Part 2 of the Digital Sovereignty Series
[Last updated 19th April 2023]
Previously, we went over what “digital sovereignty” means and ways of implementing that in the technology we use. In this piece, we’ll look at some examples of applications, software and other tools that I believe can act as worthy substitutes for the “big tech” and censored, centralised services many of us are currently used to using. This piece will be primarily focused on home computers and laptops, covering programs that work across a variety of different systems where possible. In my experience these generally have a lower barrier to entry through being easier to set up, and in doing so can help build confidence in using non-Big Tech software moreso than some of the other tools I plan to introduce in future pieces. I also intend for the programs and services I mention in this piece to remain relevant and useful when I focus on operating systems in Part 3 and, to some extent, smartphones in Part 4.
There will be a lot of different services covered in this article. As such, I’ve included a contents menu below for those who would like to be able to dip in-and-out of this piece as they experiment with different solutions. I will also not be able to detail the steps for setting up and using these programs for the same reason, thus I would encourage readers to spend time researching and trying out these solutions for themselves to find what works. Many of the programs mentioned have good documentation and manuals online as well as a plethora of video and written tutorials which can be searched for with relative ease.
Table of Contents
Practical Considerations and Thoughts on Implementing Changes
To remain practical and accessible to all, most of the programs I mention as replacements for the services many of us are used to will not cost any money. The slight exception to this rule are programs that, while are free to download, are designed to run on servers and thus would ideally require someone willing to use them to spend money on buying a server for themselves. That said, open source programs are often built with the intention of being provided for free anyways, as to encourage adoption and further development of those programs by the communities they serve. Open source projects are released under a “license”, which can be thought of as a legal contract governing what someone can or can’t do with a piece of code.
An interesting aspect of this contract system is that there are almost always clauses in the contracts stating that work which is derivative of an open-source project (i.e. uses its code to create a new, seperate program) must also release its code to the public under the same license. This naturally creates an environment where many of the open-source products released are free, as it is generally difficult to monetise a piece of software whose code is available for someone else to go and make a free version of. Developers will thus typically rely on donations, subsidies from other products they produce, or revenue from renting their own servers to users as a means of making money to fund the creation of their free products.
Despite financial barriers not being an issue, I’m aware it can be daunting simply seeing a bunch of different programs with strange names and wondering where to start. Here’s some things I like to think about when trying to switch to using different technology that might be useful to bear in mind while going through this piece:
There’s no need to do everything in one go; making gradual change that will stick long-term is arguably a better outcome as trying the all-in approach can sometimes lead to a “withdrawal” back to old situations should the technology be more difficult to adapt to than was anticipated
Thinking about what “big tech” service I hate using the most, or what feels the easiest to get rid of, and prioritising these as starting points strikes me as a good idea as there is greater motivation there for me to implement changes.
Once I have an idea on what change might be reasonable to make but would like to ease myself into using it, I can challenge myself to try using a piece of software just for one day, then maybe two days, then a week and so forth. If something really doesn’t work out, I’ve not lost anything by trying, and in reflecting on why I couldn’t stick with it I will likely have a clearer idea of what the best way forward is for me.
Web browsers are the applications we use to go onto the internet, view websites and access search engines. Most of the major web browsers that everyone is familiar with – Chrome, Internet Explorer (now replaced by Edge) and Safari – are all closed-source, proprietary services run by big tech, and are likely tracking much of what you do on the internet.
Interestingly, the company behind Google continues to maintain an open-source version of their web browser – Chromium – that acts as a base for Chrome. Other browsers, such as Brave, have been able to take that code and turn it into a product which is now more security-minded and that can operate independently of Google. Brave strikes me as a sensible choice for those looking to balance user experience and security without there being too many technical hoops to jump through.
For those wanting to avoid anything Google has directly touched altogether (which there might be valid reasons for doing so), there are a couple of options. Firefox is another open-source browser that doesn’t use any of Google’s code as a base. Firefox has a lot of great security options even out-of-the-box and is very user-friendly and customisable. However, not everyone has been a fan of Mozilla – the company currently developing Firefox – for a variety of reasons, including:
incorporating elements of non-open source programs into Firefox
Privacy-violating promotions with an Amazon TV series
While the software in isolation could be good for promoting digital sovereignty, I get the impression that minds behind Firefox don’t have that as a focus as part of their development process.
One other option that could be considered is Tor. Tor is interesting as, first and foremost, it is not a browser, but instead a mostly decentralised, encrypted communication network that relays someone’s internet signal around the world in an encrypted format as a means of hiding one’s real-life location. The developers then provide a modified version of Firefox as a means of connecting to the internet through that network. This does make Tor slower and slightly less user-friendly than the other options mentioned, but it has proved popular with those who wish to avoid government surveillence, regardless of their reasons for doing so. Unsurprisingly, this has warranted the NSA and GCHQ to try and hack the network on numerous occasions.
Because Tor is, first and foremost, a communications method rather than a browser, it means that many other technologies that focus on digital sovereignty have incorporated aspects of the Tor network into their code. This includes Tails, which I will talk more about when we discuss operating systems in a future installment, and even Brave browser mentioned earlier has support for connecting to the Tor network.
It is important to note that Tor is not a complete solution to anonymity online. There are vulnerabilities in the design of the system that prevent it by itself from being a true solution to being untraceable online. A number of ways have been found over the years to at least partly circumvent some of the security Tor provides, although it is also fair to say that some of these have been addressed and those that still exist are still more difficult to execute than what would be needed on other browsers. The developers readily acknowledged this, saying they do not intend for it to be a tool for absolute digital privacy. I would say it is still a better option than having nothing at all, but for those looking for complete anonymity, they would likely need to combine Tor with other privacy services.
Secondly, it must be noted that the non-profit behind Tor has accepted money from the US State Department, raising questions about whether the US Government has any access to the data that passes through the Tor network. It is also interesting that other government agencies, such as the UK’s Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, have indicated a lack of interest in trying to stop the Tor project.
To sum up, I don’t think there is a “perfect” solution to web browsing, but there are options which are certainly better than using Google, Microsoft or Apple’s offerings. Most of the options mentioned are also able to use “extensions”, or add-on bits of software typically developed by other users that can enhance privacy features even further. Those are slightly beyond the scope of this article, but there are many articles on the web for both Chromium-based browsers (like Brave) and Firefox that can serve as good starting points on introducing extensions.
One of the big places we have seen the suppression of knowledge and use of propaganda in the past few years has been on search engines like Google, Bing and even DuckDuckGo, which once touted itself as a privacy-oriented alternative to the likes of Google. These services have all employed algorithms, or specific pieces of code, to hide various sources of information from the people searcing for it (even if true) and to instead promote material that upholds the societal narratives we have been subjected to. Part of the reason they have been able to do this is due to their closed-source, proprietary technology which they have full access and control over. Even some of the “freedom-respecting” alternatives like Freespoke and Brave Search still suffer from having a centralised design.
Search engines are hard to replicate in a way that respects digital sovereignty due to their need to have large databases of information that is regularly maintained, which is easy to do if there is top-down, centralised control of a system. There are two approaches, however, that are showing it might be possible to disrupt this paradigm.
The first of those, which I feel is the best option at the current moment in time, is using a SearXNG-based search engine, either running on your own private server for those with the ability to do so, or using a third-party host like SearX.org. SearXNG is best described as a “meta search engine” which, rather than hold its own records of what websites are on the internet, pulls that data from multiple search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo and more, gets rid of all the algorithms that artificially promote certain websites, combines all the results and displays the most relevant ones to the user. SearX.org is just one implementation of this, hosted on a centralised server, that allows anyone to use the search capabilities of SearXNG without needing their own server to run it on. If any of the normal search engines used by SearXNG-based systems go down, results can simply be pulled from another search engine instead. If SearX.org were to go down, someone else could start up their own SearXNG service with a similar configuration and immediately have access to all the same search results.
The only downside to SearXNG’s approach is that it relies on connecting to and pulling results from centralised servers, even though there is direct control over what servers SearXNG connects to. The other approach, therefore, has been to create search engines that store their data across multiple, independent servers that are not controlled by any one single entity.
YaCy is the most decentralised and independent version of this idea I have come across, and the one I think has the most promise long-term. That said, in its current state, YaCy requires a decent amount of technical understanding (or sheer determination to figure out if you’re like me) to get running correctly, and even then is quite slow and cumbersome to use from my experience. Presearch, on the other hand, is a partly-decentralised system that is far more reminiscent of the search engine experience many of us will be used to. However, being only able to access the search bar from the company’s centrally-owned website, and the system’s reliance on the cryptocurrency Ethereum, keeps Presearch as a “good” solution as opposed to a “perfect” solution. Talking about Ethereum is beyond the scope of this article, but, in short, Ethereum’s code has attracted criticism for a design that may encourage a centralised system to emerge, rather than keeping the system decentralised.
Social Media and Video Sharing
It’s no secret that many of the social media platforms we have been using up to now have played a large role in the censorship, suppression and social engineering of the last few years. Part of what allows services like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to get away with it is because of their centralised control of user information and their closed-source, proprietary models.
Some have touted Mastodon – a decentralised social media that feels a bit like Twitter – as a solution, but in its current form it is not the most friendly to new users, as it operates very differently from the social media platforms we are used to. Mastodon relies on people having their own servers on which to host their account, or having a server operator someone feels they can trust enough to manage their personal data. Although in theory could solve the censorship problem, ends up falling short as one server can just block communications with the other.
Nostr, meanwhile, aims to combine much of the technology of Bitcoin with social media, receiving praise from the likes of Edward Snowden and Jack Dorsey. Unlike Mastodon, Nostr does not have identities stored on a single server, instead relying on cryptographic techniques to store data and transfer it between decentralised servers. Nostr does not provide its own user-facing program, and instead a user needs a client – an application that connects to the Nostr network and lets you use it like any other social network – such as Coracle. Coracle strikes me as a simple and user-friendly way of accessing Nostr for those looking for a place to start out, and Nostr provide some great guides on setting up an account and on how to use Coracle. Those looking to be more adventurous with Nostr can consider different clients and hosting a Nostr ‘relay’ to contribute to the system’s operations. Nostr seems like a much more viable solution to a social media that allows for digital sovereignty while being more accessible than the likes of Mastodon.
If Nostr still proves too difficult for some to use, Bastyon offers a hybrid experience between Twitter, Facebook and YouTube while being mostly decentralised and open source. Although I have not used it myself, it certainly appears a lot more user-friendly than my previous experiences with Mastodon pre-Covid. Most of the other offerings I have seen that claim to promote digital sovereignty, including Gab and Minds, fall down on having centralised technology or relying on third-party technology for their operations, and thus don’t seem like true long-term solutions.
This seems like a reasonable to time to bring up Telegram. As a product, Telegram is an interesting hybrid between a social media platform like Twitter and an instant messaging service like WhatsApp. Many of us have adopted Telegram as a “freedom-respecting” alternative to the likes of the big tech platforms, but Telegram still has much of the same structural faults that has allowed Big Tech to control the narrative. That said, it still relies solely on servers owned and controlled by Telegram as a company. As such, we have to rely on Telegram to be a good faith actor in allowing free communication via its platform. All it would take is for a new CEO, a change of heart from the developers or government pressure for Telegram to succumb to all of the same faults that these other platforms have. And we are perhaps already seeing signs that such a thing could happen, such as reports of Telegram restricting access to some content, or in the creator of Telegram, Pavel Durov, being a member of the World Economic Forum. While Telegram has served this movement well, I would struggle to argue that it has a place in a world that is more digital sovereignty-conscious.
Finally, let’s talk about what alternatives there are to video sharing platforms like YouTube, which offer a slightly different social media experience to the platforms previously covered. Many services that have risen in popularity over the past few years that claim to be “anti-censorship” – BitChute, Rumble, and BrandNewTube included – all still suffer the same issues of having a centralised server model and being closed-source, proprietary services. There is, however, one exception – Odysee – which has done a great job at using open-source, decentralised technology in making a user-friendly replacement for YouTube. Just like with Tor and Nostr, Odysee is a client that connects to a communication network – LBRY – and then provides a YouTube-like experience as a way of navigating LBRY. While LBRY does currently experience some light content moderation, no video can ever be fully removed from the network due to the design of the system; it can only be ‘delisted’ when browsing something like Odysee. This makes the platform extremely resilliant to censorship. The aforementioned Bastyon also has video-sharing capabilities akin to YouTube and uses the same kinds of technology as LBRY/Odysee in its design. Both of these services strike me as suitable, easy-to-use replacements for something like YouTube.
From a messaging perspective, it should also be noted that Telegram’s encryption practises are not as sophisticated as some of the other offerings. Signal is a very privacy-focused option, with encryption techniques that have garnered praise from the likes of Edward Snowden. However, Signal has some fallbacks for me through both relying on central servers and requiring a smartphone and phone number to use. Bastyon, a program we have already mentioned, also has instant messaging capabilities.
Right now, the best-looking option, to me, seems to be one of the Matrix clients, such as Element. Like Nostr, Tor and many of the other systems we have covered, Matrix is a communications system that ticks all the boxes of being open-source, decentralised and allowing encrypted messages, while still having relatively easy-to-use applications that connect to it.
Email itself is a decentralised technology. If I were to have the physical resources, knowledge and willpower to do so, I could set up my own email server and access it using something like Roundcube, as opposed to relying on a third-party service like Gmail or Outlook that many of us will be familiar with. However, there are likely many people who are unable to meet those requirements, including myself, and thus we have no choice but to find a third-party service or organisation to use e-mail. The least-worst option for having another company hosting my emails would likely be Tutanota, with ProtonMail coming in a close second. Both use forms of end-to-end encryption to keep the contents of emails hidden from external observers trying to access them, but Tutanota provides slightly more encryption than ProtonMail and doesn’t rely on closed-source, third-party systems for some of their systems (unlike ProtonMail, which uses Google’s reCAPTCHA system, involving Google trackers, when the usual software they use to prevent bots – the open-source hCaptcha – doesn’t work).
One other email tool that can be useful for promoting digital sovereignty is a “temporary email”, which could be done by simply creating a temporary email with ProtonMail or by using a dedicated provider like 10-Minute Mail. 10-Minute Mail gives users a temporary email address which auto-deletes after 10 minutes. This can be useful if, for example, when wanting to access ebooks, documents and free products on a website but are required to put in an email address to receive these goods. This often puts users on marketing lists too, which is not always desirable if someone was just after one ebook and nothing else from a website. While it may not work for every website, 10-Minute Mail will work well enough for most websites that are forcing email registration for free products.
Video Conferencing and Remote Working
While many of us have become more comfortable with using video conferencing tools like Zoom, Teams and Skype over the past few years, these are again typically systems that are closed-source and have poor encryption and privacy control. Although I am unaware of any easy-to-use tools that do not rely on centralised servers, Jitsi provides an open-source, encrypted video chat system that is free, does not require an account to use and is independent of big tech.
I can’t say much on alternatives to cloud storage services like Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud or OneDrive as this is typically not something I use in storing files (I much prefer just to keep my documents and files on USB sticks and use adapters where necessary). Like email, there is the option of creating a personal “cloud server” with something like NextCloud for those with technical confidence but, again, this is unlikely to be accessible to many of us. Otherwise, the best bets that avoid big tech and maintain a reasonable degree of privacy seem to be pCloud and Mega.
Likewise, I do not have much personal experience with any team chat programs like Slack that also respect digital sovereignty, however the programs Mattermost and the previously mentioned instant messaging tool Element seem to be the most popular tools that might fit the bill.
Document Editing and Creative Tools
I suspect many out there are still relying on products like Word, Excel and Powerpoint in creating documents for their professional and personal needs. It could be argued that there is far less of a need for encryption, open-source and decentralisation of these services as they are not services that need to connect to the internet.
There are quite a few options available for document editing tools that are viable replacements for Microsoft’s offerings. My personal choice would be LibreOffice, which is both fully open-source and has support for Microsoft’s file formats, meaning if you have started making a presentation in PowerPoint but would like to switch to LibreOffice, or you would like to open a file that someone else has made using Microsoft’s products, there should be no issue in opening up that presentation or file. Just be aware that, sometimes, minor visual aspects such as the positions of items on a PowerPoint slide, or spacing and font of text, might slightly change when opening a Microsoft document in LibreOffice (or vice versa).
In terms of digital sovereignty, artists and musicians are probably at the greatest disadvantage if they want to convert to using non-centralised and non-proprietary services, as many of the “industry standard” tools of their field have feature sets that are hard to replicate as decentralised, open-source programs. That said, there are some admirable efforts being made. I’ve had a lot of success using Ardour as a digital audio workstation for music hobby projects in the past. Visual artists have a few highly powerful free and open-source tools at their disposal such as Inkscape and GIMP, which can do a valiant job at replacing Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop respectively. Those involved in 3D modelling may be pleased to hear that one of their industry standard software tools – Blender – is already an open-source project, which goes to show that a reality where the tools we use in our personal and professional lives respect digital sovereignty is indeed possible.
Trying to cover decentralised forms of digital payments, for which Bitcoin-based systems, including “wallets” like Electrum and “exchanges” like HodlHodl seem like the only viable solution to me, could easily add another 1000 to 2000 words to this article. Bitcoin is something we have covered in multiple articles on OTTY previously, which I believe can prove to be useful practical starting points. Robert Breedlove’s work also provides a great entry-point into Bitcoin from a philosopichal perspective, which may prove useful for people who find technical understanding to be a barrier into understanding Bitcoin.
Congratulations on making it to the end! We covered a lot there, and much of it may well warrant a re-read and further research. I hope there’s something you can take away from this that you feel motivated to try using, and I would be happy to hear any experiences with any of these services in the comments below.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that ProtonMail used Google’s reCAPTCHA software. This was formerly the case, however ProtonMail has since switched to primarily use a non-Google, open-source alternative, hCaptcha. However, the reCAPTCHA system still exists for ProtonMail as a fallback if hCaptcha doesn’t work.