Free replacements for centralized services and the network effect

Submitted by edmund_the_destroyer in freeAsInFreedom

I think this should be obvious to anyone following tech industry, but distributed, decentralized, free-as-in-freedom software replacements for proprietary centralized services like Google Search, GMail, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Ebay have arguably four core problems:

  1. The freedom and privacy offered by these services has value in proportion to their level of adoption. I host my own email, but it does nothing for my privacy because well above 99% of the people I correspond with use GMail, Hotmail, or similar. If I buy paperclips and toilet paper on the Silk Road just to keep my purchasing habits of completely legal products hidden from Amazon and Walmart and everyone else that has no right to know, it is still effectively public knowledge. It's public knowledge because I'm overwhelmingly likely to be the only computer user generating Tor network traffic for miles. We need wide adoption, both for the privacy and freedom of other adopters and for our own.

  2. Adopting these distributed, decentralized alternatives requires a non-trivial level of technical knowledge. Progress is being made, Beaker Browser in particular is pretty easy to set up and use (but in my experience, still pretty buggy). But we're a long way from the point when most people that can use an Android phone, iPhone, Mac, or Windows 10 can set up their own Mastodon node or Friendica node, install and use Yacy, install and use Beaker Browser, set up their own email, set up their own OwnCloud or NextCloud or instance (Sandstorm is a free software alternative to NextCloud that I prefer), set up their own Syncthing backups, etc...

  3. Even if you have the technical knowledge, most people won't tackle the costs. Google, Facebook, and so forth make money from invading user privacy. For Google I found numbers like $15 per US user per month or more, for Facebook I found $6 per US user per month. And whether we like to realize it or not, that data collection and advertising has an impact on our behavior and wastes our time. So spending $10-$15 per month to host your own is fully justified. But most people don't think on those terms, and frankly I don't blame them. I know dozens of tech industry people with the skills necessary to do all of these things, and I'm one of very few that acts - and tech industry veterans have more discretionary income than most people!

  4. Last and maybe most important, the network effect. This isn't an issue with email and search, but for social networks and online shopping it's the killer problem. Even if I hosted a Mastodon or Friendica instance, I can't get my wife and kids to use it because none of the rest of their family and friends are there. I don't see how to beat it. This article (pardon the Medium link) gives slight hope that the free software community might find some other way to tackle the problem - if we can get billions of people using decentralized product X, and then add social network features or shopping features to X, then we have a way to beat the centralized services. But we need X first, and I got nuthin'.



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ghast wrote

Good points all. But for my first post on the site cracks old-man knuckles allow me to suggest some benefits.

  1. The network effect. Facebook pushes people into its own video platform, as did Tumblr. Both were awful. Microsoft's Word is available on two operating systems, and the IOS version is shit, while Libreoffice is plain old Libreoffice on all of them and more. The strength of the Libre is being a digital tart - Mastodon interfaces with Pleroma, both interface with Peertube. No corporate decree is required, just the literal will of those people able to do just that.

  2. Profit's a strong motive, but the per-person profits are rather slim. If I tabulate everything I like and every conversation I've had, for a full year, then try to sell it to someone, I'm not getting €20. Privacy is sold cheap, which means reclaiming it doesn't have a high cost.

  3. I should have numbered these to disagree with your points, but I won't, because this isn't a direct take-down. NEVERTHELESS, I'd coincidentally like to talk about how Libre software is easier than non-libre. Updating all programs at the same time, to avoid conflicts in .ddls, is something few people can do. In Debian? Easy! Want to sync your things? Syncthing! You just add it to both machines and swap the code. With proprietary solutions like Dropbox, you have to sign up, verify identity a little, promise not to host pirated software in the agreemtn.

And for the ultimate example of ease, I'm guessing few here have tried to install Windows 10 then install Office 365 and a couple of apps, or sign up to Facebook recently. It's a nightmare. There's buttons, and sign-ins and verification, and 20 questions about which kinds of spying they do. Linux distros don't give a shit about who you are - take the iso, install, have a nice day. Here's a free office. If you want more, it'll auto-download and auto-update.

  1. Strength. Haiku and Void Linux are fast. Debian is stable. Tiny Core Linux is really tiny. Libressl is faster than Openssl. Linux owes little of its massive adoption to ideology - it's actually better than other solutions, and outpaces their growth with almost 0 advertizing.

  2. History. The basic notion of copying is what our species is built to do from day 0, and what it's always done. This made all the buildings, created all our music, and wrote all our books before copyright was introduced. Pseudo-imitation is in our blood.


edmund_the_destroyer OP wrote

Heh! I'm glad your first post is a response to me. Thanks for the discussion, I enjoy it.

I think you're weighing some options in your responses according to what a moderately well-informed (or better) person might say.

I've heard plenty of people that don't share my interests or knowledge related to freedom, privacy, and in particular software freedom complain about bad features in Facebook, Tumblr, and so forth. But to most of them the alternatives effectively don't exist. I may set up a Pleroma and Peertube instance and provide accounts to friends and family. I haven't decided. But they would have never done it on their own, or sought out some other person or service to run it for them.

Reclaiming privacy does have a high cost for the majority of the population. DNS and server hosting for your own email, social network, etc... might average $10 per month or more. Most people won't pay that unless they really understand the benefits. The money Google and Facebook extract from their use is not visible to them.

And free-as-in-freedom software is not always better for people who are unconcerned with privacy and user freedom. I think it's delusional or dishonest for us to use that line of argument. We want the free option to be best, but it's not always the case.

Chromebooks have better battery life than standard Linux distributions running on the same hardware, period. I don't give a hoot, I use desktops. But my wife and kids do, and they ignore the Linux laptops I provided for them in favor of Chromebooks. Yes, Chrome OS uses a Linux kernel. That doesn't matter, the open source kernel is wrapped in a proprietary OS and services.

Installing and updating Linux is easier than installing and updating Windows, but people can visit everything this side of a coffee shop and buy a laptop or desktop with Windows on it. They don't have to care about the installation headaches. Telling someone, "This thing you have never, ever done with your computer is far easier and faster if you use Linux!" won't convince them to switch.

Using GMail is still incredibly convenient, and the search features work better than anything I get from Thunderbird. (I haven't tried search in Roundcube.)

and so forth. We have an uphill battle in front of us.


kore wrote (edited )

I think the most important thing to start with in terms of decentralized networks and services is the actual network hardware itself. Everything else is just prefigurative at this point.


edmund_the_destroyer OP wrote

You mean things like the FreedomBox? A series of gadgets everyone can easily buy and set up in their bedroom somewhere to work as a personal cloud? I think even that is a hard sell. The user has to care enough to buy it, and go through the set up process.

It may ever amount to anything but I'm more hopeful for things like Beaker Browser or SafeNetwork (or at least ideas like SafeNetwork, if not SafeNetwork itself). The idea is to have computing resources right from the user's own laptop or desktop provide the backbone of the decentralized network. So instead of "buy this thing, plug it in to your house, spend half an hour setting it up...." it's just "Oh, my friend is on a social network that works through Beaker Browser. I installed Beaker to connect with him." And the person's device is then contributing a share of resources to host dat sites (the protocol Beaker supports alongside HTTP) automatically.


kore wrote

I am talking about the physical hardware that facilitates a connection between two machines. as basic as it can get. people need to take control of the infrastructure first.