Category: Internet Freedom

A Guide To The Free Internet

This is a shortened, more conversational version of The Free Internet. If you want to read more on this topic, the original article might interest you after reading this one!

What is wrong with the internet?

We are putting more and more of our lives in the hands of huge corporations who do not have our best interests at heart. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Reddit, Discord, these are not public services, they are private products. They are not necessarily bad products, but as users we have absolutely no control over them. This would be fine if we only used them sparingly and occasionally, like any other product, but we have let them integrate into our lives so much that they have become – to many of us – an essential part of day-to-day living.

The more time we spend within these products, the less control we have over ourselves and over society. This is not about conspiracy theories or about these corporations acting badly (although they often do), it’s about how it’s a terrible idea to let any single actor affect so much of our lives.

Why should I care?

Most likely, you already do care. Most people feel that the way they use the internet has some negative effect on their lives. It’s not that we don’t care – we just don’t think we have any options.

Now it’s easy to argue for the harmful nature of some of these services, like Facebook, since they have very real and observable downsides. But surely products that are purely practical are fine, such as Discord, Teams, FB Messenger or WhatsApp? In reality this is far from the case.

Let’s use Discord as an example here. At this point it has become so ubiquitous in areas like gaming or technology that the vast majority of those communities use it as their sole means of communication.

To read more about the problem with Discord, see this article.

This is a huge problem, and to explain why, imagine that you have one reason or another for disliking Discord as platform. Maybe you take issue with their (horrendous) privacy practices, maybe it doesn’t run well on your computer, maybe you simply dislike the way it works, maybe you disagree with their terms of service, and so on. There are many valid reasons to not want to use Discord – however, since it’s used by virtually every online community out there, if you don’t want to use it you are now effectively cut off from almost everyone.

This is a huge change from how communities on the internet used to work. Yes, you can say the same about any platform, but when there’s a greater diversity of different services you can usually consider communities on a case-by-case basis. It’s not really about Discord (or anything else) being functionally good or bad, it’s about the dangers of a single, private service becoming the gatekeeper of every community on the web.

What can I do?

We tend to approach this problem from the wrong angle. We can’t expect these huge corporations to change their products, nor should they – it’s their product, they can make it anything they want. Once they are used at such an enormous scale, the entire concept of privately run products are at odds with a free internet. Since we only think about it in this way, it feels hopeless and we don’t see a way to change.

We can’t change Facebook, but we can change where we spend our time on the internet. And here is the great news: the internet is full of social media and discussion platforms that embrace the idea of an an internet run by the people, for the people. Some have been around for decades, others have been created as a response to new issues we now face. Some are small in scale, others used by millions of people. What they all have in common is that they are designed specifically to not be owned and controlled by a single entity, but rather be as decentralized as possible. By using these platforms we are in control of our own communities, and the internet becomes a democratic extension of society.

Facebook remains the largest example of taking centralized social media for granted.

It may not be realistic for you to switch to all these alternatives for everything. But most likely there is at least some social media or messaging service you use, where you can consider one of these alternatives instead. And that’s all it takes – step by step, we can contribute to a free internet.

What that being said, here is a guide to some of the things that you can do!

I want to be part of a community, interest group, or circle of friends.

Rather than Reddit, Facebook or Discord, consider a traditional internet forum! Independent internet forums have been around for a long time, and many are still very active. If you’re looking to find a new community to discuss something specific, simply search the web for your topic adding “forum” at the end – you are very likely to find one or several communities dedicated to it. What’s great about internet forums is that they are independently run by the communities who use them, contributing to a diverse and independent web. You or your community can also start your very own forum – make a space that is truly yours!

Tree of Souls, a forum created by and for fans of James Cameron’s Avatar.

If you would rather have something more chat-oriented – like Discord, Teams or Slack – take a look at Element. It works very similarly to those services, but uses Matrix, which is completely decentralized and therefore in the hands of its users. Simply make an account, join or create a chat room, and you’re all set!

I want something that works like Twitter or Facebook.

You are looking for Mastodon! Mastodon is basically lots of small, independent social media sites that are run by different people – and all of them talk to each other. Sign up on one, talk to anyone on any of the others – use it like a single huge social network, when it really is a diverse collection of independent, decentralized ones. Although it is smaller in scale compared to Twitter and Facebook, more people are joining every day. To join, just go to the Mastodon signup page and pick a server – don’t worry too much about which one – and start talking to people!

Mastodon looks and works similarly to Twitter.

I want content-focused social media like Instagram, Youtube or TikTok.

How well this will work out for you depends a bit on what you value in these services. If you use them for their large audience, the ability to connect with lots of people you might know from real life or the media, and keeping up with the latest trends, the alternatives might not be quite there yet for you. If, however, you are happy with a smaller audience and want to simply share photos and videos with people who might appreciate them, there’s a few places you can check out!

What Mastodon is to Twitter, Pixelfed is to Instagram and PeerTube is to Youtube. In fact, all these three networks can talk to each other, too! Audiences will be smaller, but also more personal. Count on an atmosphere that is a lot less commercial and a lot calmer than you what you are used to – depending on your preferences, this might be a great thing, or it might be a reason to instead try alternatives for other services for now.

Pixelfed is a decentralized alternative to Instagram.

I want to follow people of public interest, celebrities, or internet personalities.

This is where no direct alternatives exist yet, for somewhat obvious reasons. None of these platforms are big enough yet to be used by many people fitting into these categories – that being said, just because you move your activity to free platforms it doesn’t mean you can’t still use the big social media sites just to catch up on what you want. If this is a deal breaker, it’s better to find a compromise that makes things work than not trying anything at all!

I just want to talk to my family or close friends.

Good old texting is an often underappreciated way! That being said, if you want something a little more sophisticated, check out Element which was also mentioned above. It fits just as well for talking to family members as it does forming communities.

Element is a fantastic way to talk to both communities and family members.

Change just one thing

Even after reading all of this, you may still feel inclined to stick with what you are currently using. At the end of the day, it is usually more practical, more functional, and everyone you know is already there. Most people will stick to what they know, it’s just a human quality.

But someone has to take the first step. And as pointed out above, you don’t have to change everything. Do you find a social media or messaging service particularly important to you? Keep using that for now, and look for alternatives to the ones you consider less indispensable. Maybe you really can’t do without Instagram, but you’d be open to using Matrix to stay in touch with your family. Maybe Discord is where all your friends are, but you’d happily explore internet forums as an alternative to Reddit.

My message is this – just check things out, especially the things you might not have known existed. Change just one thing. Maybe you will end up seeing it as a matter of ideology, maybe not. But you will have made one tiny step towards a free internet.


The Free Internet

Also see A Guide To The Free Internet – a shorter, more conversational version of this article which focuses more on practical steps to take.

There is something wrong with how we use the internet. We all know this; we didn’t at first, we do now – but we have gone from ignorance to resignation.

We all say we need to use social media less, or we feel we should – at the very least we feel it probably does some harm to society as a whole – but we don’t try to change how it operates. We use other privacy invasive services such as Discord or TikTok, we may lament their practices – but we don’t try to change them.

Obviously not. You can stop using Facebook, but you can’t actually change Facebook. Right?

Well, no, but the entire premise is backwards. Facebook shouldn’t have to change – they are a private business, have every right to design their product in whichever way they wish. We can nudge things in certain directions through monopoly laws or broad regulations, which do serve a purpose, but the fact remains – the social media and other big tech services we use are private products, not public utilities.

We can’t simply make these products into public utilities, the way of the electrical or telephone grid. These were based on physical infrastructure, and adaptable into a democratic framework. Today’s huge online platforms are self-contained, private products that by definition are non-democratic and commercially run. Again, this is not the problem – the problem is that we treat them as if they weren’t.

What we need to do is use platforms that we can change. That we can shape and grow and improve as a community, as many communities, in small groups and in large ones. Platforms that by their very design work like democratic utilities, not opaque commercial products.

And here’s the thing – they already exist. Many existed long before the arrival of today’s monolithic social media platforms, and others have been emerging recently, built by communities of people as a response to these exact trends we have been seeing.

In fact, you are using one every day without really thinking of it: email.

Email is free (as in freedom). Email is a method of interaction, not a singular product. Nobody owns email. There are monopolistic email services, absolutely (Gmail in particular comes to mind), but at the end of the day anyone is free to run their own email server and manage their own email.

Now imagine such an equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, FB Messenger, Discord, Reddit, Slack, Instagram… this is already here. Every step of the way, the tools for a truly free internet are right in front of us – we need only use them.

This is what the free internet looks like.

Internet Forums

The first cornerstone of a free internet are independent internet forums that are managed and run by the same communities that use them. Internet forums, or message boards, have been around since near the beginning of the internet itself – websites where people can talk to each other through public messages, usually categorized into sections depending on topic, and usually easy to browse by everyone.

Defining an internet forum may seem obvious to some, but I want to highlight what makes them special. Because internet forums can be independently hosted and managed by their community, it puts the platform in the hands of those who use it. They can be continuously improved and made better by their users, and each individual forum can be managed in exactly the way the community wants it to be. Anyone can create new forums, entirely on their own terms. A portion of a community who disagree with the direction it’s taking can easily move on and create something new. Internet forums are exactly what we make them.

Over time, internet forums have been slowly overtaken by services such as Facebook and Reddit – and lately, even instant messaging platforms such as Discord. These can be more convenient – join a single Facebook group and you know how they all work, make one Reddit account and you can browse any subreddits you’d like. However, this also creates a monoculture where every single community works the same, looks the same, and is run by a single central authority.

Because of this gradual shift towards large social media networks, internet forums have a reputation of being essentially dead in the water – this, however, is not the case at all! A countless number of forums are around today and cover every imaginable conversation topic or kind of community. I run one myself!

Internet forums do face challenges, contributing to their perceived decline. Many older communities are awkward or outright impossible to use on mobile devices, which account for a huge proportion of internet use today. They can also be difficult to discover, since there is no central network or inventory of forums. However, these are not insurmountable obstacles – modern forums can be perfectly usable on phones (and run as apps), and the challenge of discovery is really only a matter of coming together to make things more approachable.

When considering where and how to host a community, it is tempting to look towards Big Tech. Creating a subreddit, or a Discord server, or a Facebook group, is easier than figuring out exactly how to host your own forum, what software to host it with, how to manage all the little details. But by relying on huge social media, your community is also never truly yours. It is put in the hands of a larger authority, and if that authority changes its practices in a way that you disagree with, there is nothing you can do. Taking the time to set up a place of your own – or joining with another independent community that shares the same direction – supports your long-term freedom.

That’s not to say self-hosted internet forums are always the answer. Sometimes there really is no need to manage an entire website, sometimes all you really need as a community is a few chat rooms. Thankfully, this is where Matrix comes in.

Matrix

Matrix is a way to communicate online, most functionally similar to something like Discord, Teams or Slack. Unlike those, however, Matrix is not a specific service, website or app. It is a method to communicate, just like email. Many people have made different Matrix apps or websites you can use, and different servers you can join, but they can all talk to each other within one large community.

What this means is that Matrix is not controlled by a single large corporation – it is broken up into many tiny parts, which are constantly growing, evolving and improving. The most popular way to use Matrix is called Element, which exists as both an app and website, on both computers and phones.

Using Element is simple – make one account and it will work everywhere, since Matrix servers can talk to each other. Use the app or website on your computer or phone, and you can join chat channels and talk to other Matrix users. If you want to host your own chat room or collection of chat rooms, you can either create them on any of the many existing servers, or set up your own.

The beauty of Matrix is that is easy to use, but at the same time is in the hands of its users. You don’t need to run a server yourself to use it, but through the people who do, it is ensured to be decentralized and free.

Today, services like Discord are so ubiquitous that in some areas they have become the de facto means of communication – in Discord’s case, tech and gaming communities use it almost universally! Meanwhile, messaging through huge social media platforms have also become the default way many people talk to each other online. These might be functionally very useful, but putting the majority of all human communication into the hands of just a small handful of actors is an incredibly bad idea.

Switching to Matrix for communication is a much easier leap than any other services mentioned here, even for an existing larger community. It is easy to get set up and instantly start talking, and you are now doing so through actual communities rather than a big corporation that does not have your interests at heart. Check out Element, join a few chat rooms, and see if your friends (or workplace!) are willing to try the same – especially if you are already using a service such as Discord, Teams or Slack. You might find it far more comfortable to use a platform that respects your privacy and freedom, and reassuring to know it will remain exactly what you need and want it to be.

Mastodon & The Fediverse

This is all great, but what about one of the biggest genuine strengths of modern social media – globally connecting everyone? Today we tend to see this through a more dystopian lens, but remember that this was a genuinely idealistic goal of early social media, and is in itself an admirable ambition.

There was really never an equivalent of this in the early days of the internet, apart from the internet itself, but passionate people have worked tirelessly to provide an alternative that can be both globally connecting and support your freedom.

Imagine that you could easily create your own social media site. Run your own website or app that everyone could access and use just like you would something like Facebook or Twitter. Now imagine lots and lots of people doing the same, resulting in thousands of independent social media sites all run differently and by different people – and then imagine all of them talking to each other. Sign up on one, talk to anyone on any of the others – use it like a single huge social network, when it really is a diverse collection of independent, decentralized ones.

This exists, and is known as the Fediverse. What Matrix is for instant messaging, the Fediverse is for large-scale social networks, and the largest and most well-known part of the Fediverse is Mastodon – often described as an alternative to Twitter.

Anyone can host their own version of Mastodon. If you don’t like the way one works, just make your own – or find that someone else shares your idea of how it should be and join theirs. If you sign up for one of them, you can easily talk to people on any of the others, or even move to another if you would like. And if you don’t care about any of this, you can simply sign up on any of them, start using it, and it simply works.

Apart from Mastodon, the Fediverse contains equivalents of Instagram, Youtube, Facebook and more, all operating along the same model. The premise really is genius, and the biggest challenge here lies in getting enough people to use it that we can see its full potential.

The road that remains

Indeed, it is no secret that the biggest challenge all these platforms face is user adoption. By far the greatest obstacle to people considering switching away from big social media, is that all of their friends, people they know, and people of public importance would be left behind.

Smaller-scale communities have an easier time making this switch – a workplace, people in a Discord server or Facebook group, a family – these are cases where it’s easy to make the leap. In cases where the main appeal is the sheer amount of people, however, a very long road remains. Thankfully, by starting out small, we can at least begin to make a difference!

Another challenge are services that require a lot of resources. A good example would be Youtube – as mentioned above, alternatives do exist, but there are great challenges to making things run smoothly when lacking large-scale centralized resources.

Finally, it’s worth touching upon the issue of moderation and extremism. Smaller, decentralized communities are by definition managed independently, and therefore can more easily become a breeding ground for extremist and hateful actions. Although yes, this can sometimes be subjective, there is still no doubt that such lack of general oversight have caused some very real harm in the world.

However, it is hard to argue that the net damage here is any greater than that of the big social media platforms. It is an issue, and one that we as a society need to work towards addressing, but platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Discord and more not only frequently causes the same problems, but in a way that is systematically perpetuated by their very design. Adapting free platforms do not automatically solve these issues, but it gives us by far the best fighting chance to make a positive difference.

Change just one thing

All of this may come across as overly idealist. At the end of the day, sticking to the well-known social media monoliths is usually more practical, more functional, and everyone you know is already there. Most people will stick to what they know, it’s just a human quality.

But someone has to take the first step. And you don’t have to change everything. Do you find a social media or messaging service particularly important to you? Keep using that for now, and look for alternatives to the ones you consider less indispensable. Maybe you really can’t do without Instagram, but you’d be open to using Matrix to stay in touch with your family. Maybe Discord is where all your friends are, but you’d happily explore internet forums as an alternative to Reddit. My message is this – just check things out, especially the things you might not have known existed. Change just one thing. Maybe you will end up seeing it as a matter of ideology, maybe not. But you will have made one tiny step towards a free internet.


The Problem With Discord

This isn’t really only about Discord – but the problem with Discord is symptomatic of a much broader issue, and so it makes for a great example to illustrate a very important point!

A few months ago I redesigned the Tree of Souls internet forum, building the website up from scratch with new forum software and a completely new design. The website – a fan community centered around James Cameron’s Avatar which I have been running since 2010 – had recently seen a small surge in activity owing to the release of the first Avatar 2 trailer.

Back in 2010, the community had a very active IRC channel, and as I built up the new site I also made sure to set up a Matrix room to act as a replacement. However, as members flocked back to the site, there was one question that was asked more commonly than any other – “Where is the Discord server?”

I had very intentionally not set up a Discord server, for the same reasons I also had not set up a community Facebook group, Slack workspace, subreddit, or any other similar things. Some of these reasons are practical (more on this later), but the far more important reasons are philosophical.

The problem

The problem with Discord is not that it is functionally poor – in many ways it’s highly featured and works great for the majority of people. It isn’t even necessarily that it is proprietary and terrible in terms of privacy, even though it is and that alone should be a reason not to use it. The biggest problem with Discord is the unconditional ubiquity of it – it has carved out a monopoly for itself among many smaller internet communities, in many cases even going as far as being the only medium used by a community.

Being popular is in itself not a problem, but when a medium is a proprietary service rather than an open platform, this can have a devastating effect. Nearly all gaming communities use a Discord server for communication. A surprisingly large number of game studios and software teams do as well, including groups creating free/libre software. This completely stifles a diverse patchwork of internet communities.

Worse yet, if you take issue with Discord as a company or product, their privacy practices, their reliance on Electron, their lacking support for older hardware, their community moderation policies, or anything else, since Discord is not an open protocol, there is nothing you can do about it. If a community relies on these sort of platforms, you are essentially forced to either use them or not interact with the community.

The solution

By contrast, open platforms such as individually hosted forums, IRC and Matrix, the Fediverse, and more, are all in the hands of the community. Not only that, but by expanding upon and improving these platforms in service of your community, you also improve them for everyone. This is the direction the internet should be moving towards, not towards a few, monolithic, proprietary services that relish in their ubiquity and account for the vast amount of internet communication.

The Tree of Souls chat room on Matrix.

And of course, the entire reason that Tree of Souls, the Avatar community, exists in the first place is because there is value in independent, decentralized communities. Shifting part of that community to platforms like Discord is to do a disservice to the very point of its existence.

How to change the minds of people

Hopefully, if you have read this far you may see value in these points. However, ideological arguments do very little to convince the average internet user, which in itself is entirely understandable. I would therefore like to highlight some very practical reasons that any given community should want to embrace open protocols. Away from Facebook and Reddit, towards independent forums. Away from Discord and Slack, towards Matrix or IRC.

  • Discord won’t be around forever, and may not be suitable for your community forever. If Discord outright goes out of business, or if they change their service in such a way that it becomes unusable for you, there is nothing you can do. By being in control of your own community, this will never happen.
  • Discord has terrible privacy practices, and even if they didn’t you wouldn’t know, since there is no transparency into how they operate. If you are not comfortable with the idea of all your personal messages being stored forever, you ought to avoid Discord like the plague.
  • By truly running your own community, you can make it exactly what you would like it to be. Make things look and work in the way that suits the community the best. Make your own rules and community guidelines. Contribute to an internet where each community is truly its own.
  • If you are a software/game studio or project – services like Matrix are more secure, more flexible, and more reliable than any proprietary service.

This remains an uphill battle – it is incredibly difficult to shift things away from the status quo. People are far more likely to join a community Discord server when they already have an account and it’s just a click of a button compared to signing up for something new. People are far more likely to stay on a platform all their friends already are. People are far more likely to stick to a service that requires no administration or effort to create something new. These are not bad qualities in themselves, it’s just part of being human – but change begins with taking the first step, and by leading by example we can move the entire internet into a direction that is more diverse, more open, and more compassionate.