Category Archives: Online Life

Recovering Our Lost Free Will Online: Tools and Techniques That Are Available Now

As I’ve been thinking and writing about privacy and decentralization lately, I had a conversation with a colleague this week, and he commented about how loss of privacy is related to loss of agency: that is, loss of our ability to make our own choices, pursue our own interests, and be master of our own attention.

In terms of telecommunications, we have never really been free, though in terms of Internet and its predecessors, there have been times where we had a lot more choice. Many are too young to remember this, and for others, that era is a distant memory.

The irony is that our present moment is one of enormous consolidation of power, and yet also one of a proliferation of technologies that let us wrest back some of that power. In this post, I hope to enlighten or remind us of some of the choices we have lost — and also talk about the ways in which we can choose to regain them, already, right now.

I will talk about the possibilities, the big dreams that are possible now, and then go into more detail about the solutions.

The Problems & Possibilities

The limitations of “online”

We make the assumption that we must be “online” to exchange data. This is reinforced by many “modern” protocols; Twitter clients, for instance, don’t tend to let you make posts by relaying them through disconnected devices.

What would it be like if you could fully participate in global communities without a constant Internet connection? If you could share photos with your friends, read the news, read your email, etc. even if you don’t have a connection at present? Even if the device you use to do that never has a connection, but can route messages via other devices that do?

Would it surprise you to learn that this was once the case? Back in the days of UUCP, much email and Usenet news — a global discussion forum that didn’t require an Internet connection — was relayed via occasional calls over phone lines. This technology remains with us, and has even improved.

Sadly, many modern protocols make no effort in this regard. Some email clients will let you compose messages offline to send when you get online later, but the assumption always is that you will be connected to an IP network again soon.

NNCP, on the other hand, lets you relay messages over TCP, a radio, a satellite, or a USB stick. Email and Usenet, since they were designed in an era where store-and-forward was valued, can actually still be used in an entirely “offline” fashion (without ever touching an IP-based network). All it takes is for someone to care to make it happen. You can even still do it over UUCP if you like.

The physical and data link layers

Many of us just accept that we communicate in a few ways: Wifi for short distances, and then cable modems or DSL for our local Internet connection, and then many people are fuzzy about what happens after that. Or, alternatively, we have 4G phones that are the local Internet connection, and the same “fuzzy” things happen after.

Think about this for a moment. Which of these do you control in any way? Sometimes just wifi, sometimes maybe you have choices of local Internet providers. After that, your traffic is handled by enormous infrastructure companies.

There is choice here.

People in ham radio have been communicating digitally over long distances without the support of the traditional Internet for decades, but the technology to do this is now more accessible to anyone. Long-distance radio has had tremendous innovation in the last decade; cheap radios can now communicate over several miles/km without any other infrastructure at all. We all carry around radios (Wifi and Bluetooth) in our pockets that don’t have to be used as mere access points to the Internet or as drivers of headphones, but can also form their own networks directly (Briar).

Meshtastic is an example; it’s an instant messenger that can form a mesh over many miles/km and requires no IP infrastructure at all. Briar is similar. XBee radios form a mesh in hardware, allowing peers to reach each other (also over many miles/km) with a serial or framed protocol.

Loss of peer-to-peer

Back in the late 90s, I worked at a university. I had a 386 on my desk for a workstation – not a powerful computer even then. But I put the boa webserver on it and could just serve pages on the Internet. I didn’t have to get permission. Didn’t have to pay a hosting provider. I could just DO it.

And of course that is because the university had no firewall and no NAT. Every PC at the university was a full participant on the Internet as much as the servers at Microsoft or DEC. All I needed was a DNS entry. I could run my own SMTP server if I wanted, run a web or Gopher server, and that was that.

There are many reasons why this changed. Nowadays most residential ISPs will block SMTP for their customers, and if they didn’t, others would; large email providers have decided not to federate with IPs in residential address spaces. Most people have difficulty even getting a static IP address in the first place. Many are behind firewalls, NATs, or both, meaning that incoming connections of any kind are problematic.

Do you see what that means? It has weakened the whole point of the Internet being a network of peers. While IP still acts that way, as a practical matter, there are clients that are prevented from being servers by administrative policy they have no control over.

Imagine if you, a person with an Internet connection to your laptop or phone, could just decide to host a website, or a forum on it. For moderate levels of load, they are certainly capable of this. The only thing in the way is the network management policies you can’t control.

Elaborate technologies exist to try to bridge this divide, and some, like Tor or cjdns, can work quite well. More on this below.

Expense of running something popular

Related to the loss of peer-to-peer infrastructure is the very high cost of hosting something popular. Do you want to share videos with lots of people? That almost certainly is going to require expensive equipment and bandwidth.

There is a reason that there are only a small handful of popular video streaming sites online. It requires a ton of money to host videos at scale.

What if it didn’t? What if you could achieve economies of scale so much that you, an individual, could compete with the likes of YouTube? You wouldn’t necessarily have to run ads to support the service. You wouldn’t have to have billions of dollars or billions of viewers just to make it work.

This technology exists right now. Of course many of you are aware of how Bittorrent leverages the swarm for files. But projects like IPFS, Dat, and Peertube have taken this many steps further to integrate it into a global ecosystem. And, at least in the case of Peertube, this is a thing that works right now in any browser already!

Application-level “walled gardens”

I was recently startled at how much excitement there was when Github introduced “dark mode”. Yes, Github now offers two colors on its interface. Already back in the 80s and 90s, many DOS programs had more options than that.

Git is a decentralized protocol, but Github has managed to make it centralized.

Email is a decentralized protocol — pick your own provider, and they all communicate — but Facebook and Twitter aren’t. You can’t just pick your provider for Facebook. It’s Facebook or nothing.

There is a profit motive in locking others out; these networks want to keep you using their platforms because their real customers are advertisers, and they want to keep showing you ads.

Is it possible to have a world where you get to pick your own app for sharing photos, and it works even if your parents use a different one? Yes, yes it is.

Mastodon and the Fediverse are fantastic examples for social media. Pixelfed is specifically designed for photos, Mastodon for short-form communication, there’s Pleroma for more long-form communication, and they all work together. You can use Mastodon to read Pleroma content or look at Pixelfed photos, and there are many (free) providers of each.

Freedom from manipulation

I recently wrote about the dangers of the attention economy, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. Fundamentally, you are not the customer of Facebook or Google; advertisers are. They optimize their site to keep you on it as much as possible so that they can show you as many ads as possible which makes them as much money as possible. Ads, of course, are fundamentally seeking to manipulate your behavior (“buy this product”).

By lowering the cost of running services, we can give a huge boost to hobbyists and nonprofits that want to do so without an ultimate profit motive. For-profit companies benefit also, with a dramatically reduced cost structure that frees them to pursue their mission instead of so many ads.

Freedom from snooping (privacy and anonymity)

These days, it’s not just government snooping that people think about. It’s data stolen by malware, spies at corporations (whether human or algorithmic), and even things like basic privacy of one’s own security footage. Here the picture is improving; encryption in transit, at least at a basic level, has become much more common with TLS being a standard these days. Sadly, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is not nearly as much, perhaps because corporations have a profit motive to have access to your plaintext and metadata.

Closely related to privacy is anonymity: that is, being able to do things in an anonymous fashion. The two are not necessarily equal: you could send an encrypted message but reveal who the correspondents are, as with email; or, you could send a plaintext message over a Tor exit node that hides who the correspondents are. It is sometimes difficult to achieve both.

Nevertheless, numerous answers exist here that tackle one or both problems, from the Signal messenger to Tor.

Solutions That Exist Today

Let’s dive in to some of the things that exist today.

One concept you’ll see in many of these is integrated encryption with public keys used for addressing. In other words, your public key is akin to an IP address (and in some cases, is literally your IP address.)

Data link and networking technologies (some including P2P)

  • Starting with the low-power and long-distance technologies, I’ve written quite a bit about LoRA, which are low-power long-distance radios. They can easily achieve several miles/km while still using much less than 1W of power. LoRA is a common building block of mesh off-the-grid messenger systems such as meshtastic, which forms an ad-hoc mesh of LoRA devices with days-long battery life and miles-long communication abilities. LoRA trades speed for bandwidth; in its longest-distance modes, it may operate at 300bps or less. That is not a typo. Some LoRAWAN devices have battery life measured in years (usually one-way sensors and such). Also, the Pine64 folks are working to integrate LoRA on nearly all their product line, which includes single-board computers, phones, and laptops.
  • Similar to LoRA is XBee SX from Digi. While not quite as long-distance as LoRA, it does still do quite a bit with low power and also goes many miles. XBee modules have automatic mesh routing in firmware, and can be used in either frame mode or “serial cable emulation” mode in which they act as if they’re a serial cable. Unlike plain LoRA, XBee radios do hardware retransmit. They also run faster, at up to about 150Kbps – though that is still a lot slower than wifi.
  • I’ve written about secure mesh messengers recently. One of them, Briar, particularly stands out in that it is able to form an ad-hoc mesh using phone’s Bluetooth radios. It can also route messages over the public Internet, which it does exclusively using Tor.
  • I’ve also written a lot about NNCP, the sort of modernized UUCP. NNCP is completely different than the others here in that it is a store-and-forward network – sort of a modern UUCP. NNCP has easy built-in support for routing packets using USB drives, clean serial interfaces, TCP, basically anything you can pipe to, even broadcast satellite and such. And you don’t even have to pick one; you can use all of the above: Internet when it’s available, USB sticks or portable hard drives when not, etc. It uses Tor-line onion routing with E2EE. You’re not going to run TCP over NNCP, but files (including videos), backups, email, even remote execution are all possible. It is the most “Unixy” of the modern delay-tolerant networks and makes an excellent choice for a number of use cases where store-and-forward and extreme flexibility in transportation make a lot of sense.
  • Moving now into the range of speeds and technologies we’re more used to, there is a lot of material out there on building mesh networks on Wifi or Wifi-adjacent technology. Amateur radio operators have been active in this area for years, and even if you aren’t a licensed ham and don’t necessarily flash amateur radio firmware onto your access points, a lot of the ideas and concepts they cover could be of interest. For instance, the Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network covers both permanent and ad-hoc meshs, and this AREDN video covers device selection for AREDN — which also happens to be devices that would be useful for quite a few other mesh or long-distance point-to-point setups.
  • Once you have a physical link of some sort, cjdns and the Hyperboria network have the goals of literally replacing the Internet – but are fully functional immediately. cjdns assigns each node an IPv6 address based on its public key. The network uses DHT for routing between nodes. It can run directly atop Ethernet (and Wifi) as its own native protocol, without an IP stack underneath. It can also run as a layer atop the current Internet. And it can optionally be configured to let nodes find an exit node to reach the current public Internet, which they can do opportunistically if given permission. All traffic is E2EE. One can run an isolated network, or join the global Hyperboria network. The idea is that local meshes could be formed, and then geographically distant meshes can be linked together by simply using the current public Internet as a dumb transport. This, actually, strongly resembles the early days of Internet buildout under NSFNet. The Torento Mesh is a prominent user of cjdns, and they publish quite a bit of information online. cjdns as a standalone identity is in decline, but forms the basis of the pkt network, which is designed to foster an explosion in WISPs.
  • Similar in concept to cjdns is Yggdrasil, which uses a different routing algorithm. It is now more active than cjdns and has active participants and developers.
  • Althea is a startup in this space, hoping to encourage communities to build meshes whose purpose is to provide various routes to access to the traditional Internet, including digital currency micropayments. This story documents how one rural community is using it.
  • Tor is a somewhat interesting case. While it doesn’t provide kernel-level routing, it does provide a SOCKS5 proxy. Traditionally, Tor is used to achieve anonymity while browsing the public Internet via an exit node. However, you can stay entirely in-network by using onion services (basically ports that are open to Tor). All Tor traffic is onion-routed so that the originating IP cannot be discovered. Data within Tor is E2EE, though if you are using an exit node to the public Internet, that of course can’t apply there.
  • GNUnet is a large suite of tools for P2P communication. It includes file downloading, Tor-like IP over the network, a DNS replacement, and facilitates quite a few of the goals discussed here. (Added in a 2021-02-22 update)

P2P Infrastructure

While some of the technologies above, such as cjdns, explicitly facitilitate peer-to-peer communication, there are some other application-level technologies to look at.

  • IPFS has been having a lot of buzz lately, since the Brave browser integrated support. IPFS headlines as “powers the distributed web”, but it is actually more than that; various other apps layer atop it. The core idea is that content you request gets reshared by your node for some period of time, somewhat akin to Bittorrent. IPFS runs atop the regular Internet and is typically accessed through an app.
  • The Dat Protocol is somewhat similar in concept to IPFS, though the approach is somewhat different; it emphasizes efficient distribution of updates at the expense of requiring a git-like history.
  • IPFS itself is based on libp2p, which is designed to be a generic infrastructure for adding P2P capabilities to your own code. It is probably fair to say libp2p is still quite complex compared to ordinary TCP, and the language support is in its infancy, but nevertheless it is quite an exciting development to watch.
  • Of course almost all of us are familiar with Bittorrent, the software that first popularized the idea of a distributed mesh sharing knowledge about which chunks of a dataset they have in order to maximize the efficiency of distributing the whole thing. Bittorrent is still in wide use (and, despite its reputation, that wide use includes legitimate users such as archive.org and Debian).
  • I recently wrote about building a delay-tolerant offline-capable mesh with Syncthing. Syncthing, on its surface, is something like an open source Dropbox. But look into a bit and you realize it’s fully P2P, serverless, can support various network topologies including intermittent connectivity between network parts, and such. My article dives into that in more detail. If your needs are mostly related to files, Syncthing can make a fine mesh infrastructure that is auto-healing and is equally at home on the public Internet, a local wifi access point with no Internet at all, a private mesh like cjdns, etc.
  • Also showing some promise is Secure Scuttlebutt (SSB). Its most well-known application is a social network, but in my opinion some of the other applications atop SSB are more interesting. SSB is designed to be offline-friendly, can do things like automatically exchange data with peers on the same Wifi (eg, a coffee shop), etc., though it is an append-only log that can be unwieldy on mobile sometimes.

Instant Messengers and Chat

I won’t go into a lot of detail here since I recently wrote a roundup of secure mesh messengers and also a followup article about Signal and some hidden drawbacks of P2P. Please refer to those articles for some interesting things that are happening in this space.

Matrix is a distributed IM platform similar in concept to Slack or IRC, but globally distributed in a mesh. It supports optional E2EE.

Social Media

I wrote recently about how to join the Fediverse, which covered joining Mastodon, a federeated, decentralized social network. Mastodon is the largest of these, with several million users, and is something of a much nicer version of Twitter.

Mastodon is also part of what is known as the “Fediverse”, which are applications that are loosely joined together by their support of the ActivityPub protocol. Other popular Fediverse applications include Pixelfed (similar to Instagram) and Peertube for sharing video. Peertube is particularly interesting in that it supports Webtorrent for efficiently distributing popular videos. Webtorrent is akin to Bittorrent running efficiently inside your browser.

Concluding Remarks

Part of my goal with this is encouraging people to dream big, to ask questions like:

What could you do if offline were easy?

What is possible if you have freedom in the physical and data link layers? Dream big.

We’re so used to thinking that it’s quite difficult for two devices on the Internet to talk to each other. What would be possible if this were actually quite easy?

The assumption that costs rise dramatically as popularity increases is also baked into our thought processes. What if that weren’t the case — could you take on Youtube from your garage? Would lowering barriers to entry lower the ad economy and let nonprofits have more equal footing with large corporations?

We have so many walled gardens, from Github to Facebook, that we almost forget it doesn’t have to be that way.

So having asked these questions, my secondary point is to suggest that these aren’t pie-in-the-sky notions. These possibilites are with us right now.

You’ll notice from this list that virtually every one of these technologies is ad-free at its heart (though some would be capable of serving ads). They give you back your attention. Many preserve privacy, anonymity, or both. Many dramatically improve your freedom of association and communication. Technologies like IPFS and Bittorrent ease the burden of running something popular.

Some are quite easy to use (Mastodon or Peertube) while others are much more complex (libp2p or the lower-level mesh network systems).

Clearly there is still room for improvement in many areas.

But my fundamental point is this: good technology is here, right now. Technical people can vote with their feet and wallets and start using it. Early adopters will help guide the way for the next set of improvements. Join us!

The Hidden Drawbacks of P2P (And a Defense of Signal)

Not long ago, I posted a roundup of secure messengers with off-the-grid capabilities. Some conversation followed, which led me to consider some of the problems with P2P protocols.

P2P and Privacy

Brave adopting IPFS has driven a lot of buzz lately. IPFS is essentially a decentralized, distributed web. This concept has a lot of promise. But take a look at the IPFS privacy document. Some things to highlight:

  • “Nodes announce a variety of information essential to the DHT’s function — including their unique node identifiers (PeerIDs) and the CIDs of data that they’re providing — and because of this, information about which nodes are retrieving and/or reproviding which CIDs is publicly available.”
  • “those DHT queries happen in public. Because of this, it’s possible that third parties could be monitoring this traffic to determine what CIDs are being requested, when, and by whom.”
  • “nodes’ unique identifiers are themselves public…your PeerID is still a long-lived, unique identifier for your node. Keep in mind that it’s possible to do a DHT lookup on your PeerID and, particularly if your node is regularly running from the same location (like your home), find your IP address…Additionally, longer-term monitoring of the public IPFS network could yield information about what CIDs your node is requesting and/or reproviding and when.”

So in this case, you have traded giving information about what you request to specific sites to giving it to potentially hundreds of untrusted peers, some of which may be logging this for nefarious purposes. Worse, you have a durable PeerID that can be used for tracking and tied to your IP address — a data collector’s dream. This PeerID, combined with DHT requests and the CIDs (Content ID) of the things you host (implying you viewed them in the past), can be used to establish a picture of what you are requesting now and requested recently.

Similar can be said from everything like Scuttlebutt to GNU Jami; any service that operates on a P2P basis will likely reveal your IP, and tie your identity to it (and your IP address history). In some cases, as with Jami, this would be limited to friends you add; in others, as with Scuttlebutt and IPFS, it could be revealed to anyone.

The advantages of P2P are undeniable and profound, but few are effectively addressing the privacy implications. The one I know of that is, Briar, routes all traffic over Tor; every node is reached by a Tor onion service.

Federation: somewhat better

In a federated model, every client connects to a server, and there are many servers participating in a federation with each other. Matrix and Mastodon are examples of a federated model. In this scenario, only one server — your own homeserver — can track you by IP. End-to-end encryption is certainly possible in a federated model, and Matrix supports it. This does give a third party (the specific server you use) knowledge of your IP, but that knowledge can be significantly limited.

A downside of this approach is that if your particular homeserver is down, you are unable to communicate. Truly decentralized P2P solutions don’t have that problem — thought they do have a related one, which is that clients communicating with each other must both be online simultaneously in order for messages to be transmitted, and this can be a real challenge for mobile devices.

Centralization and Signal

Signal is centralized; it has one central server farm, and if it is down, you can’t communicate or choose any other server, either. We saw it go down recently after Elon Musk mentioned it.

Still, I recommend Signal for the general public. Here’s why.

Signal brings encryption and privacy to meet people where they’re at, not the other way around. People don’t have to choose a server, it can automatically recognize contacts that use Signal, it has emojis, attachments, secure voice and video calling, and (aside from the Musk incident), it all just works. It feels like, and is, a polished, modern experience with the bells and whistles people are used to.

I’m a huge fan of Matrix (aka Element) and even run my own instance. It has huge promise. But it is Not. There. Yet. Why do I saw this about Matrix?

  • Synapse, the only currently viable Matrix server, is not ready. My Matrix instance hosts ONE person, me. Synapse uses many GB of RAM and 10+GB of disk space. Despite extensive tuning, nothing helped much. It’s caused OOMs more than once. It can’t be hosted on a Raspberry Pi or even one of the cheaper VPSs.
  • Now then, how about choosing a Matrix instance? Well, you could just tell a person to use matrix.org. But then it spent a good portion of last year unable to federate with other popular nodes due to Synapse limitations. Or you could pick a random node, but will it be up when someone needs to say “my car broke down?” Some are run from a dorm computer, some by a team in a datacenter, some by one person with EC2, and you can’t really know. Will your homeserver be stable and long-lived? Hard to say.
  • Voice and video calling are not there yet in Matrix. Matrix has two incompatible video calling methods (Jitsi and built-in), neither work consistently well, both are hard to manage, and both have NAT challenges.
  • Matrix is so hard to set up on a server that there is matrix-docker-ansible-deploy. This makes it much better, but it is STILL terribly hard to deploy, and very simple things like “how do I delete a user” or “let me shrink down this 30GB database” are barely there yet, if at all.
  • Encryption isn’t mandatory in Matrix. E2EE has been getting dramatically better in the last few releases, but it is still optional, especially for what people would call “group chats” (rooms). Signal is ALWAYS encrypted. Always. (Unless, I guess, you set it as your SMS provider on Android). You’ve got to take the responsibility off the user to verify encryption status, and instead make it the one and only way to use the ecosystem.

Again, I love MAtrix. I use it every day to interact with Matrix, IRC, Slack, and Discord channels. It has a ton of promise. But would I count on it to carry a “my car’s broken down and I’m stranded” message? No.

How about some of the other options out there? I mentioned Briar above. It’s fantastic and its offline options are novel and promising. But in common usage, it can’t deliver a message unless both devices are online simultaneously, and doesn’t run on iOS (though both are being worked on). It also can’t send photos or do voice or video calling.

Some of these same limitations apply to most of the other Signal alternatives also. either that, or they are encryption-optional, or terribly hard to set up and use. I recently mentioned Status, which shows a ton of promise, but has no voice or video calling capabilities. Scuttlebutt is a fantastic protocol with extremely difficult onboarding (lengthy process, error-prone finding a pub, multi-GB initial download, etc.) And many of these leak IP addresses as discussed above.

So Signal gives people:

  • Dead-simple setup
  • Store-and-forward delivery (devices need not be online simultaneously)
  • Encrypted everything, including voice and video calls, and the ability to send photos and video encrypted

If you are going to tell someone, “it’s so EASY to get your texts away from Facebook and AT&T”, then Signal is the thing you’ve got to point them to. It may not be in two years, but for now, it is. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It advances the status quo without harming usability, which nothing else does yet.

I am aware of all of the very legitimate criticisms of Signal. They are real and they are why I am excited that there are so many alternatives with promise, some of which I use actively. Let us technical people use, debug, contribute to, and evangelize the alternatives.

And while we’re doing that, tell Grandma to contact us on Signal.

Non-Creepy Technology Purchasing & Gifting Guides

This time of year, a lot of people are thinking of buying gadgets and phones as gifts. But there are a lot of tech companies that have unethical practices, from terrible working conditions in their factories to spying on their users. Here are some buying guides to help you find gadgets that are fun – and not creepy.

The Free Software Foundation’s Ethical Tech Giving Guide is a fantastic resource from what’s probably the pickiest organization out there when it comes to tech. Not only do they highlight good devices, they also explain why and why you should, for instance, avoid the iPhone (their history of silencing political activists and spying on users).

The FSF also has a Guide to DRM-Free Living talks about books, video, audio, and software that respects your freedom by letting you make your own backups, move it to other devices, and continue to use your purchases even if you have no Internet or the company you bought them from goes bankrupt. This is a fantastic and HUGE resource; there are hundreds of organizations out there that provide content in a way that respects your rights — and many of them do it for free, legally, as well.

PrivacyTools has a fantastic series of guides on everything from email providers to operating systems, as well as links to a number of other guides.

The DeGoogle wiki on Reddit (as well as the sidebar) has a lot of fantastic alternatives to things like Chromebooks, Chrome, Gmail, etc.

Related resources

Here are some resources for education (what the issues are) and information about what companies and products to avoid.

In addition to the FSF’s other fantastic resources above, they also have a list of proprietary malware. It lists things, practices, and companies to avoid, and talks about the reasons why. Their addictions page is particularly good and relevant to my recent post on the problems of the attention economy.

The Surveillance Self-Defense site from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a fantastic introduction into how corporate surveillance works and how to defend against it.

Use with a grain of salt:

Mozilla, the people behind Firefox, have a site called Privacy Not Included that rates products by how “creepy” they are. They focus more narrowly on privacy than the more expansive set of freedoms the FSF considers (privacy is one of a number of things the FSF looks at), and in some cases I would say Mozilla is too generous (eg, with the Amazon Kindle, a number of their data points are just incorrect.)

How To Join the Fediverse and Cast Off the Attention Economy

In a recent post, I wrote about how the attention economy in use at big social networks hurts you.

In this post, I’m going to suggest what to do about it.

Mastodon and the Fediverse

When you use email, you can send a message from an account at Google to one at Yahoo, Microsoft, or any of millions of businesses and organizations running their own mail server. Unlike, say, Facebook, email isn’t a single service, but rather a whole bunch of independent systems that can communicate (or federate) with each other.

The Fediverse is similar, and the most advanced Fediverse client is Mastodon.

Mastodon:

  • Lets you easily migrate your account from one Mastodon instance to another, similar to how you can migrate a phone number from one carrier to another
  • Lets you communicate with users across the Fediverse (other Mastodon instances, and those running other software too)
  • Supports very high-quality conversations through sensible moderation controls

It’s easy to get started! Head over to joinmastodon.org and click “Get Started”. Pick a community — don’t worry, this isn’t a hugely consequential decision, as you can always move or change later. You can browse activity from across the Fediverse, or just on your local community, so if you find a community with similar interests, it can be a neat way to find others to follow.

If you’re looking for more details, mastodon.help has a nice guide.

Defeating the Attention Economy

So, why does Mastodon make a difference?

First of all, you get to pick your host (and even software). With Twitter, you pretty much are using Twitter (yes, I know of things like Hootsuite, but for the vast majority of people, it’s twitter.com only). With Mastodon, you have choice. Pick the host that runs the software and has the kind of moderation you like.

Secondly, Mastodon is not for profit. There is no money to be made in keeping you on the site. Almost all Mastodon instances are ad-free. And Mastodon’s completely open protocols make it easy to go elsewhere if you like.

It’s Not Just Mastodon!

There are plenty of other programs in the Fediverse. And, this is really key, they all interact with each other. You can share photos in Pixelfed (sort of like a federated Instagram) and see them and comment in Mastodon! Some things to point out:

And there are many others.

This blog, for instance, runs WordPress and uses an ActivityPub connector; comments from the Fediverse integrate here.

Find me in the Fediverse

You can look me up: just type in @jgoerzen@floss.social in the search box of any Mastodon instance and click Follow. You can also follow this blog at @jgoerzen@changelog.complete.org.

How the Attention Economy Hurts You via Social Media Sites like Facebook

There is a whole science to manipulating our attention. And because there is a lot of money to be made by doing this well, it means we all encounter attempts to manipulate what we pay attention to each day. What is this, and how is it harmful? This post will be the first on a series on the topic.

Why is attention so important?

When people use Facebook, they use it for free. Facebook generally doesn’t even try to sell them anything, yet has billions in revenues. What, then, is Facebook’s product?

Well, really, it’s you. Or, more specifically, your attention. Facebook sells your attention to advertisers. Everything they do is in service to that. They want you to spend more time on the site so they can show you more ads.

(I should say here that I’m using Facebook as an example, but this applies to other social media companies too.)

Seeking to maximize attention

So if your attention is so important to their profit, it follows naturally that they would seek ways to get people to spend more time on their site. And they do. They track all sorts of metrics, including “engagement” (if you click “like”, comment, share, or otherwise interact with content). They know which sorts of things are likely to capture your (and I mean you in specific!) attention and show you that. Your neighbor may have different interests and Facebook judges different things are likely to capture their attention.

Manipulating your attention

Attention turning into money isn’t unique for social media. In fact, in the article If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today writes:

In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.

You’ve probably seen fear-based messages a lot on Facebook. They will highlight messages to liberals about being afraid of what Trump is doing, and to conservatives about being afraid of what Biden is doing. They may or may not even intentionally be doing this; it is their algorithm predicts that those would maximize time and engagement for certain people, so that’s what they see.

Fear leads to controversy

It’s not just fear, though. Social media also loves controversy. There’s nothing that makes people really want to stay on Facebook like anger. See something controversial and you’ll see hundreds or thousands of people are there arguing about it — and in the process, giving Facebook their attention. A quick Internet search will show you numerous articles on how marketing companes can leverage controvery to get attention and engagement with their campaigns.

Consequences of maximizing fear and controversy

What does it mean to society at large — and to you personally — that large companies make a lot of money by maximizing fear and controversy?

The most obvious way is it leads to less common ground. If the posts and reactions that show common ground are never seen because they don’t drive engagement, it poisons the well; left and right hate each other with ever more vigor — a profitable outcome to Facebook, but a poisonous one to all of us.

I have had several friendships lost because I — a liberal in agreement with these friends on political matters — still talk to Trump voters. On the other side, we’ve seen people storm the Michigan statehouse with weapons. How did that level of disagreement — and even fear behind it — get so firmly embedded in our society? Surely the fact that social media shows us things designed to stimulate fear and anger must play a role.

What does it do to our ability to have empathy for, and understand, others? The Facebook groups I’ve been in for like-minded people have largely been flooded with memes calling the President “rump” and other things clearly designed to make people angry or fearful. It’s a worthless experience, and not just that, but it’s a harmful experience.

When our major media — TV and social networks — all are optimizing for fear, anger, and controvesry, we have a society beholden to fear, anger, and controvesy.

In my next installment, I’m going to talk about what to do about this, including the decentralized social networks of the Fediverse that are specifically designed to put you back in charge of your attention.

Update 2020-12-16: There are two followup articles for this: how to join the Fediverse and non-creepy technology purchasing and gifting guides. The latter references the FSF’s page on software manipulation towards addiction, which is particularly relevant to this topic.

Review of Secure, Privacy-Respecting Email Services

I’ve been hosting my own email for several decades now. Even before I had access to a dedicated Internet link, I had email via dialup UUCP (and, before that, a FidoNet gateway).

But self-hosting email is becoming increasingly difficult. The time required to maintain spam and virus filters, SPF/DKIM settings, etc. just grows. The importance of email also is increasing. Although my own email has been extremely reliable, it is still running on a single server somewhere and therefore I could stand to have a lot of trouble if it went down while I was unable to fix it

Email with Pretty Good Privacy & Security

(Yes, this heading is a pun.)

There’s a lot of important stuff linked to emails. Family photos. Password resets for banks, social media sites, chat sites, photo storage sites, etc. Shopping histories. In a lot of cases, if your email was compromised, it wouldn’t be all that hard to next compromise your bank account, buy stuff with your Amazon account, hijack your Netflix, etc. There are lots of good resources about why privacy matters; here’s one informative video even if you think you have “nothing to hide”.

There is often a tradeoff between security and usability. A very secure system would be airgapped; you’d always compose your messages and use your secret keys on a system that has no Internet access and never will. Such a system would be quite secure, but not particularly usable.

On the other end of the spectrum are services such as Gmail, which not only make your email available to you, but also to all sorts of other systems within the service that aim to learn about your habits so they can sell this information to advertisers.

This post is about the services in the middle – ones that are usable, can be easily used on mobile devices, and yet make a serious and credible effort to provide better security and privacy than the “big services” run by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Some elements of trust are inherent here; for instance, that the description of the technical nuances of the provider’s services are accurate. (Elements of trust are present in any system; whether your firmware, binaries, etc. are trustworthy.) I used the list at Privacy Tools as a guide to what providers to investigate, supplemented by searches and NoMoreGoogle.

It so happens that most of these services integrate PGP in some way. PGP has long been one of the better ways to have secure communication via email, but it is not always easy for beginners to use. These services make it transparent to a certain degree. None of them are as good as a dedicated client on an airgapped machine, but then again, such a setup isn’t very practical for everyday use. These services give you something better — pretty good, even — but of course not perfect. All of these pay at least lip service to Open Source, some of them actually publishing source for some of their components, but none are fully open.

I pay particular attention to how they handle exchanges with people that do not have PGP, as this kind of communication constitutes the vast majority of my email.

A final comment – if what you really need is an easy and secure way to communicate with one or two people, email itself may not be the right option. Consider Signal.

Protonmail

Protonmail is, in many ways, the gold standard of privacy-respecting email. Every email is stored encrypted in a way that even they can’t see, being decrypted on the client side (using a Javascript PGP implementation or other clients). They definitely seem to be pushing the envelope for security and privacy; they keep no IP logs, don’t require any personal information to set up an account, and go into quite a lot of detail about how your keys are protected.

A side effect of this is that you can’t just access your email with any mail reader. Since the decryption is done on the client side, you pretty much have to use a Protonmail client. They provide clients for iOS and Android, the Web interface, and a “bridge” that exposes IMAP and SMTP ports to localhost and lets you connect a traditional mail client to the system. The bridge, in this case, handles the decryption for you. The bridge works really well and supports Windows, Mac, and Linux, though it is closed source. (The source for the Linux bridge has been “coming soon” for awhile now.) Protonmail provides very good support for bringing your own domain, and in my testing this worked flawlessly. It supports Sieve-based filters, which can also act on envelope recipients (yes!) The web interface is sleek, very well done, tightly integrated, and just generally exceptionally easy to use and just works.

Unfortunately, the mobile clients get the job done for only light use. My opinion: they’re bad. Really bad. For instance:

  • There’s no way to change the sort order on a mail folder
  • The Android client has an option to automatically download all message bodies. The iOS client lacks this option, but no matter; it doesn’t work on Android anyhow.
  • They’re almost completely unusable offline. You can compose a brand new message but that’s it.

There are some other drawbacks. For one, they don’t actually encrypt mail metadata, headers, or subject lines (though this is common to all of the solutions here, Protonmail’s marketing glosses over this). They also seem to have a lot of problems with overly-aggressive systems blocking people’s accounts: here’s a report from 2017, and I’ve seen more recent ones from people that had paid, but then had the account disabled. Apparently protonmail is used by scammers a fair bit and this is a side-effect of offering free, highly secure accounts – some of their deactivations have been legitimate. Nevertheless, it makes me nervous, especially given the high number of reports of this on reddit.

Unfortunately, Proton seems more focused on new products than on fixing these issues. They’ve been long-simmering in the community but what they talk about is more about their upcoming new products.

Protonmail’s terms of service include both a disclaimer that it’s as-is and an SLA, as well as an indemnification clause. Update 2019-03-04: Protonmail’s privacy policy states they use Matomo analytics, that they don’t record your login IP address by default (but IP logs might be kept if you enable it or if they suspect spamming, etc), collect mobile app analytics, IP addresses on incoming messages, etc. Data is retained “indefinitely” for active accounts and for 14 days after account deletion for closed accounts.

Support: email ticket only

Pricing: $4/mo if paid annually; includes 5GB storage, 5 aliases, and 1 custom domain

Location: Switzerland

MFA: TOTP only

Plus address extensions: yes

Transparency report: yes

Mailfence

Mailfence is often mentioned in the same sentence as ProtonMail. They also aim to be a privacy-respecting, secure email solution.

While it is quite possible they use something like LUKS to encrypt data at rest (safeguarding it from a stolen hard drive), unlike ProtonMail, Mailfence does have access to the full content of any plaintext messages sent or received by your account. Mailfence integrates PGP into the Web interface, claiming end-to-end encryption with a “zero-knowledge environment” using, of all things, the same openpgpjs library that is maintained by ProtonMail. While ProtonMail offers a detailed description of key management, I haven’t been able to find this with Mailfence – other than that the private key is stored encrypted on their servers and is protected by a separate passphrase from the login. If we assume the private key is decrypted on the client side, then for PGP-protected communications, the level of security is similar to ProtonMail. With Mailfence, decrypting these messages is a separate operation, while with ProtonMail it happens automatically once logged in. (Update 2019-03-01: Mailfence emailed me, pointing to their document on key storage – it is AES-256 encrypted by the client and stored on the server. They also passed along a link describing their PGP keystore. They also said they plan to work on a feature th encrypt plain text messages.)

While technical measures are part of the story, business policies are another, and Mailfence does seem to have some pretty good policies in place.

In experimenting with it, I found that Mailfence’s filters don’t support filtering based on the envelope recipient, which limits the utility of its aliases since BCC and the like won’t filter properly. A workaround might be possible via the IMAP connection filtering based on Received: headers, but that is somewhat ugly.

Mailfence also supports “secure” documents (word processor, spreadsheet, etc), WebDAV file storage, contacts, and calendars. There is no detail on what makes it “secure” – is it just that it uses TLS or is there something more? I note that the online document editor goes to a URL under writer.zoho.com, so this implies some sort of leakage to me and a possible violation of their “no third-party access to your data” claim. (Update 2019-03-01: Mailfence emailed me to point out that, while it’s not disclosed on the page I liked to, it is disclosed on their blog, and that since I evaluated it, they added a popup warning in the application before sending the documents to Zoho.)

Mailfence supports POP, IMAP, SMTP, and — interestingly — Exchange ActiveSync access to their services. I tested ActiveSync on my Android device, and it appeared to work exactly as planned. This gives a lot of client flexibility and very nice options for calendar and contact sync (*DAV is also supported).

Mailfence’s terms of use is fairly reasonable, though it also includes an indemnification clause. It makes no particular uptime promises. Update 2019-03-04: Per their privacy policy, Mailfence logs IP addresses and use Matomo analytics on the website but not within the application. Deleted messages and documents are retained for 45 days. The policy does not specify retention for logs.

Support: email ticket or business-hours phone support for paying customers

Pricing: EUR 2.50/mo paid annually, includes 5GB storage, 10 aliases, and 1 custom domain

Location: Belgium

MFA: TOTP only

Plus address extensions: Yes

Transparency report: Yes

Mailbox.org

Mailbox.org has been in the hosting business for a long time, and also has a privacy emphasis. Their security is conceptually similar to that of Mailfence. They offer two web-based ways of dealing with PGP: OX Guard and Mailvelope. Mailvelope is a browser extension that does all encryption and decryption on the client side, similar to Mailfence and ProtonMail. OX Guard is part of the Open-Xchange package which mailbox.org uses. It stores the encryption keys on the server, protected by a separate key passphrase, but all encryption and decryption is done server-side. Mailbox’s KB articles on this makes it quite clear and spell out the tradeoffs. The basic upshot is that messages you receive in plaintext will still be theoretically visible to the service itself.

Mailbox.org offers another interesting feature: automatic PGP-encryption of any incoming email that isn’t already encrypted. This encrypts everything inbound. If accessed using Mailvelope or some other external client, it provides equivalent security to ProtonMail. (OX Guard is a little different since the decryption happens server-side.)

They also offer you an @secure.mailbox.org email address that will reject any incoming mail that isn’t properly secured by TLS. You can also send from that address, which will fail to send unless the outgoing connection is properly secured as well. This is one of the more interesting approaches to dealing with the non-PGP-using public. Even if you don’t use that, if you compose in their web interface, you get immediate feedback about the TLS that will be used. It’s not end-to-end, but it’s better than nothing. Mailfence and Protonmail both offer an “secure email” that basically emails a link to a recipient, that links back to their server and requires the recipient to enter a password that was presumably exchanged out of band. Mailbox Guard will automatically go this route when you attempt to send email to someone for whom the PGP keys weren’t known, but goes a step further and invites them to reply there or set up their PGP keys.

Mailbox.org runs Open-Xchange, a semi-Open Source web-based office suite. As such, it also offers calendar, contacts, documents, task lists, IMAP/SMTP/POP, ActiveSync, and so forth. Their KB specifically spells out that things like the calendar are not encrypted with PGP. The filtering does the right thing with envelope recipients.

Mailbox.org has an amazingly comprehensive set of options, a massive knowledge base, even a user forum. Some of the settings I found to be interesting, besides the ones already mentioned, include:

  • Spam settings: greylisting on or off, RBL use, executable file attachment blocking, etc.
  • Restoring email from a backup
  • Disposable addresses (automatically deleted after 30 days)
  • A “catch-all” alias, that just counts as one of your regular aliases, and applies to all usernames under a domain not otherwise aliased.

I know Protonmail has frequent third-party security audits; I haven’t seen any mention of this on the mailbox.org site. However, it looks probable that less of their code was written in house, and it may have been audited without a mention.

Overall, I’ve been pretty impressed with them. They give details on EVERYTHING. It’s the geeky sort of comprehensive, professional solution I’d like. I wish it would have full end-to-end transparent encryption like ProtonMail, but honestly what they’re doing is more practical and useful to a lot of folks.

Mailbox has a reasonable T&C (though it does include an indemnity clause as many others do) and a thorough data protection and privacy policy. Some providers don’t log IP addresses at all; mailbox.org does, but destroys them after 4 days. (Update 2019-03-04: Discovered that all of the providers reviewed may do this at times; updated the other reviews and removed incorrect text; mailbox.org’s is actually one of the better policies) mailbox.org goes into a lot more detail than others, and also explicitly supports things such as Tor for greater anonymity.

Support: email ticket (phone for business-level customers)

Pricing: EUR 1/mo for 2GB storage and 3 aliases; EUR 2.50/mo for 5GB storage and 25 aliases. Expansions possible (for instance, 25GB storage costs a total of EUR 3.50/mo)

Location: Germany

MFA: Yubikey, OATH, TOTP, HOTP, MOTP (web interface only)

Plus address extensions: Yes

Transparency Report: Yes

Startmail

Startmail is a service from the people behind the privacy-respecting search engine Startpage. There is not a lot of information about the technical implementation of Startmail, with the exception of a technical white paper from 2016. It is unclear if this white paper remains accurate, but this review will assume it is. There are also some articles in the knowledge base.

I was unable to fully review Startmail, because the free trial is quite limited (doesn’t even support IMAP) and anything past that level requires an up-front payment of $60. While I paid a few dollars for a month’s real account elsewhere, this was rather too much for a few paragraphs’ review.

However, from the trial, it appears to have a feature set roughly akin to Mailfence. Its mail filters are actually more limited, and it’s mail only: no documents, calendars, etc.

Startmail a somewhat unique setup, in which a person’s mail, PGP keys, etc. are stored in a “vault” which turns out to be a LUKS-encrypted volume. This vault is opened when a person logs in and closed when they log out, and controlled by a derivative of their password. On the one hand, this provides an even stronger level of security than Protonmail (since headers are also encrypted). On the other hand, when the vault is “open” – when one must presume it is quite frequently for an account being polled by IMAP – it is no better than anything else.

They explicitly state that they have not had a third-party audit.

Support: ticket only

Pricing: $60/yr ($5/mo), must be paid as an entire year up-front

Location: Netherlands

MFA: TOTP only

Plus address extensions: unknown

Transparency report: no

Not Reviewed

Some other frequently-used providers I didn’t review carefully:

  • posteo.de: encrypts your mail using a dovecot extension that decrypts it using a derivation of your password when you connect. Something better than nothing but less than Protonmail. Didn’t evaluate because it didn’t support my own domain.
  • Tutanota: Seems to have a security posture similar to ProtonMail, but has no IMAP support at all. If I can’t use emacs to read my mail, I’m not going to bother.

Conclusions

The level of security represented by Protonmail was quite appealing to me. I wish that the service itself was more usable. It looks like an excellent special-needs service, but just isn’t quite there yet as a main mail account for people that have a lot of mail.

I am likely to pursue mailbox.org some more, as although it isn’t as strong as Protonmail when it comes to privacy, it is still pretty good and is amazing on usability and flexibility.

A Final Word on Trust

Trust is a big part of everything going on here. For instance, if you use ProtonMail, where does trust come into play? Well, you trust that they aren’t serving you malicious JavaScript that captures your password and sends it to them out of band. You trust that your browser provides a secure environment for JavaScript and doesn’t have leakage. Or if you use mailbox.org, you trust that the server is providing a secure environment and that when you supply your password for the PGP key, it’s used only for that. ProtonMail will tell you how great it is to have this code client-side. Startmail will tell you how bad Javascript in a browser is for doing things related to security. Both make good, valid points.

To be absolutely sure, it is not possible or practical for any person to verify every component in their stack on every use. Different approaches have different trust models. The very best is still standalone applications.

The providers reviewed here raise the average level of privacy and security on the Internet, and do it by making it easier for the average user. That alone is a good thing and worthy of support. None of them can solve every problem, but all of them are a step up from the standard, which is almost no security at all.

Where does a person have online discussions anymore?

Back in the day, way back in the day perhaps, there were interesting places to hang out online. FidoNet provided some discussion groups — some local, some more national or international. Then there was Usenet, with the same but on a more grand scale.

There were things I liked about both of them.

They fostered long-form, and long-term, discussion. Replies could be thoughtful, and a person could think about it for a day before replying.

Socially, you would actually get to know the people in the communities you participated in. There would be regulars, and on FidoNet at least, you might bump into them in different groups or even in real life. There was a sense of community. Moreover, there was a slight barrier to entry and that was, perhaps, a good thing; there were quite a lot of really interesting people and not so many people that just wanted answers to homework questions.

Technologically, you got to bring your own client. They were also decentralized, without any one single point of failure, and could be downloaded and used offline. You needed very little in terms of Internet connection.

They both had some downsides; Usenet, in particular, often lacked effective moderation. Not everyone wrote thoughtful posts.

Is there anything like it these days? I’ve sometimes heard people suggest Reddit. It shares some of those aspects, and even has some clients capable of offline operation. However, what it doesn’t really have is long-form discussion. I often find that if I am 6 hours late to a thread, nobody will bother to read my reply because it’s off their radar already. This happens so often that I rarely bother to participate anymore; I am not going to sit at reddit hitting refresh all day long.

There are a few web forums, but they suffer from all sorts of myriad problems; no cohesive community, the “hot topic” vanishing issue of Reddit, the single point of failure, etc.

For awhile, Google+ looked like it might head this way. But I don’t think it really has. I still feel as if there is a vacuum out there.

Any thoughts?

Suspicious Blog Activity – any advice?

I’ve been noticing a number of odd things happening surrounding my blog lately, and I thought it’s about time to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.

The first problem is that people are illegally copying my posts, probably using RSS scraping, and putting them up on their own ad-infested sites. It is trivial to find them using Google for any somewhat unique word or phrase in one of my posts. Lately one of them, linux-support.com, actually sends me pingbacks announcing the fact that they’ve scraped me! Most of these sites seem to be nothing but content farms for selling ad impressions, and almost none of them have any identifiable names for the owners.

(There is an exception: I have specifically set up sites like Planet Debian and Goodreads to copy my blog posts.)

I’m obviously an advocate of open content, but I do not feel it right that others should be profiting by putting photos and stories about Free Software, or photos of my family, on their ad farms. While I release a great deal of content under GPL or Creative Commons licenses, I have never done so with my blog – an intentional decision.

What should I do about this? Is it worth fighting a battle over, or is it about as useless as trying to block every spam follower on my twitter account?

So that’s the first weird thing. The second weird thing just started within the last few weeks. I have been getting a surprising amount (a few a week) of email addressed to me. It does not bear the appearance of being 100% automated spam, though it is possible that it is. It’s taken a few forms:

  • Someone wanting to buy an ad on my blog
  • Someone wanting to send me a story hyping their product (and intending me to pretend that I wrote the story)
  • Someone wanting me to write a story about their website and link to it

The profit motive in all of these is high, and in at least the second and third, so is the sleaze factor.

I’ve gotten two emails lately of this form:

Hi John,

I am curious if you are the administrator for this site: changelog.complete.org/archives/174-house-outlaws-fast-forwarding-senate-pres-next

I am a researcher / writer involved with a new project whose mission it is to provide accurate and useful information for those interested in the practice of law, whether as a lawyer or paralegal. I recently produced an article detailing the complex relationship between law and technology and the legal implications on personal privacy and free speech. I would love to share this resource with those who might find it useful and am curious of you are the correct person to contact about such a request?

Thank you!

All my best,

The details vary – the URLs appear to be random (the one cited above was little more than a link to an article), the topics the website claims to discuss range from law to schizophrenia (that one actually came with a link to the site, which again seemed to be a content farm). I am slightly tempted to reply to one of these and ask where the heck people are getting my name. It seems as if somebody has put me into a mailing list they sell containing sleazebag bloggers.

Frankly, I am puzzled at this attention. I guess I haven’t checked, but I can’t imagine that my blog has anything even remotely resembling a high PageRank or anything else. It’s not high-traffic, not Slashdot, etc. Either people are desperate, naive, failing to be selective, or maybe working some scam on me that I don’t know yet.

In any case, I’m interested if others have seen this, or any advice you might have.

Social Overload

I’m finding social media is becoming a bit annoying. I enjoy using it to keep in touch with all sorts of people, but my problem is the proliferation of services that don’t integrate well with each other. Right now, I have:

  • A blog, which I have had for years. I used to post things like short links, daily thoughts, etc – almost every day. It seems that there is some social pressure to not do that on blogs anymore, so I don’t too much. My blog gets mostly edited, more carefully thought-out, longer-form posts now. I’m not entirely happy with that direction though, since it means I don’t post much on the blog because it takes a lot of time to compose things nicely for it.
  • A twitter account, which I sometimes use to post links and such. However, I have noticed a significant decline in the number of actual conversations I have on Twitter since Google+ came out, and I wonder how relevant Twitter will remain to people in the future.
  • I also have an identi.ca account, though I almost never have any interactions there anymore.
  • A Facebook account, which is mostly used to keep in touch with people I know offline in one way or another. Many of them use Facebook exclusively, sometimes even more than email.
  • A Google+ account. I post similar content there as I do on twitter, though probably more of it because it doesn’t have a character limit. I really enjoy the community on Google+ – there are few people I’ve met in person in my circles, but many people I know from various online activities. And many just plain brilliant, engaging, or interesting people. As an example: I follow Edd Dumbill, the (former?) chair of OSCon, on Google+. He started talking about his Fitbit getting broken, which led me to ask him some questions about it – which he, and others, answered – and me ordering one myself. I just don’t have that kind of interaction anywhere else.
  • A Diaspora account that I created but honestly haven’t had time to use.

So my problems are:

  1. Posting things multiple places. I currently can post on identi.ca, which automatically posts to twitter, which automatically posts to Facebook. But then I’d still have to post to Google+, assuming it’s something that I’d like to share with both my Facebook friends and my Google+ circles – it usually is.
  2. The situation is even worse for re-tweeting/re-sharing other people’s posts. That is barely possible between platforms and usually involves cutting and pasting. Though this is somewhat more rare.
  3. It’s probably possible to make my blog posts automatically generate a tweet, but not to automatically generate a G+ post.

All the hassle of posting things multiple places leads me to just not bother at all some of the time, which is annoying too. There are some tools that would take G+ content and put it on Twitter, but without a character counter on G+, I don’t think this would be useful.

Anyone else having similar issues? How are you coping?

Download A Piece of Internet History

Back in the early 1990s, before there was a World Wide Web, there was the Internet Gopher. It was a distributed information system in the same sense as the web, but didn’t use hypertext and was text-based. Gopher was popular back then, as it made it easy to hop from one server to the next in a way that FTP didn’t.

Gopher has hung on over the years, and is still clinging to life in a way. Back in 2007, I was disturbed at the number of old famous Gopher servers that had disappeared off the Internet without a trace. Some of these used to be known by most users of the Internet in the early 90s. To my knowledge, no archive of this data existed. Nobody like archive.org had ever attempted to save Gopherspace.

So I decided I would. I wrote Gopherbot, a spidering archiver for Gopherspace. I ran it in June 2007, and saved off all the documents and sites it could find. That saved 40GB of data, or about 780,000 documents. Since that time, more servers have died. To my knowledge, this is the only comprehensive archive there is of what Gopherspace was like. (Another person is working on a new 2010 archive run, which I’m guessing will find some new documents but turn up fewer overall than 2007 did.)

When this was done, I compressed the archive with tar and bzip2 and split it out to 4 DVDs and mailed copies to a few people in the Gopher community.

Recently, we’ve noted that hard disk failures have hobbled a few actually maintained Gopher sites, so I read this archive back in and posted it on BitTorrent. If you’d like to own a piece of Internet history, download the torrent file and go to town (and please stick around to seed if you can). This is 15GB compressed, and also includes a rare video interview with two of the founders of Gopher.

There are some plans to potentially host this archive publicly in the manner of archive.org; we’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.

Finally, I have tried to find a place willing to be a permanent host of this data, and to date have struck out. If anybody knows of such a place, please get in touch. I regret that so many Gopher sites disappeared before 2007, but life is what it is, and this is the best snapshot of the old Gopherspace that I’m aware of and would like to make sure that this piece of history is preserved.

Update: The torrents are now permaseeded at ibiblio.org. See the 2007 archive and the 2006 mirror collection.

Update: The ibiblio mirror is now down, but you can find them on archive.org. See the 2007 archive and the 2006 mirror collection.