially created to publicly thank services like CoActivate that help us in non-monetary ways. First, I experimented with setting up the software to receive BitCoins, and put up a wallet address (is that right?), and over the next year that was followed by a link to a Patreon page, and then a Liberapay page. These “micro-patronage” sites allow people to give small, regular amounts, and in theory, like newspaper subscriptions, many people’s small payments can add up. I’m embarrassed to admit that so far, these efforts have been a dismal failure.

For a start, the BitCoin address I published was: 19KER7hfqXhZnHnnJ3VcGRr2w3i1v6e44e

But I have no idea now where this directs BitCoins to, or if anyone actually donated any, how to retrieve them. I just haven’t had the time to do all the reading required to fully understand how to use BitCoin; how to back up my wallet, how to accept payments to the same wallet from multiple devices, whether I can do this using the same address, so many questions! The same is even more true for other crypto-tokens (FairCoin, FreiCoin, SolarCoin, NameCoin, FileCoin etc). If you can help me get to grips with any of this, especially if you are keen to donate to Disintermedia  please feel free to contact me.

I’m also considering figuring out how to use Brave, Minds, SteemIt, Earn.io, and a bunch of other new systems that claim to offer ways of paying creators who contribute to the weaving of the free web. But seriously, figuring out which of these are honest, and viable, is a high-stakes research project in and of itself. With real money involved, there’s no kind of software more attractive to bad actors, idealistic incompetents, and venture capitalists. They all take time to set up and learn to use well, and you can’t get any benefit out of them without giving them real personal details and banking information. On top of that, there’s a risk involved in implicitly endorsing them if they end up being dodgy.

I’ve thought about experimenting with the newly relaunched Flattr 2.0, since unlike most micro-patronage sites, it’s pretty set-and-forget. Creators can get paid through it without needing to constantly self-promote (”click here to subscribe!”). There have been some hard questions asked about the privacy implications of the Flattr browser extension, but the developers do sound like they take privacy seriously, and it’s encouraging that all their apps are free code (not sure about the javascript on the site itself though). Another critical question is about how much money creators can realistically get out in payments. Even if they took 50% of whatever Flattr payout I got, that’s still potentially more than I’d get by not using it at all, but the new fees scheme for Flattr does seem to take a lot of bites out of my sandwich before I get to eat it.

Really, if the developers of any of these community funding platforms really think they are viable, they should be eating their own dogfood, and funding themselves using their own platform. Gratipay did this (RIP), and Liberapay still do, which is why I tried them first. Any platform skimming their users’ donations with fees, or heaven forbid, sucking up to venture capitalists, isn’t showing much confidence in their own funding platform. After all, you don’t see GitHub developing the code for GitHub on another code forge (they might have a backup there but that’s different).

For example, Ko-fi fund themselves using their own platform, instead of taking fees. I can’t find any source code though, and their use of a proprietary mail missile called SendGrid to send out emails isn’t encouraging. Ko-fi is designed to give the original Flattr model another go; buttons creators can stick on their web page, that users can click to “buy me a coffee”.

A Flattr developer posting on HackerNews claimed that model failed, because:

  • a) people using the web don’t want to click buttons (?!?)
  • b) publishers didn’t want another private company’s branded buttons all over their site

None of this seems to affect PaylPal / Stripe or social media buttons. I suspect it was more like:

  • a) people are used to having to enter their credit card details (or deal with PayPal shudder) when they click a donate button, which is a painful and scary user experience
  • b) when Flattr launched you couldn’t get paid anything without first setting up a monthly contribution to Flattr so most people didn’t bother (that’s why I didn’t), and nobody wanted buttons all over their site promoting a thing that smelt like a pointless ponzi scheme
  • c) Flattr funded themselves by skimming off 10% every time credit moved across their platform, and as mentioned above, Flattr 2.0 has even more ways to charge everyone.

I’ve set up a Ko-Fi account, just to try it out. Is it really going to help to add yet another layer of management between me, PayPal, the bank, and the person trying to give me money? I’m sceptical about whether it was worth the time, or the indignity of having to deal with PayPal or some other toll collector on the information superhighway (again, shudder). Frankly, I’m not convinced that Ko-Fi is an improvement on just having a button for PayPal or Stripe, although it is nice to not have their garish corporate branding all over an activist website. But hey, prove me wrong, buy me a coffee!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

I suspect that for the contribute button thing to really take off, it needs to become a neutral web standard, so the buttons are all over the web, they always look the same, and its a standard icon on them, not one company’s logo. The person clicking them can set up a payment system that gets activated when they click the contribute button, and website creators can decide which payment gateway processes the money when they get clicked. I’m hoping GNU Taler takes off, and we can eventually use that. If anyone reading this is involved in a credit union, or cooperatively owned bank, who might be willing to get involved in a pilot scheme, I encourage you to contact the Taler team.

For now, if anyone can recommend any other sites for collecting one-off donations for struggling web writers, that would be much appreciated. If you want to donate, and you don’t mind the banking system knowing it, please contact me, and I can give you bank account details privately.

————————————

Update 2018-10-01: it just occurred to me that I could be missing out on potential donations by deleting emails from PayPal (which I presume to be spam), and emails offering me money (which I presume to be variants on 419 fraud). If you’ve ever tried to donate to Disintermedia, please reach out via the fediverse (where scam messages haven’t appeared yet), and let me know, so we can figure out if the money left your account, and where it went. 

Filed April 19th, 2018 under free culture, independent media, News, open source

In 2016, I included a graph from Layer 3 Networking blog, in a rant about the tendency to put on weight over time that I’ve seen in even the most lightweight GNU-Linux DE (Desktop Environment). The blog piece I took that graph from gave a detailed run-down of the lightweight DE ecosystem, as it stood in 2013, which still serves as the most thorough introduction I’ve found on the subject.

Being 5 years old now, the graph can’t be treated as a true indication of how much RAM more recent versions of these DEs might use. But it does offer an idea of just how many different free code DEs are out there, some screenshots of what some of the lighter ones look like installed, and roughly how much RAM a wide range of them use relative to each other. It also gives the exact methods used to make the RAM use comparisons between DEs, which is important to whether their results are a fair comparison, and another reason I still consider this a useful guide despite being five years old.

Obviously, being 2013 data, some of the DEs mentioned are now superseded or defunct (eg E17, Unity), or merged (LXDE and Razor-QT are now LXQT), and other newer ones aren’t mentioned (Artemis, Moksha, Pantheon, Yunity, Zorin etc). Based on the numbers from the graph there, I’d say in 2013 you could break DEs down into 3 categories (RAM use numbers assume a freshly booted system running no extra user apps):

  • Small (0-20MB): TinyWM, 9wm, miwm, wm2, dwm, Ratpoison, olvwm, TWM, xmonad/mobar, JWM, i3, Blackbox, Sawfish, IceWM, PekWM, Openbox, Window Maker, awesome, FVWM, Fluxbox, Mutter
  • Medium (20-100MB): E17, LXDE, KWin, Mate, Trinity, XFCE, Cinnamon
  • Bloated (>100MB): Razor-QT, GNOME 3, Unity, KDE

The DEs I describe as bloated are clearly targeted at providing every imaginable widget and performance boost, for users with fairly new hardware, or middle-aged hardware that’s been upgraded or is unusually powerful. Unless you are a business with deep pockets, or someone else who upgrades your computer every couple of years so you can always run the newest software, I suggest avoiding the bloated category. That is, if you don’t want to end up switching to a lighter DE in a couple of years, as the hardware requirements of the bloated DEs continue to creep up towards the latest hardware.

Cinammon, a fork of GNOME 2 developed for the Mint distro, offers everything the average user needs from a desktop experience, while using significantly less RAM than older and more common DEs like KDE Plasma or GNOME 3. Mate, Mint’s lightweight DE, uses even less RAM, while still providing a familiar point-and-click desktop, with the bells and whistles familiar to Windows users who have used any version of Windows from 95 to 7. I’m typing this on an Acer Aspire One that’s nearly 10 years old, and the Mate desktop in the about-to-be-released Trisquel 8 runs fine, although I have improved the performance by doubling the RAM to 2GB and, more importantly, replacing the internal drive with an SSD (Solid State Drive). I can’t emphasize enough what a big difference the SSD makes.

If you still want to be using your computer in ten years time, especially if you bought a netbook or some other unusually under-powered PC like I did, I strongly recommend getting familiar with the pros and cons of the DEs in the small category. If I just want to play a game, I use Openbox, and I really notice how much better the heavier games run without all the extra desktop bells and whistles taking up resources. I intend to get into a habit of logging into Openbox whenever I plan to work on a long piece of writing, or anything else that doesn’t really require flipping back and forth between apps.

In summary, I can’t tell you which DE is right for you, and just to confuse you even more, the same DE can use a different amount of resources depending on which GNU-Linux distro you’re running it on, and even whether or not it’s the default DE for that distro. But it’s definitely worth doing some reading, and choosing one that not only does what you want right now, but will keep doing it for as long as you don’t want to have to switch to keep your computer usable.

Filed April 16th, 2018 under free software, open source

Today I spent a bit of time updating the Disintermedia page on free code OS for desktop use. I reorganised the content a bit so it’s easier to browse, and moved a few discontinued distros into the appropriate box in the summary table. There are a few distros I’ve tried since I last updated that page, like LMDE and PureOS, and a few more I’d like to test drive, like the new version of Heads (Dyne’s answer to Tails). So keep an eye out for more updates, hopefully soon.

Trisquel 8 is nearly ready for release, so I’ll be testing that this week. Watch this space for the cliff notes. For now, my everyday OS is still Trisquel 7 (based on Ubuntu 14.04), running on Bishop, a small laptop that’s almost a decade old. It’s working fine, now that I’ve maxed out the RAM (now 2GB, wow!), and replaced the internal disc with an SSD (Solid State Drive). To be honest, the SSD made much more difference to the performance, and it doesn’t hurt that I’ve almost doubled the storage space too (from 140GB to 240GB), even though I bought a smaller, cheaper SSD. If you are trying to keep an old laptop in use, I highly recommend getting yourself an SSD over buying more RAM.

Filed April 9th, 2018 under free software, open source

Every now and then, I contact the developers of an interactive website I’ve stumbled across to ask them where I can find their source code, and under what free code license(s). I’m usually asking because their software is clearly using some free code components imported from other projects, so I believe they have a moral obligation to return the favour, even if they’re not legally obliged to.

Their reply emails often focus on how likely it is that anyone would want to re-use their source code, and how that might affect their project. That’s understandable, but I’m asking for reasons I consider to be much more important. Here’s how I responded to one such email, doing my best to explain my concerns clearly, but also to write in a way that wouldn’t come across as pushy or unfriendly.

Whether or not anyone would want to re-use your code is an interesting question, but it’s not my primary concern here. What programs you choose to run on your computing set-up, and whether they respect your freedoms, is none of my business. But when I allow programs to run on my system, I want to know that those programs respect my freedoms.

Since I can’t even log into your site without allowing it to run JavaScript programs on my system, I want to know that the source code of those programs is publicly available, under a free code license. If that’s not the case, for all I know I could be exposing myself to the next FarceBook, and I’m not willing to do that, nor to recommend a site to others if that’s the case. This situation is discussed in more detail in as essay called ‘The JavaScript Trap‘.

As a bonus, when source code is publicly available, it can be audited for security flaws and other bugs by the tech community (many eyes make bugs shallow and all that), patches submitted to improve it, and so on. And yes, it’s possible that someone else might benefit from not reinventing the wheel, by re-using some of your code, just as you’ve done with other people’s code. But that just means helpful bug reports and patches are more likely, which saves you work, and improves your software. It’s a win-win.

If you decide that you’re up for this, I highly recommend joining the Open App Ecosystem group on Loomio. There are people involved from a number of different free code web apps, and it’s good place to chat about how to make inter-operation work smoothly (common protocols, standards etc). For example, Loomio itself is a decision-making app, and I can definitely see some potential benefits in being able to embed [name of project] elements in Loomio discussion threads.

As you can see, I don’t shy away from making a case for software freedom as a principle. But I also make sure I talk about the potential benefits for them, and invite them to become involved in the open source community, within which free code is nurtured. When we share, we create abundance, and being welcomed into communities that enact that principle is one of the best ways to encourage people to start doing the same.

Filed April 4th, 2018 under free software, open source

Thanks to prolific NZ politics blogger Idiot/Savant of No Right Turn, I just discovered DocumentCloud, a platform for journalists who want to share and annotate the source documents on which they base their articles. From my brief tour, it looks like a fantastic tool, and I’m pleased to note that all of the software that powers it is available as free code, currently hosted on GitHub.

On a personal note, I’m currently in the process of moving cities, so expect very few new posts on this blog until that transition is complete. Also, Quitter.se has been offline for a number of days, so I’ve been unable to do any micro-blogging there. That site has been unreliable for some time, and I’ve been meaning to either move to a new host, or start experimenting with self-hosting. In the meantime, I don’t really have time to share links or shower thoughts anyway, I just want to reassure folks I haven’t left the planet ;)

Update 2018/01/29:  Quitter.se appears to be back up and running today.

Filed January 26th, 2018 under independent media, open source

Update 2019-04-05: It’s been brought to my attention that MailChimp is a private company, not a corporation, and that they have not accepted funding from venture capitalists. But I still maintain that it’s better for activists to use either hosted services run by a not-for-profit or social enterprise, or host their own mailing lists, member / supporter databases, websites, and so on, using free code software.

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I strongly disagree with activist organisations using web services run by corporations. I believe it’s unethical to allow corporations to harvest and mine data about what activist causes are of interest to who, and potentially puts activists and the causes we support at risk. There is plenty of free code (”open source”) software that our organisations can use to host our own services; if you can host a website, it’s not that much more difficult to host the other web services you need. There are also various not-for-profit organisations that provide web services tailored specifically to the needs of activists.

Why does this matter? In my first few years of experimenting with using the internet to support my activism on various causes, I set up a number of email lists. Since I had no access to servers, nor knowledge of how to use them, I set up my email lists using a gratis mailing list service offered by a startup called EGroups.

Like any Silicon Valley startup, EGroups was not designed to provide long-term service to its users, but to serve as a financial speculation vehicle for venture capitalists. Within a couple of years it had merged with another startup called OneList, and then been acquired by Yahoo! After its founders and the venture capitalists who had invested in it walked away with US$432 million, Egroups was then merged with Yahoo! Clubs to create YahooGroups. Many of the email lists I had created were mangled in various ways during the transition process, but since we were the product, not the customer, Yahoo! didn’t care, and nothing got fixed.

Since then, I’ve also seen startups dangle gratis services as bait, only to start charging ongoing fees, and refusing to allow users to export their own data. I’ve learned more about how “free” services offered by internet companies are used as honeypots to track us and gather information about us, whether for marketing or even more manipulative and sinister purposes like “political marketing“. I’ve learned about “walled gardens” and the “network effect“, where people become an unwitting (and unpaid) salesperson for every web service they use, by encouraging everyone they know to use the same services, so they can connect with each other online. Noting all these issues, I have invested a lot of time and energy into finding ways for activists to either self-host our own internet services, or find ethical hosts whose priority is to serve their users, not the financial interests of a parasitic tech investor class.

So, I have watched with dismay over the last few years as more and more activist groups and other community organisations make the same mistake I did, turning to corporations like Google, and even worse startups like MailChimp, to host their mailing lists. Worse, I’ve even noticed open source communities like Gratipay using MailChimp. In my mind there is no reason for an open source community running their own servers to do this.

Email mailing lists are one of the oldest “social media” forms on the net, and there are a plethora of free code packages available for running listservers or sending out email newsletters. For example, Permaculture in NZ use CiviCRM as their membership database, allowing them to send out newsletters to their members without giving their members’ contact information to anyone outside the organisation. If you need the extra-for-experts stuff that MailChimp offers on top of the standard listserver features, there is a free code package called Mautic that offers these, which can be used as a commercial service hosted by the developers, or you can follow the example of the Open Educational Resources Foundation and roll-your-own Mautic server. 

For non-geek groups who don’t have the resources to run their own servers, there are plenty of hosting organisations that exist to serve their users, and that run on free code. I’ve been part of activist email lists using using a number of services including RiseUp.net, OnlineGroups.net, and of course, CoActivate.org. There is also forum software like Loomio and Discourse, which provide sufficient email integration that these can be used like mailing lists. Loomio host their own trial service at Loomio.org, and one place you can try Discourse is a gratis, privacy-respecting host called Disroot. As awareness continues to grow about the risks of using proprietary, corporate-run “cloud” services, tech activists have been working on creating new hosting organisations, and finding ways to make it easier for people and groups to host their own services. Watch this space.

While we’re on the subject of mass email, the “service” that seems to make MailChimp so attractive is that is uses HTML to add a bunch of trackers to the email sent through its servers. Putting aside the ethics of enabling companies to use email to track people we like, I strongly discourage people from sending HTML by email. Email is designed as a text-only medium, and works better this way. HTML email massively increases the amount of space email takes up in someone’s inbox, how much of their data allowance is used looking at it, and how much of the total resources of the internet are used by email that may not even be wanted or seen. HTML email also creates vectors for viruses and malware to spread through email, vectors which do not exist in plain text email.

If you want to show someone a page of HTML, it’s better to put that on a website, and include a link to it in a plain text email. That way people can read the email anytime, then look at the linked web pages when they are using fast, un-metered internet. This is also helpful to people still using dial-up connections, or slow rural broadband.

In summary, please, please, please, don’t use MailChimp!

Filed October 4th, 2017 under free software, open source
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