Free Software Foundation announces freedom-respecting videoconferencing for its associate members
The FSF has been raising the alarm about encroachments upon freedom by remote communication tools since social distancing guidelines were issued. The FSF's new videoconferencing service powered by free software comes after several of its recent publications warned users about widely used nonfree applications for remote communication and education, like Zoom.
"The freedoms to associate and communicate are some of our most important. To have the means to exercise these freedoms online controlled by gatekeepers of despotic software is always dangerous and unacceptable, only more so when we can't safely gather in person," executive director John Sullivan explains. "We are a small nonprofit and can't provide hosting for the entire world, but we want to do our part. By offering feature-rich videoconferencing in freedom to our community of supporters, and sharing how others can do it, too, we demonstrate that it is possible to do this kind of communication in an ethical way."
This project came out of the working group the FSF established to document and address major issues facing free software communication platforms. Another initiative in its free communication toolbox is a collaborative resource page created to steer users to applications that respect them. The goal is to help users avoid conferencing tools like Zoom, which requires users to give up their software-related freedoms, and which has been a recent focal point for criticism due to problems ranging from security issues to privacy violations.
Zoom is not the only nonfree communication software that has received scrutiny recently while surging in popularity. Facebook's recently launched Messenger Rooms service may offer tools to keep users out, but it is not encrypted, nor does it offer protection from the ongoing data sharing issues that are inherent to the company. Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Webex were also reported to be collecting more data than users realized. These kinds of problems, the FSF argues, are examples of what happens when the terms of the code users are running prohibits them from inspecting or improving it for themselves and their communities.
The platform the FSF will use to offer ethical videoconferencing access is Jitsi Meet. Jitsi Meet was also used when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the FSF to bring its annual LibrePlanet conference online. Choosing Jitsi Meet is the first step to addressing the problems posed to freedom by services like Zoom and Facebook. However, even users that start a call via a server running Jitsi could still be vulnerable, if that server depends on or shares information with third parties. The FSF made changes to the code it is running to enhance privacy and software freedom, and published the source code. The FSF instance does not use any third party servers for network initialization, and does not recommend or link to any potentially problematic services.
Jitsi Meet initiates an encrypted peer-to-peer conference when there are only two participants, but achieving end-to-end encryption for more than two people is not yet possible. FSF chief technical officer Ruben Rodriguez elaborates: "For any multiparticipant conversation, there will always be encryption at the network level, but you still have to place some level of trust in the server operator that processes your video stream. We are offering what is currently possible when it comes to multiparticipant privacy, and we are doing it on machines that we physically own." The FSF servers do not store any voice, video, or messages from calls, and logging is minimal and for the purpose of troubleshooting and abuse prevention only. According to its Web site, Jitsi is working to implement end-to-end encryption for multiple callers, and the FSF has confirmed plans to implement the improvements as soon as they become available.
Sullivan provided further comment: "The FSF is offering people a chance to keep their freedom and remain in touch at the same time. With these services, you usually have to sacrifice your freedom for the ability to stay in touch with the people you care about, and place your data in the hands of an organization you don't know. Our members trust the FSF not to compromise their data, and this way, we can offer both."
Associate members of the FSF pay a $10 USD monthly fee, which is discounted to $5 USD for students. An FSF associate membership will provide users with the ability to create their own meeting rooms for personal, noncommercial use, which they can use to invite others to join regardless of their location or membership status.
About the Free Software Foundation
The Free Software Foundation, founded in 1985, is dedicated to promoting computer users' right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs. The FSF promotes the development and use of free (as in freedom) software -- particularly the GNU operating system and its GNU/Linux variants -- and free documentation for free software. The FSF also helps to spread awareness of the ethical and political issues of freedom in the use of software, and its Web sites, located at https://fsf.org and https://gnu.org, are an important source of information about GNU/Linux.
Associate members are critical to the FSF, since they contribute to the existence of the foundation and help propel the movement forward. Besides gratis access to the FSF Jitsi Meet instance, they receive a range of additional benefits. Donations to support the FSF's work can be made at https://my.fsf.org/donate. Its headquarters are in Boston, MA, USA.
More information about the FSF, as well as important information for journalists and publishers, is at https://www.fsf.org/press.
Free Software Foundation
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