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You are here: Home Bulletins 2019 Fall The path to a free Internet

The path to a free Internet

by Andrew Engelbrecht Contributions Published on Nov 27, 2019 04:27 PM

There are a growing number of Web services that do not violate your freedom. Many could benefit from your contributions, especially ones that aim to replace commonly used but problematic services on the Web. This includes social media, source code hosting, Web frameworks, technical infrastructure, and more. Notable free software systems include Mastodon, Pleroma and GNU social, which implement distributed social networks, and Pagure, a Web-based git hosting system.

One major pitfall you will commonly run into with Web services is that they often require nonfree JavaScript, code that runs on your machine via your browser. Proprietary JavaScript often spies on you, collects information, and sends it to third parties. This is generally the case for embedded advertisements, and for JavaScript served by those who benefit from selling or analyzing user data. You can learn more about the "Javascript Trap" here.

Occasionally, unethical Web sites try to persuade you to use a proprietary application to interact with them in order to get around rate limits and other missing features. Some sites put proprietary captchas in the way of users, which impact the accessibility of these sites for visually impaired people as well as those who don't want to use nonfree JavaScript.

One distinction that should be made that relates to software freedom: frontend code is delivered to users' browsers, and is executed there, while backend code runs on remote servers. Backend code tends to generate HTML, deliver JavaScript, and expose Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). APIs allow remote programs to communicate with another program or Web service. Some Web services, like distributed social networks, use APIs to communicate with each other.

If Web services with proprietary backends serve free JavaScript, using those services is technically compatible with free software, because we are not running the backend code ourselves. However, we shouldn't run proprietary backend code on our own servers. We also don't want to use those services via our browsers if there is reason to believe they are surveilling us.

Of course, software freedom is not just about security concerns. It also matters that we have control over our own computing, so we can run the code that we want, on our computers, on our servers, and so that we don't have to deal with antifeatures or limitations upon further improvement. With free software, we get to share that software with our friends, including our own changes. This is much harder to do, and often illegal, with proprietary software. SaaSS (service as a software substitute) presents a similar problem: even if a Web service makes use of some free software, if it's replacing computing you would do on your local machine, you don't have the power to modify the software, so it doesn't respect your freedom. Ultimately, we want all frontend and backend code to be free software.

With all of this said: how do you protect yourself from the perils of problematic Web services?

One tool you can use is GNU LibreJS, which protects your freedom on the Web by blocking JavaScript that isn't properly marked with a free license. You can also check to see if the backend for a site is free software by looking for links to source code and its license. Many sites that run on free software share this information on their site.

If you want to take things a step further, setting up your own instance of a freedom-respecting Web service can be rewarding if you're willing to put in the time and effort to maintain and upgrade its installation. If you don't want to put in the effort, using such a Web service hosted by others will help to grow the user base and network of free software communities.

Let's help the people who are creating freedom-respecting Web services, by donating resources and offering encouragement, even when opening issue reports, because they are helping us to build an ethical future in which greater amounts of software are fully free. Together, we can make freedom-respecting Web services the best options on the Web, for all purposes, and increase the use of these highly functional and continually evolving systems.

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