Reclaiming Our Digital Sovereignty: The Ins & Outs

by Chris McGivern & Jason Hudson, 10 August 2021

We're beginning the long-overdue process of swapping out our technology from proprietary tools and services to open, distributed and federated alternatives. In the spirit of openness and our desire to model better behaviour, this is where our initial focus lies…

As a small and independent organisation, we have a lot of flexibility regarding the digital architecture we use for our day-to-day operations. But over the years, our choices have been based increasingly around convenience, while accepting the privacy trade-off in the process.

On reflection, this has taken us away from our open source roots and our unshakeable belief in safeguarding the human right of privacy. We are philosophically adamant about the importance of a free and open web. But practically, we’re reliant on services from entities with business models expressly geared towards monopolisation, surveillance capitalism, and private profit. We cannot continue with this disconnect.

With this in mind, one of our most extensive areas of focus is replacing Google’s expansive suite of tools. We are dropping Gmail and moving to ProtonMail, an open source email service that offers exceptional privacy and stops Google from harvesting and using our data for unspecified purposes. It also helps us meet our obligations to be GDPR-compliant and addresses our concerns about the potential complications of using a Gmail account as a European entity.

It’s goodbye to Google Suite, too. Nextcloud is a self-hosted productivity platform, and our open source replacement for everything Google Drive has to offer and a lot more besides. We are moving our calendars to the service, too, and Nextcloud means we no longer require Dropbox or the commercial note-taking apps we use with great regularity.

Our website coding is also striking out for pastures new. Like many others, we were saddened by Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition in 2018 but have stuck with it for convenience. GitHub is a renowned second home for programmers and an incredible curation of open source code and projects, but Microsoft’s presence is both unwelcome and concerning. Now feels like the perfect time to look elsewhere, so we are leaving GitHub and sharing the code for our websites and any other pieces of software or content we create via our own instance of GitLab.

Our last significant shift - for the moment - is to move to open source web hosting. We’re handing over the reins to Cloud68, a collective from Albania who are former Flash Grant recipients and kindred spirits who share our dedication to openness, ethics, and the commons. They are members of the librehosting network and have been influential in our decision and incredibly helpful in making this entire process a reality.

This is only the beginning of our mission, and large parts of our infrastructure will still rely on proprietary software for the moment. As our recent experiment with the open source Mattermost didn’t work out as we hoped, we communicate internally with Slack. We video call with Zoom and will still be using services like DocuSign and FormStack as there are no open alternatives of their kind that meet all of our immediate needs.

And despite our best intentions, there will be no complete escape from the far-reaching presence of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple from our lives. Technology’s ‘big five’ are so omnipresent in the world’s digital infrastructure and the web - for many people in developing countries, Facebook is the web - and the best we can do is limit our exposure as much as possible. Our hope is that through solidarity with open services, we can use our position to champion values of cooperation and openness and encourage others to embrace distributed platforms and a culture of decentralisation.

A better world is possible, but we must all do our bit to make it happen. If you care about ethics, privacy, ownership and your online freedom, we urge you to join us: with every deliberate movement towards open source, more people will contribute to the ecosystem and improve it. And it becomes easier for others to do the same.

Take control of your data and infrastructure: contact Cloud68

Find privacy-conscious, open source alternatives to popular software: Switching.Software

Tell us your story: #ReclaimingDigitalSovereignty

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