In the 1990s and early 2000s, we believed that we with digital technology and the internet, we were building a utopia. And my, has the comedown been harsh, as we discovered that we had built all the tools for a surveillance state instead. We enthusiastically took to platforms like Facebook and Google and fed them with every last detail about our lives.
We did this for the search results and the cat pictures and to have a better way to coordinate pub nights with our friends. All the while, the giants of flesh and steel who we thought were weary were hauling our secrets out through the back door by the truckload. Those platforms aren’t public spaces. They’re like shopping malls, with their own mean little sets of rules. We’re only ever allowed there on their terms, and they watch everything we do.
Using a device with stock Android puts me in the same state of anxious watchfulness that I get when I walk through a crowded railway station. There are data pickpockets lurking at every turn, waiting for me to be distracted for a second, perhaps by one of the dozens of dodgy deals that are constantly shoved in front of me.
I look at Ethiopia, the world’s first off-the-shelf surveillance state, it’s our own future that I see. Given how internet policy in the western world has evolved over the past decade and a half, Halvar Flake is right in saying that most democracies are two terror strikes and one opportunist away from a dictatorship.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We have powerful tools that help us defend and regain the freedoms we’ve lost, and the ones we’ve given up. We can use GnuPG to securely encrypt our files and our communication. We can use Tor to browse more or less anonymously. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need these tools; but this world isn’t perfect, and so we need them. Anyone who asks you to use non-free crypto and privacy tools is either a fool or a liar. There’s just no way to put this more mildly.
We can avoid giving up data and control out of sheer laziness. If you tell me that you don’t want to pay around 10€ a month for email and hosting while fiddling with your 500€ smartphone, then I’ll say that you’ve got your priorities wrong. For a lot of the things that you can do with Google, Facebook and all the other stuff, you can find self-hosted Free Software programs that do much the same, while putting you in the driving seat. And that’s before we even mention approaches like open data, which we can combine with Free Software to put more power back in people’s hands.
This is Valentine’s Day, and we’re supposed to think of the people we love. Let’s teach them the skills that they’ll need to protect their freedom in a world that’s only ever going more digital. If you host your mail with one of the big providers, you’re exposing everyone you exchange messages with to government surveillance. If there’s someone you love, don’t force them to communicate with you through these platforms. Instead, give them the skills they need to retain their autonomy in today’s world.
In the end, we’re making the bed that we are going to lie in. Our choices today help to determine the future that we’ll live in. Not only do we have choice; we constantly exercise choice, whether by commission or by omission.
We’re always building something. We can build the tools of oppression, or we can build the tools of freedom.
We can teach. We always teach, mostly by example. Let’s make sure that we teach freedom to our children and our friends.
We’re always making choices. By choosing the technology we use, we build the world we’ll live in tomorrow, bit by bit. That’s why I choose Free Software: So that we can live in freedom tomorrow.