by Dan Gillmor
Not many years ago, I was a happy acolyte in the Church of Apple. I spent most of the day using a Macintosh laptop. I used an iPhone. I had a Facebook account with hundreds of “friends,” and used Google’s search engine almost exclusively. While I worried about misuse of my information by third parties, I didn’t do much about it. I was so in love with technology that I adopted the latest and greatest without considering the consequences.
I still love technology, and believe it plays a transformative role in our lives. But as I’ve learned more about how it works, and how powerful interests want it to work, the more I’ve realized the need to make some changes.
So, today, I’m writing this on computer running Linux, the free and open operating system. I own an Android smartphone, modified to remove restrictions the manufacturer and carrier would prefer to impose. I have closed my Facebook account, and use search engines in much different ways. And I am much more cautious about what I’ll allow third parties to know about me and my activities.
By making these and many related choices, I have made parts of my life slightly less easy, or at least less convenient. But I have gained something more important: liberty. I use the devices I purchase as I choose; I decline to live in the increasingly restricted environments that so many technology and communications companies have imposed on their customers. And to the extent that I am able, I’m preventing snoops, corporate and governmental, from watching my every move without my consent. On balance, I believe, I’ve made my life better.
That’s why I’m doing this project: to help you make your own decisions.
My goal is simple: I’ll try to persuade you to do what I’m doing, or to go at least part of the way toward declaring your own independence. In the end, you may well prefer to stick with the conveniences of the Mac, Windows, iPhone and the rest. (I still use all of them for occasional bits of work.) But I hope you’ll at least consider what you’re giving up when you make those choices, not just what you gain. I want you to have open eyes and an open mind as you decide what you want technology to do for you, in the context of your own needs and your values.
In this book, and on the accompanying website, I’ll tell you about the various options and methods to recapture some privacy and freedom in your use of technology (assuming you want them). In several of the most popular tools, such as the Linux operating system, I’ll provide a basic user’s guide to get you started.
I’ll also note, where appropriate, the irony or maybe even hypocrisy inherent in some of my own choices. As a shareholder in Amazon and Netflix, I’ve invested in a certain amount of control-freakery. I’ve posted this outline, at least temporarily, as a Google Document, and am spreading word via Google+ and Twitter, in order to get as much participation as I can — even though I may ultimately conclude that Google is itself a serious threat (I’m not there yet and may never be).
Using Google to push this project forward is an almost perfect example of the convenience/effectiveness trade-offs. Occasionally, however, the tools I’ll describe will raise ethical and legal questions, not just issues of convenience and ease of use. In all cases, I’ll tell you about the trade-offs and dilemmas you will face if you move part or all of the way toward technological liberty.
Why do I keep using the word “liberty,” anyway? Because this is truly about your freedoms. They are in jeopardy now, and the trajectory is not a positive one.
In the first several chapters, I explain why we should prefer technological freedom. During the rest of the book I mostly explain how (with more of the “why” accompanying the more specific how-to descriptions).
Along the way I’ll offer lots of specifics. We’ll look, for example, at several versions of Linux; a mobile phone security; free software applications that give users the tools they need without reverting to the Windows or Mac worlds; alternatives to Facebook, or at least settings that preserve more of your privacy; web-browsing tools to protect your privacy and security; mobile devices and apps that give you more choices; and much more.
Sprinkled throughout the book will be writing profiles, based on interviews and other research, with:
- people who have already made the choices I’m urging the rest of us to make; and
- people who have invented some of the tools and systems that give you the ability to control more of your own destiny
These folks are often inspiring, and always interesting.
This project follows on the great work of (among many others) Rebecca MacKinnon Consent of the Networked); Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It); Doc Searls (“Edging toward the fully licensed world”); Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation); and others. It will be fully open-sourced, and published under a Creative Commons license.
The promise of technology has never been greater. But the future of democratized communications and collaboration has never been more in doubt. Powerful corporate and political interests are taking control of the hardware, software and networks that have given humanity unprecedented creative opportunities. They are re-centralizing the platforms – the Internet in particular – that have been fountains of innovation because of their decentralized nature. Their motives are not evil in most cases, even though their actions are causing enormous long-term damage. And they are succeeding in part because most of their customers either don’t realize what is happening or don’t care. The chapter will start with someone’s personal story, or with a scenario of a locked-down future.
Sidebar: Apple and me, a love story that went sour.
Sidebar: A representative of the entertainment industry explains why online freedom needs stricter limits.
Sidebar: Someone from Electronic Frontier Foundation on why we shouldn’t have to ask Hollywood for permission to innovate.
The same technologies that give us freedom to communicate and collaborate can be put to use for ends that governments find worrisome. They are also great tools to help governments to spy on their own citizens, not just people who threaten security. In repressive regimes, the digital networks are a threat to the regimes’ very existence – one reason why the U.S. State Department is working to spread democratized media to those places. But the U.S. government, among many others, is also taking steps – often in concert with the copyright industry – to restrict these uses at home. The dilemmas are real, but security and law-enforcement interests increasingly trump free speech and innovation. But the proverbial cure looks to be more dangerous than the disease.
Sidebar: Interview with someone from law enforcement.
Sidebar: Activist for democracy from Syria or some other country in turmoil.
Like security, tech liberty is a process, not an outcome. But we all need a strategy that aims at a goal. We need to consider the tradeoffs and ethical/legal dilemmas. These include ease of use, support, cost and many other factors. This chapter helps create a personal road map, or check list, toward tech liberty.
Sidebar: Cory Doctorow, an author and tech libertarian.
The world of open-source and free software is a large and fascinating ecosystem, devoted to the idea that fundamental computing tools should be a) freely available for download, use, and redistribution; b) provide “source code” – the programming instructions – that is open for study and modification by other programmers and c) supported by the community of users and for-profit enterprises alike. You may not realize it, but you are using open-source and free software every day, because it helps operate the Internet’s essential services. Android, the mobile operating system, is open source as well – though the carriers restrict it, as we’ll learn in another chapter – and there are thousands of programs that can replace the ones you use today on the Mac and Windows.
Sidebar: Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation
Sidebar: Christine Peterson, who coined the expression “open source”
OK, here we go. Your computer’s operating system is the traffic cop. For years, Linux has been the also-ran in the operating systems market, but it’s been improving at a rapid rate. Linux has many variants, but two have captured the most attention for their elegance, ease of use and strong support: Ubuntu and Mint. In this chapter I’ll explain the basics of switching from Windows or the Mac, including how to run both systems for a time while you get acclimated, and how to find application software to replace what you’ve been using.
Sidebar: Linus Torvalds about the Linux journey
Sidebar: Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu founder
Apple’s iOS is a huge success, due to the elegant hardware of the iPhone and iPad and massive collection of apps. Even though the Android operating system, which powers an increasing percentage of “smart phones” around the world, is itself open-source, the phone makers and mobile carriers have locked it down in most cases, preventing users from using it as they wish. There are some sound reasons for this, but the lockdowns have many negative consequences. In this chapter we look at the Android ecosystem, and discuss ways of “jailbreaking” your phone to give yourself the greatest freedom – and also how to avoid some of the problems that result when you do. We’ll also discuss several upcoming open-source mobile operating systems that may provide even more user freedom.
Sidebar: Andy Rubin, head of Android at Google
Whether you move to more open systems on your PC and mobile devices or not, you need to take more care in protecting yourself in the digital sphere. This chapter is about fundamental steps we all can take to keep our data secure and prevent prying eyes from following our every move, while recognizing that this may well be impossible or, at best, impractical. We’ll discuss browser tools, encryption and a variety of other safeguards that work on all kinds of operating systems. We’ll also look at the pros and cons of using social networks such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter – increasingly becoming a center of speech and collaboration but owned by private interests – and see if there are any useful alternatives to them.
Sidebar: Bruce Schneier, security expert.
Sidebar: A Syrian activist on the lethal risks of insecure communications.
The entertainment industry’s fear of copyright infringement has led to stringent curbs on what you can do with the media you buy and rent. For example, Amazon’s Kindle format is unreadable on other e-readers; you are not legally permitted to make personal backups of DVDs you’ve purchased, or “rip” them to other formats so you can watch them on other devices or share them with other people; and DVD players have “regional coding” that curbs people’s ability to play a disk bought in one part of the world from being viewed on a player in another part of the world. There are plenty of tools that let you use media your own way despite these restrictions, but there are some risks (small in some cases, larger in others). This chapter does not advocate copyright infringement. It does explain what is possible, and encourages readers to make their own, informed decisions.
Sidebar: Cory Doctorow says, “”When someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, the lock isn’t there for your benefit.” This applies to content providers, who have given the keys to their kingdom to companies like Apple, Amazon and Google; Digital Rights Management hurts the creators more than it helps them.
Sidebar: Interview with founder of VLC, an open-source, multi-format media player.
In the Digital Age we are creators, not just consumers. And as creators we have unprecedented opportunities to be heard and seen — but those opportunities will be greater if we use open-source methods in our publishing. The scholarly journal industry, for example, is being challenged by upstarts who want to overturn the closed-in, expensive system that has prevailed in favor of an open system that a) spreads knowledge more efficiently; and b) is far less expensive for libraries and schools. Copyright remains a vital part of the publishing ecosystem, meanwhile, but its abuses by the entertainment and publishing industries, among others, have led many people to Creative Commons, a licensing system that invites sharing while protecting creators. CC is just one of the tools we can deploy to make our work more open for re-use and re-mixing by others. This chapter discusses the reasons why being more open is better for creators in most cases, and vastly better for society.
Sidebar: Science Commons, opening up research.
Sidebar: Scholars rebel against high-priced, closed-off academic journals.