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The traps of technology: some proposals and reflections

This document is available also in Italian.

Today's technology hides many traps, many pitfalls. Some of them, and perhaps the main ones, are the almost total control operated by Google and Apple in the world of mobile applications, by Google in the publication of videos and in the visibility of content on the web, by Facebook and Twitter as regards what people can discuss. This is a simplification, there are other problems, but these are already very serious. Today there is no content published on the Internet that is not mediated by third parties, i.e. corporations, that act with their free will, often above any law. If the media through which our thoughts travel and the content with which they are expressed are chained and subjected to the whim of the potentates, then our thoughts are not free. If the technology we use is not free, then we are slaves.

Is there anything we can do? I would say yes, if we are willing to change our habits.

1. The mobile applications

Almost all mobile applications are in the hands of Google and Apple, everything goes through their stores, their contracts, their costs. If an app allows its developer to earn money, Google and Apple take 30%. If they don't like an app, they don't publish it. If you develop an app, you don't even own your own code, because you don't know whether Google or Apple changes your code when you publish your app. What's more, these corporations force you to honor contracts that are under U.S. jurisdiction even if you live anywhere else in the world. If Google and Apple abuse their power against you, almost certainly no judge in your country can help you if you live outside the United States. If the software is not patentable in your country and you have no restrictions on the algorithms you can use, Google and Apple will require you to comply with all the restrictions and patents that are in force in the United States.

A possible solution is not to rely on Google and Apple standards, but on web standards: instead of writing an app that will end up in stores, write a web-app based on html5 and javascript, so that it works in any modern browser of any device, and publish it on a server located in your country. In this way, the current jurisdiction will be that of your country and you will not have to prostitute yourself to Google or Apple. On the other hand, those who will use your web-app must be so smart, informed and aware that staying away from Google and Apple stores is a matter of freedom.

In some cases and depending on your goals, it may be useful to decentralize code execution as much as possible: you could allow anyone to download your code and run it on their own server, so that any government abuses to block you will encounter such decentralization. Technically, these apps are called "DApps" (Decentralized Application). An example is DTube, a decentralized platform for publishing videos, "resistant to censorship" and "ads free". It is similar to YouTube, but totally decentralized and therefore free from a central and authoritarian power. Moreover, unlike YouTube, it fully complies with web standards and does not apply strange algorithms to prevent you from downloading videos, on the contrary, downloading videos is very simple.

Logical consequences - 1

For all these reasons, even the use of popular code sharing services, such as Github, has serious limitations on freedom. Microsoft (owner of Github) has imposed limits on developers living in countries around the world that the United States does not like. An alternative solution is to download GitLab code, released under the MIT license, and install it on your own server: that's what I did. Even the use of popular file sharing services like Dropbox or Google Drive has the same problems of privacy and banning at any time: in this case, I downloaded the OwnCloud source code, released under GNU Affero General Public License v.3, and installed it on my own server.

Logical Consequences - 2

The fact that software sources are distributed under the GNU GPL or other free license does not actually offer any guarantee if you have to download the app from a store to use it. The app available in stores may have been altered from the sources. The only guarantee is that you can compile your own code and install your own app, but this is severely restricted by Apple and Google. If the app uses a server, you should also have the server code to install it on your own server. We also don't know what smartphone operating systems (iOS and Android) actually do, as we can't download sources, study them, modify them and use them with our modifications. From this point of view, a web-app is independent from any operating system and from any store: this does not solve all the problems I listed, but at least a part of them.

Objection 1: The presence of my app in Google and Apple stores is essential for my business.

Answer: Would you still be convinced of this if Google and Apple asked you for 90% commission instead of 30%?  Would you still be convinced if Google and Apple asked you to make major changes to your app that would be too expensive for you?  Would you still be convinced if Google and Apple removed your app from stores or, in a more subtle way, severely limited its visibility?
Whenever a despotic and undemocratic power has historically imposed itself, people have believed that collaborating with that power was the only option. If that were true, then Hitler would become the master of the world.
This is primarily a political and economic problem. Today the rules apply that if you're not on Google then you don't exist, if you're not in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and other popular social media, then you don't exist, if your app is not in Google and Apple stores then it doesn't exist, and so on. Yet the alternatives exist, I don't live inside Facebook and yet I exist, just to give an example.
Remember that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and other socials, in a nutshell all the big Internet corporations, at any time can ban you and destroy you.
It would be good and right to make people aware of web standards and why Tim Berners-Lee invented html.

Objection 2: Code secrecy is essential to my business.

No one is forcing you to publish your code and share it with others, do what you want. But know that there are apps that are popular and even recommended by the European Commission to its staff, such as Signal, which are released under the GNU GPL v.3. Signal's source code is available on Github. The organization behind that app, at the time of writing, has some "open roles", i.e. it is looking for developers and is willing to hire them with a decent salary and full time contracts. This is just one example that shows that code secrecy is not the only possible business in the app world.

Let me give you another example. In 2001, Microsoft compared free software, in the sense that Richard Matthew Stallman had been talking about, to cancer. More precisely, these were the words: "Linux is a cancer that attacks itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches". Microsoft's accusation was directed specifically at the GNU GPL license. In 2019, Microsoft invited Stallman to one of its campuses to get advice and explanations. In 2020, Microsoft used Ubuntu, which is a GNU/Linux distribution, to advertise its "Surface Book 3" in a spot starting with "Run Linux on Windows". Over time, even the most resistant to defending the secrecy of code are discovering that free software is a serious alternative to be evaluated.

Objection 3: it took me years to learn how to program for a specific platform (Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, Linux or another), do I have to learn it all over again to make a web-app?

It would be important, from the beginning, to learn programming tools and methods that are as cross-platform as possible. In my personal opinion, the ideal would be to write code that works more or less everywhere. I get this result with Codename One, which is a cross-platform development framework to which I also contribute code, but this is my choice that has its pros and cons, you are free to look for other tools and make other choices.

Objection 4: web-apps are technically more limited than native apps

That's partly true, depending on what you want to do. The limits are imposed mainly by how browsers are implemented and therefore, once again, by the way Google and Apple have made their Chrome and Safari. I don't mention other browsers because, in smartphones, these are almost the only two browsers used. In desktop computers, the only "free" and independent browser, in the sense of not manipulated by a multinational company, is Firefox. In this regard, consider that Apple prohibits the development of any alternative browser to Safari on their iPhones: the fact that for iOS browsers other than Safari are available is a fake to deceive users, developers know well that Apple prohibits them from competing with Safari.
However, what can be done in a cross-platform and cross-browser way with a web-app is very broad. Once again, however, users need to be educated to understand what's wrong with stores.

2. Social media

As I have previously written, today there is no content published on the Internet that is not mediated by third parties, i.e. corporations, that act with their free will, often above any law. In my country, in Italy, Facebook and Youtube are widely used as political communication tools, our head of government and our city mayors communicate with the population through Facebook. Dissident journalists use Youtube and sometimes they are censored. My friends who published my messages on Facebook, copied from my blog, have been banned several times, in other words Facebook closed their profile. These are just small examples, in other countries the situation is worse than in Italy. To this should be added a thousand other problems related to the use of these social networks.

In my opinion, the only real solution is not to use these social networks. If two people or a few people need to exchange messages through technology, they can use email or other private and encrypted messaging tools that are not in the hands of some multinational company. If many people need to communicate through technology, they can pay for a cheap server and install a social platform based on free code, so that this social is under their control. If a politician, an association or a head of state wants to communicate with the rest of the world, they can use the web standards, creating their own website or blog, maybe installed on a server that they can control. All these solutions will not completely protect against abuses of power and human rights violations, but they can mitigate the problem.

But as long as people continue to use Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube as their main media, then they will continue to prostitute themselves to Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and the occult powers that act through them. In the current situation, in my opinion, it would be better to make efforts to meet in person (where there are no cameras and microphones) and not use technology at all to communicate.

3. Search engines

As I have previously written, if a person, association or company does not appear in the first results provided by Google it is as if it did not exist. This gives an idea of Google's tyranny. What we common mortals can do is to mitigate the problem, thanks to decentralization and search through multiple sources. For my personal use and for other Italian-speaking people, I have made available this meta search engine, which runs on a server that is under my control and provides results extrapolated from multiple sources:
This search engine does not spy on users and does not do any of the malicious actions done by Google. I also disabled the logs, so I don't know what people are looking for or who uses my engine. The code is licensed under the "GNU Affero General Public License v3.0": you can download and use it on your own server.
This does not solve censorship problems, but it mitigates them. Also, the fact that data is extrapolated from multiple sources, and usually those taken from Wikipedia are in first place, reduces the effects of Google's abuse of power.
The fact that the code is downloadable and usable on your own server is a guarantee against centralized powers.
On the other hand, there are still many improvements to be made.

4. The operating systems

Windows, Android, iOS and MacOS spy on us all the time. At the moment, most GNU/Linux distributions are the only real alternative to have more control over the technology we use. The problem is that today the majority of computing is done through smartphones and cloud services: on smartphones we can't change the operating system and put GNU/Linux (except in very rare cases) and on cloud services we have no control. Rather than proposing solutions or alternatives, here I simply emphasize that the most urgent issue is to create an awareness of the problem. The IoT (Internet of Things) will be completely out of our control and will continuously violate our rights and freedoms. 5G is at the service of the Internet of Things. I have no solutions or proposals other than to spread the word and help build an awareness of the problem.

Francesco Galgani,
9 June 2020