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Is the FSF on Twitter?

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Feb 28, 2013 05:04 PM
Yes, we are!

Curious how we post to Twitter? The Free Software Foundation uses a custom script** to post to our GNU social, Mastodon, and Twitter accounts simultaneously. This means that you can find us on Twitter!

**Note: The custom script allows us to interact with the Twitter API while circumventing the nonfree JS that is sent to the Web browser. For viewing replies and retweeting posts, we use Choqok.

We are there so that people new to the free software movement can learn about it, and because -- unlike with Facebook -- we have no ethical objection to merely having an account on Twitter.

However, we do find Twitter problematic, and there are some ethical pitfalls that come up the way most people use it. If you're currently a Twitter user, here are a few reasons to consider switching to Mastodon and/or GNU social, two free software (licensed under AGPLv3), decentralized microblogging services, as well as some tips on how you can still view Twitter feeds without compromising your freedom or privacy.

Twitter: Reasons to be cautious

  1. Twitter uses nonfree JavaScript. Nonfree JavaScript serves up proprietary programs through your Web browser without asking or telling you. There are ways to use Twitter without using nonfree JavaScript, and that's what the FSF does. Using Twitter via their Web client requires nonfree JavaScript. (See "Viewing posts and/or interacting on Twitter without running nonfree JavaScript" below.)

  2. Twitter accounts have privacy issues, such as being vulnerable to broad subpoenas. Because Twitter accounts are all centralized on one server, your account can be subpoenaed along with many other accounts, and Twitter could be forced to hand over your information. This isn't a hypothetical: Twitter accounts have already been subpoenaed en masse -- such as for Occupy. Other accounts, such as Sci-Hub's (which promoted their platform that provides gratis access to paywalled academic papers), have been suspended at the behest of private businesses, despite the support of the scientific community. To avoid these problems, it is recommended that you consider using a decentralized service (and one that simultaneously respects user freedom). (See "Decentralized microblog services similar to Twitter" below for more information.)

Viewing posts and/or interacting on Twitter without running nonfree JavaScript

There are several free software Twitter clients that can be used to view and post tweets without visiting the site or running its proprietary code.

  1. One such free client, Choqok, runs on your desktop and can be used to access Twitter with full functionality (i.e. post, like, retweet, follow, message, etc).

  2. Another free client, which runs in the browser, similar to Twitter's Web client, is Nitter. With Nitter, you can view feeds even without a Twitter account. Another benefit of Nitter is that it can be accessed over Tor, which hides your IP address from snooping Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Try Nitter today via one of its live instances, like: nitter.net.

Decentralized microblog services similar to Twitter

Twitter is centralized, meaning that a single host has sole control over the service. Decentralized services, also known as federated services, in contrast, means it is possible for any number of others to host an independent server, or "instance," of the service. Decentralized services of which you are probably already familiar are email and MMS/SMS text services; the service being the delivery of your communications, not the software you use to access those communications. In general, services are not a free software issue, as they typically do not run on your computer (unless you are the provider). That being said, decentralization, in particular, has benefits for software freedom as well as for user privacy, which we detail here.

  1. Using a decentralized service means that a single entity doesn't necessarily own the servers that host your posts or account information, making it harder for someone to execute a subpoena without your direct knowledge. In the case of a larger movement, such as Occupy, even a successful subpoena to one of the servers would have not affected the movement's members on other servers. By making such broad subpoenas more difficult, we help protect the lawful principles of democracy requiring probable cause to be obtained by authorities.

  2. Notably, decentralized servers are also less tempting targets for malicious attackers out to steal large amounts of personal information. This is because within a centralized structure, only a single service provider needs to be targeted to affect all users of the service. Decentralized services, on the other hand, are more difficult and less desirable targets because many different providers would need to be targeted, each one affecting only a percentage of the overall users.

  3. Decentralized online services must be, by design, interoperable (i.e. work well with other systems). In order to achieve such interoperability, the developers typically choose to free their software, including user-facing clients (e.g. on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices). However, if they did not, such interoperability-by-design provides an opportunity to keep user-facing software free because it means free software clients can be developed to interact with the service(s).

  4. As a bonus, a decentralized system hosted on many servers is more durable than a centralized one. For example, there might come a day when Twitter experiences an irreversible failure (either by accidental or intentional means), or when it stops being maintained. Over the decades, we have seen many services fail, even ones as seemingly robust as Twitter. If and when this happens, all its users would be impacted without any recourse. By contrast, when one part of a decentralized system goes down, it does not take the entire network with it.

  5. It is also worth mentioning that decentralization means that Web masters of an instance can choose their own terms of service, Code of Conduct, or moderation policies, and that users can select where to publish their microblogs based on their preferred standards (and can move at any time, if those standards are not being met).

As with any change in services, prioritize your freedom first!

This all being said, use of decentralized social media by itself does not necessarily mean you are using free software (e.g. think of how email or MMS/SMS text services may have both free and nonfree software clients to access and utilize the services). Make sure that any choice to move towards decentralization does not mean a move away from freedom. You can do this by making sure that the service(s) can be accessed with fully free software. Mastodon is one example of a decentralized service which deploys with a fully free user-facing Web client. There are also plenty of fully free Mastodon clients that run on desktop and mobile.

In support of software freedom and to protect your information, please consider moving to a freedom-respecting, decentralized microblogging site. And, if you are already using Twitter and plan to continue, for your freedom's sake, we recommend that you use clients like Nitter and/or Choqok to view Twitter feeds instead of proprietary clients. The FSF has a microblogging account on Mastodon in addition to our GNU social account, both decentralized social media platforms whose Web clients do not require users to run nonfree software. The developers maintain a list of servers with open registration, allowing you to participate in the decentralized Web with just a click of a few buttons.

Other decentralized services we use

It is worth noting that decentralized services are not limited to microblogging. Another decentralized service that the FSF uses is PeerTube. Peertube allows users to publish videos, comment and like others' videos, and more -- even when the videos are hosted on another server. As a decentralized service, Peertube offers similar benefits to Mastodon, but for videos. Licensed under AGPLv3+, Peertube is free software, and only sends free software to the user's Web browser. The FSF's PeerTube account is at https://framatube.org/a/fsf/ and more information can be found at https://joinpeertube.org/

If you like the FSF's work in this area, please let us know by becoming a member or making a donation.

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