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Reclaim Your Online Privacy: Alternatives To Facebook, Twitter & Google

Posted in Act Out!, Creative Commons, Journalism, and Video

Kit O’Connell and Eleanor Goldfield co-wrote this segment of Act Out!

Moving on to our main story today … Imagine a police state so bent on repressing dissent that people were targeted by the government just for visiting a web page or liking a page on Facebook?

This dystopian scenario isn’t science fiction, and it isn’t something happening in a far off country — it’s happening in the United States. No really, let’s take a look at a recent example: On an auspicious Friday the 13th in October, the federal government dropped its demand that Facebook turn over information about anyone who had simply “liked” a page dedicated to protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration. In this case,

Three warrants were served that demand Facebook provide the US government with all information from the accounts of two activists and a page affiliated with massive protests against right-wing President Donald Trump‘s inauguration on January 20.

The requested information includes the entirety of photos, videos, posts, private messages, video calls, billing information and other data between November 1, 2016, and February 9. … If successful, the warrant for Disrupt J20 could result in some 6,000 visitors to that page having their names and public and private activity on and with the page passed on to the government.

And while it wasn’t successful, this isn’t the first time the feds tried to target anyone who’d even looked up information on the massive January 20 protests, as Gizmodo reported:

The case is the second known attempt by the DOJ to collect large swaths of data about people who participated in the January 20th protests. The DOJ also demanded that web hosting company DreamHost hand over the IP addresses of 1.3 million visitors to an anti-Trump website, disruptj20.org, but eventually dropped its request for the IP logs and had the scope of its warrant further narrowed by a judge.

While the government backed down when challenged by groups like the ACLU and cyberliberties watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation, this was still a clear attempt to silence even the most basic forms of dissent and it’s almost certain we haven’t seen the last of this kind of thing. Keep in mind that dozens of people arrested for protesting the inauguration are STILL facing decades in prison, and we can only guess at the horrors the Cheeto Gestapo might have unleashed with access to even more information about Trump’s opponents.

Activists hold protest signs during demonstrations against the inauguration of Pres. Donald Trump on January 20, 2017. (Flickr / Joe Catron, CC NC license)

And if you think this all sounds Orwellian, you are absolutely correct. As we covered last week, the behemoths of the internet world are already funneling our news into ever smaller echo chambers but on top of that, those echo chambers are fully equipped with surveillance systems beyond your wildest dreams. Surveillance systems that aren’t just there to sell you shoes they know you like but to sell the government information on what shoes you wear, where you bought them and where they’re walking to right now.

Just think about all the power a corporation can have by knowing what you search for online, where you go, and even what books you read. And the worst part of it is, we usually don’t stop to think about it: most of us have handed over a staggering amount of information all in the name of a little bit of convenience.

Fortunately, there’s some relatively simple ways we can reclaim our online privacy, or at least make our fascist rulers work a little harder to spy on us. In today’s connected society, all of us are on the front lines when it comes to resisting mass surveillance, and today we’ll give you a toolkit that’ll help you take your privacy back.

A stencil painted on the ground reads “24-Hour Video Surveillance.” (Flickr / throgers, CC NC ND license)

So how can we protect ourselves from both a fascist regime and unscrupulous, profit and power hungry companies? One of the first and simplest steps to take is to simply change how you search.

As I mentioned last week, Duck Duck Go is a search engine which uses the same database as Google, but it doesn’t log your searches. You can easily access it on any web browser, or even get an app for your phone.

While we’re on the topic of Google, if you’re using Chrome you should consider switching to Firefox, or even Opera, both of which protect their users’ privacy more, and probably work better too, since Chrome has long since gone from the leanest, meanest browser to a sad, stumbling piece of bloatware. And you should never “log into” your browser — even though it makes it easier to access web pages from one device to another, you’re also leaving a trail that links your devices to your desktop to everything you read online.

As for email, a great alternative to Gmail, especially for activists, is Protonmail. This email service not only protects your account with the usual username and password, but your inbox is fully encrypted, unlocked with a second password, creating one of the safest email options around. While a basic account is free, for a small annual fee you can get more storage and the ability to send unlimited emails.

I talked a bit about the importance of encryption back in episode 105, where I introduced viewers to the encrypted messaging app, Signal, which replaces not just your text messaging app, but can also make encrypted phone calls.

Another important step you can take to protect yourself online is to make use of a Virtual Private Network or VPN, which adds another layer between your internet service provider and whatever sites you visit online, making your activities that much harder to track. There’s dozens of VPN providers, but you’ll want to sign up with a service that’s located in a foreign country that doesn’t collaborate to share surveillance information with the United States, and doesn’t keep logs of users activities. A good VPN won’t be free, but there’s lots of inexpensive options.

When you’re shopping for a VPN, it’s a good idea to search (using Duck Duck Go, remember) if they’ve ever been forced to provide user logs in a court case. For example, the service PureVPN claims that it doesn’t keep user logs, but was recently forced to admit they’d helped the FBI catch a cyberstalker by, you guessed it, providing the feds with the user data that was supposedly nonexistent.

You can find a great comparison guide to VPN providers by visiting this bit link: http://bit.ly/VPNcompare. You can also get some great VPN recommendations, along with other security tips, from our friends at the Oh Shit! What Now? collective in Austin, Texas – go to http://bit.ly/OhShitPrivacy. And if all of this sounds complicated, don’t get overwhelmed. A good VPN will have instructions and an app to help you set up their service on both your computer and your phone.

A logo of the Mastodon social network, showing an anthropomorphic mastodon using a smartphone. (Wikimedia Commons / dopatwo, CC NC ND license)

And this now brings us to the thorny topic of social media. One tempting option is just to cut the cord and quit using sites like Facebook and Twitter entirely, and go back to actually communicating directly with our friends and loved ones. But whether you’re a content creator like me or someone who just wants to keep in touch with people thousands of miles away, you don’t have to settle for mass surveillance.

One alternative that’s growing in popularity is Mastodon — which will be easy to remember for all you metal heads out there. Mastodon, the social media site, is a unique decentralized open source social network. Instead of everything being located on a single central website, like Facebook, Mastodon users can create their own communities, like miniature social networks that can then be linked up to other Mastodon networks, using servers run by Mastodon or their own. This allows more control over content, and with the help of pointed anti-abuse tools, makes it easier to isolate and kick off trolls and nazis — a primary catalyst for starting the network.

Set up to emulate Twitter more so than Facebook, Mastodon has a 500 character limit so as to allow for a little more eloquence and delivers posts in chronological order, minus any ads or restricting algorithms. Founder Eugen Rochko originally didn’t think it would garner the 700,000+ users that it currently boasts but admits, “I think more people than I thought are looking to quit commercial social networks. They’re tired of being treated like the product instead of the customer.”

Rochko’s sentiment echoes that of Minds founder Bill Ottman, who co-founded the social media site back in 2015. Minds has a bit more of the Facebook feel compared to Mastodon — complete with direct video upload tools, groups, blogs and monetization options. Both Minds and Mastodon are based on open source, decentralized networking that prioritizes user privacy and experience — two things that corporate social media waved bye-bye to a long time ago.

And while Mastodon was founded with direct nods towards the issue of Twitter not banning fascists, Minds takes on a more relaxed stance. While you can report posts as harassment, bullying or inciting violence, no accounts will be taken down unless they violate US law.

The question of course then becomes whether a website banning certain things is synonymous with a government doing so — fascists are obviously still allowed to spew their bigoted dumb-shittery but is allowing them to do to so on your platform necessary? And if not, should you? And if you don’t, where do you draw the line? Holocaust denial, inciting violence towards blacks and people of color?

Tricky questions and ones, among others, that I sat down with Minds co-founder Bill Ottman last week to discuss. Take a look.

 

Reclaim Your Online Privacy: Alternatives To Facebook, Twitter & Google by Kit O’Connell and Eleanor Goldfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2017/10/25/online-privacy-alternatives-facebook-google.

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