Decentralization, Privacy, and Everything Between
This post is a combination of at least three different posts I intended to write and publish over the past year. They inevitably came to the similar conclusions and it makes sense. In my mind, decentralization and privacy are mutually beneficial. In the wake of exposure to privacy violations by Google, Facebook, &c to the general public, it seemed like now would be a great time to share my thoughts.
If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold. — Andrew Lewis (blue_beetle)
This oft-referenced quote was posted on MetaFilter on August 26th, 2010. It's been nearly a decade since then and clearly, that quote is timeless. The increasingly parasitic advertising industry is fed by a never-ending supply of user-data gathered and sold by almost every
online offline service. Oh yeah, that's right; you can be tracked offline. The data gatherers are your usual suspects: Facebook, Google, Twitter, as well as unknown data brokers of which new ones are launching seemingly weekly. Have you looked at the blacklist of your favorite ad blocker? It's a mess.
The aforementioned data gatherers are in the business of keeping your attention. The visual redesigns, additional features, and so on are not created to make a better product for your perusal. Oh no, these changes are A/B tested and analyzed to ensure that you spend as much time using those products as possible. Why? So that app can send usage data and patterns back to the mothership to collect your info to update their algorithms and sell to advertisers for a pretty penny and the cycle continues.
Before this year, casual Internet users would roll their eyes at everything I've said thus far,
¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and say something inane like, "It is what is is." or, "I have nothing to hide."
Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say. — Edward Snowden
Frustrating as those eye rolls may be, you cannot force someone to care about something you think is important. I've been harping on about privacy to my friends for years and some of them are starting to come around. The tech (and mainstream) media's continued coverage about the evils of (mostly) Facebook and Google has become a roar too loud to ignore.
People have realized (or are starting to realize) that they can no longer depend on the kindness of corporations offering free things on the Internet...when you think of it that way, it's kind of surprising that we would think there wouldn't be strings attached. Huh. Anyhoo, getting away from Facebook is relatively easy. Ironically, if you have a lot of relatives on the platform, leaving is quite difficult.
Your entrenchment level with Facebook varies with the next person and most likely with me too. I'll share what I did leading up to and after my leave from Facebook in 2016.
- I requested a backup of my data.
- After downloading my data, I went to my profile page and spent a couple days deleting posts. This was tedious as hell and I never actually finished. I think I got through my first three years and then my recent two years before calling it quits with that task.
- I also deleted integrations with other services and took the time to delete accounts with services I barely remembered using prior the integration deletion.
- I told close friends, family, and my girlfriend (now wife) my plans and why I was doing so. I have several family members on Facebook but I also own a phone. I had zero interest with staying in contact with people I knew from high school, those were all passive "friendships" at that point.
Hoo boy, this one's a doozy. Entire livelihoods, businesses, and lifestyles rely on Google in some shape or form...especially if your daily mobile driver is an Android device. I grew weary of Google long before my divorce from Facebook and I found an email replacement in Mail-in-a-Box, a self-hosted email solution that also has calendar and address book capabilities. For search, I use DuckDuckGo. I'm on iOS/macOS so Apple Maps is a suitable Google Maps replacement for me (btw, Apple Maps is fantastic in Japan).
At this point in time, YouTube is nigh-impossible to replace. Nintendo doesn't upload their videos to Vimeo. MKBHD or any other super profitable YouTube creator isn't leaving the platform anytime soon either so it's a total crapshoot. I'm no longer logged-in to YouTube but I still get email notifications when a channel I'm interested in uploads a video. For videos I really want to see again, I download them with youtube-dl, an awesome command line program that is capable of downloading videos from pretty much any video sharing site (not just YouTube). Here's my configuration file (located at
-f bestvideo+bestaudio -o ~/Movies/%(title)s.%(ext)s
It automatically downloads the best audio and best video sources for whatever video URL you supply and combines them to create a single file. That file then gets saved to my
~/Movies folder. I alias the
youtube-dl command in my
.zshrc config so I can type
yt followed by a URL for a super-quick workflow.
Unfortunately, Google Apps for Work exists and that means I have not fully escaped their ecosystem. When it comes to most businesses, familiarity and cost-savings often take precedence over ideals. Make no mistake, finding (worthy) alternatives to every single one of Google's offerings is expensive in either time spent searching or cost for a single app. Sometimes both! However, I think the upfront cost is worth the longtime gain. You will have to be careful though. There is no shortage of startups with compelling products that are merely skins on top of Google's existing services (last year I interviewed for such a company that I thought was creating a compelling email client only to learn that it was really Gmail underneath AND there would be no IMAP support...the conversation made our misalignment apparent).
As my concerns about online privacy grew, so did my interest in decentralization. The core premise of decentralization is basically self-hosting any online service you may need, yourself. The open-source community is fantastic for that. You may find some projects with plenty of issues in their git repos and design/code quality of varying degrees of excellence but they are all great bases to get started from.
One of my favorite aspects of decentralization is discovering a codebase someone shared eons prior and finding out that a particular function (or even the entire codebase) fits in perfectly with whatever I'm working on. It sometimes feels like spelunking. You'll never know what you find but treasures await! My other favorite aspect of it is knowing that I am in control of my data. There's no ambiguity there. I don't have to trust a third-party, I can trust myself. After all, I wrote the code (or adapted it after I read through it).
A key aspect of decentralization that scares non-tech-savvy people is self-hosting. Of course I can say that it's no big deal but that's because I've been doing this for years. Some tech-savvy people just don't want to deal with server updates and the like. I totally get that because maintenance can be a drag. You've really got to decide what you want for yourself. Personally, I think self-hosting is important and I advise everyone to try it at least once. Even if it's just to get over that fear of purchasing (well, leasing) a $5/month server from DigitalOcean or Exoscale to hack on and test things with.
Here's a list of things I self-host:
- CMS: Noto (super simple Markdown-based "CMS" I created that runs the blog you're reading right now)
- Email: Mail-in-a-Box (this is super simple to setup)
- Git: Gitea (MUCH lighter than GitLab and more customizable too)
If self-hosting is not your thing, you can sign up and/or join servers other people have created. For example, Mastodon is a decentralized Twitter-like social network. You can fire up your own Mastodon instance or you can sign up for one and start chatting with people. I'm taking the opposite approach with the social network I'm developing but I intend to add decentralized features to it, like PubSub support.
Speaking of which, I am working on a social network and an analytics service because 1) I was not able to find exactly what I was looking for, and 2) if you want something done right you gotta do it yourself. I've already detailed my reasons for starting a social network before but I never published anything about the analytics service.
Plain and simple, I abhor trackers. However, I enjoy viewing stats that tell me how many people visit my site, the most popular link visited today, and so on. I was using Gauges prior to creating Chew and one of my tech-savvy friends expressed to me that while he knows who I am and can trust me, he wasn't going to go through the trouble of whitelisting my blog. I don't blame him, the advertising industry is to blame. With more people utilizing ad blockers, how would anyone get accurate analytics? I realized that I could utilize the middleware function in Express to get my analytics. I may go deeper into my thought-process and inspiration for Chew at a later date but for now, you check it out and use it in your own apps!
Getting your family, friends, and community onboard with what you've just learned is an uphill battle. You can lead by example though, so do not feel discouraged if/when they don't care about the privacy implications of staying with
welldeceptively-designed services. We did not arrive at this clusterfuck of invasiveness and moral ambiguity overnight...it took some time and it will likely take some time to free ourselves from it.
Good luck. 🕸