Independence Day


A few years ago I began the slow process of reducing my dependency on Internet systems and services which I had no control over. This was a response to an increasing amount of “bad behavior” on the part of the companies who owned the services I depended on, and my inability to do anything to alter their course.

It may be hard for some of you to imagine, but there was a time when the web was built on a vast array of independently owned and operated servers. It wasn’t unusual for an individual person (let alone a business, school etc.) to run a small server to provide their email, website, etc. This took a little work, but unless you ran a very popular website it was a small investment in terms of time (and it made you smarter to boot).

Wow, I was just about to launch into an Internet history lesson, and this isn’t the time or place for that.

The key part of that lesson is that we’ve come a long way from the independent, distributed web of the past. Today most of the content and communication on the Internet is mediated by systems owned by a handful of corporations whose only concern is profit. Needless to say, this isn’t in your personal best interest.*

I didn’t want to live on that planet anymore.

So I made a list of the Internet services I depended on and started replacing them with systems I had control over. Some were straightforward (if difficult) like email. When I made the jump it wasn’t hard to setup an email server, but it was hard to set one up that was secure. Now there are open-source projects like Mail-in-a-box which make the process almost automatic.

Other services have been more difficult to replace. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are particularly difficult. Not due to technical reasons, but due to the network effect which keeps the people you want to interact with entangled in them. I made a number of attempts at creating my own alternative platform for these interactions without much luck.

Eventually I came upon Mastodon, which builds a global social network out of a federation of independently-owned-and-operated server nodes. I started using Mastodon by creating an account on a friend’s node, then migrated to another when I joined the co-op which operates a node of their own. Moving from node-to-node is supported by the Mastodon software and it’s fairly painless. So if at some point in the future I don’t like the way the co-op is running its node, I can always fire up one of my own and relocate without loosing the connections I’ve made on the global network.

Yes, there is a cost to running your own services, but it’s lower than you might expect. If you can find a few other pilgrims to share the load, it can be less than the proverbial “cost of a cup of coffee per month”. All told it costs me about $13.00 US per month which I could reduce substantially by recruiting a few more “freedom enthusiasts” to utilize my servers.

At this point almost everything I use daily comes from either a server I control (running open-source software) or a service where I have both input into how it is operated and the ability to leave without consequence. What remains are a handful of conveniences (YouTube, Google Docs, Github, etc.) that I have plans to replace but haven’t quite had the time to change to yet. I’ll admit that I’ve been dragging my feet on these a little.

That brings us to the idea of “Independence Day”.

In order to motivate myself to cut these final threads, I’m going to commit to complete information independence by July 4th, 2018. On this day I will delete any remaining accounts I have on services and systems of which I have no control over. This will force me to take action to preserve any information these systems currently house and replace any service they currently provide with free and independent alternatives, or consign those resources to the big bit bucket in the sky.

By committing to a date, I have something to look forward to when I need to summon the motivation to do the dirty work necessary to achieve this goal.

When I started on this process it seemed it would be almost impossible, or that I would have to sacrifice a lot to be free from the tyranny of these corporations (and in some cases, governments). But by making a list and taking it one-step-at-a-time, I was able to turn a large climb into a series of short hops, and I’ve been able to change course along the way when the path forward wasn’t visible from the base of the mountain. I suppose that’s how all large problems are tackled, but it always amazes me how simple it seems when you reach a milestone such as this and look back at how much ground was covered to get there.

If you’ve considered a similar journey I’d be happy to tell you more about the paths that I’ve walked in detail. In the meantime here’s some links to a few of the open-source projects I’ve used to get this far:

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