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How to move to FOSS

Yesterday I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful initiative named Go FOSS, Today. Many organizations stand for privacy, security and ownership of our computing platforms. But this one goes further. It provides detailed tutorials explaining how to get there, with Free and Open Source Software.

“Go FOSS” reminds us that privacy is declared a fundamental human right by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a number of national and international treaties. Yet, we continue to allow companies and governments to record our conversations, memories, location, medical history, and much, much more. Yet we see little if any consequences, when our data is abused, or our security is endangered by neglect and wrong priorities of the Big Tech.

Tackling these problems requires comprehensive changes to our legal systems and social covenants. But there’s a lot we can do ourselves, while voting and waiting for the Big Changes to happen.

Go Foss lays out technical steps to mitigate these issues, by moving to Free and Open Source Software.

This isn’t something I’d recommend to my mom ;-) But it’s doable for an IT specialist. Then I can help mom as well ;-)

And hey! Apart from improving privacy and security, this is just good old-skool nerd fun! Setting up your own VPS machine with secure SSH-over-VPN access, running your own cloud, a web server and containerized CouchDB instance for dev purposes really makes you feel super-human. You don’t need AWS account for that. A simple VPS costing you a pint-per-month will do. Provide safe and private e-mail accounts for all your family and you’ll be their true hero. And you will learn a whole lot in process!

The website lays out technical steps to take care of the following needs and concerns:

  • Browsing
  • Communications
  • Storage and Cloud
  • Operating System
  • Phone

Enjoy, and let me know if you need any help!

Background Story

Over the years we’ve slowly given away privacy, security and ownership of our devices. From buying tech products, we came to being a product. Why? Maybe because it’s all so convenient. Maybe because we’re dumb and lazy.

Or maybe because we really did believe Google’s official motto: “Don’t be evil”.

Ominously, in 2015 Google changed that noble motto to “Do The Right Thing”, whatever it means. Today, six years later, we somehow accept, that:

The software we pay for does not belong to us

Neither does hardware. Just like music or films, or even farming tractors.

It is amusing when Big Tech, threatened with taxation of offshored profits, lectures us on sanctity of private property in capitalist economy. Yet they grant The Holy Right of Property only to themselves, while turning us into rent serfs with no ownership rights.

We do not have privacy, period.

IT companies used to sell products, software and services. This is no longer their core activity. Many products and services are made to snoop on our private lives, collect information, mine it, monetize it, use and abuse it. This has become The Business Model.

We are right to complain about privacy and security invasions. But this change of core business model has other dramatic consequence:

Degrading quality of IT products and services and emergence of information silos

It’s inevitable. If primary objective of software is to scoop our data, then stability, robustness, security and speed simply have to suffer. If information is money, then one will hoard it, instead of making it accessible to others.

For example, I’m constantly surprised how bad quality of video and audio chats continues to be. It’s not significantly better from what I had in late 90s. Why? With networks thousands times faster, with phones more powerful than supercomputers of then? With all this technology we should have damn holodecks by now! And why do I need to use six different communicators?

There are no technical reasons for this situation. Maybe it’s just because so much money, energy and engineering talent is wasted on “other priorities”.

If your business is on a platform, you do not own the business

As software developer, I can only tell how convenient cloud services such as AWS, Azure or Adobe Creative Cloud are. Everything is laid out perfectly for you. With a few clicks you can have an entire infrastructure up and running in no time. Is there anything wrong with it?

Turns out to be, quite a lot. There were many incidents when people, companies, if not entire countries, were locked out of their software and data, at a whim of an opaque automated process. Or when The Platform loves your business idea so much that it takes over your ideas and market.

Pricing models of major cloud providers are deliberately opaque and can bite at the least expected moment. My own experience shows that it’s hard to reliably predict, what the monthly cost of using a cloud provider will be. While it starts cheap, as your infrastructure and load grows, you often end spending much more. Between all variations in user load, fluctuations in numbers of visitors, traffic spikes, DDOS attacks etc. one can only pray for the best. The switch from resource-based pricing to usage-based pricing has certainly proven great for the Big Tech. But all those mega-profits of their cloud divisions didn’t come out of thin air. They came straight from our pockets.

Finally, anyone building their software platform using proprietary cloud technology is simply putting their entire operation at risk. If the platform goes down, you go down. If the platform decides to obsolete the technology, you go down. If the platform decides to charge you more, you have to take it and pay up. Business model previously known as racket nowadays is called PaaS. With all other concerns and struggles of running a company, do you really need these additional ones?

It might cost a bit more work and time, to build your IT system on a vendor-neutral platform and open software. If you do like the convenience of major cloud providers, just don’t use their proprietary tools. Some call it paranoia, but for me it’s just common sense, seeing these horrific examples. Because, if anything happens to your platform, you simply move your domain, data and software to another one, offering the same vendor-neutral tools. You might be offline for a few days. But you won’t be begging a mindless bot to reinstate your account, or rewriting half the code.

It just feels good to own your stuff!

This is stricly personal, but I simply feel better, when I can manage my own stuff ;-) When it’s up to me to decide, when to install system updates. What software I can have on my PC or phone. And when I feel like tweaking it or changing colors, I’m free to do so. It’s a natural curiosity of an engineer. Without this freedom, there’s no technological progress. If we’re forcefully kept within the boundaries of what the Big Tech thinks is safe and right for us, our creativity and thinking-out-of-the-box becomes severely inhibited. How am I supposed to learn, if not by my own experiments, trials and errors and mistakes?

How are we supposed to be creative, when Big Nanny computer and Big Brother software does all the thinking?

It’s a matter of basic freedom and last-but-not-least, of basic human dignity.