We shouldn’t really be surprised by the massive censorship Big Tech is now engaging in. It began years ago, when they started to ban “fringe” figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones. Most people didn’t really care for those figures, so they didn’t really care that they were booted from social media. But once COVID-19 hit, the censorship went up another notch—anything related to the virus that did not conform to the establishment party line was swiftly removed from YouTubeFacebookTwitter.
But after the events at the Capitol on January 6th, Big Tech has been throwing the digital equivalent of a temper tantrum. They have banned countless accounts, including the personal account of the President of the United States. Even more alarming, the Twitter alternative Parler has been kicked off the Internet, though there is no evidence that its use was at all associated with the storming of the Capitol (and it’s actually more likely that Twitter and Facebook were used last summer to help facilitate violent protests and riots).
Essentially, our Tech Oligarchs have decided they are the sole arbiters of what you can and cannot say on the Internet. So what can we do? And by “we,” I mean anyone who appreciates liberty and the freedom to speak out against the State when necessary. We can adapt. The wonderful thing about technology is that it’s always evolving, getting better and creating new solutions to new problems. And in this case, the very thing that gave Big Tech so much power in our lives can be used against them.
Many tools are in development that can work around the restrictions Big Tech is imposing. Not all of them are ready for primetime, and some of them have the same weaknesses of a tool like Parler—dependence on Big Tech. But ultimately Big Tech is playing a game of whack-a-mole: whenever they shut down one service, another better one will rise in response. What I’d like to do here is give a brief primer on some of those tools.
Before I do that, let me give three basic definitions that will help us understand these technology tools a bit better. If you already know the significance of these terms, feel free to skip down to the tools section below.
Encryption: Encryption is the lifeblood of ecommerce. It is what allows you to enter your credit card online and not fear it’s being stolen by some hacker in a basement in Romania. What encryption does is convert something in plain-text (such as your credit card number) into what’s essentially gibberish. And the only way to convert that gibberish back to plain-text is with a secret key, which (hopefully) only the proper people have. Encryption is your friend, and you should always use it on the Internet, but it’s more than just an on/off switch. It also matters what a company does with the secret keys. Do they protect them securely? What are their policies for giving those keys to organizations that ask for them? The ideal are tools that encrypt information without the company even having a secret key, which allows for truly protected transmissions.
Decentralized: A major problem with Big Tech is that it’s centralized. This means that total power resides in a small number of people. For example, Parler completely depended on Amazon for their hosting services. All that was needed to take Parler down was for one person—in this case, Jeff Bezos—to decide they needed to be put down. That’s centralization. Decentralized technologies prevent those things from happening. In a truly decentralized technology, no one is in control. This might sound far-fetched or hyperbolic, but it’s possible. In fact, there is a very well known technology that’s completely decentralized: Bitcoin. No one owns an “off” switch for Bitcoin (don’t you think the government would have shut it down if it could?); instead it runs on a global network hosted by anyone who wants to host a node. But the node owners do not control the network, they just help facilitate transactions (and they can’t choose which transactions they facilitate). Decentralization is the holy grail of a free society, for it allows people to speak freely without fear that our oligarchs will silence them. But decentralized technology is still in its infancy, and so few truly decentralized tools exist that are user-friendly and robust. But we’re getting there. (Note: if you want to learn more about Bitcoin and how decentralized technologies work, read my book Bitcoin Basics).
Open-Source: All Internet technology is made up of computer programs. Someone had to write source code that was then installed and run on the Internet. Sometimes that source code is closed, meaning only the owners (such as Microsoft or Apple) have access to it. So if they insert secret code to track you, for example, no one would know it. However, a lot of Internet technology is “open-source”, which means the underlying source code it made available to the world. It might seem counter-intuitive why this might be more secure, but it is. If the code is open-source, not only do you know exactly what it is doing, but everyone can try to break it. Open-source code that has been in use for a while is usually very secure, because many attempts were made to break it and failed. With closed-source code, there could be a latent bug in it giving hackers access to data that no one knows about until it’s too late.
So, in general, if you don’t want your Tech Oligarchs controlling your digital lives, always encrypt and always try to use open-source, decentralized tools.
Now to a list of tools. Note that none of these tools are ideal: some are less secure than others, some are more centralized, and some have poor user interfaces. But they are all superior to Big Tech’s offerings, and they all move us forward toward a less censorious, less oppressive Internet.
(One final word before I detail some tools available for living in our Orwellian Digital Age. Free speech often means speech we don’t like. It might be political opinions that are distasteful or even dangerous. It might include activities that are offensive or immoral. So, for example, a truly decentralized video sharing platform cannot ban pornographic videos. It could create ways for users to voluntarily hide them from their feeds, but it can’t prevent their existence on the platform. For those of us who acknowledge the destructive power of pornography, this is a real problem. However, in a time when the Truth is being censored, the only way to get it out might be a fully free Internet.)
Signal: Signal is a secure text messaging app. It works just like your normal messaging app, but in this case, all your messages are encrypted and truly secure. Don’t believe me? Ask Edward Snowden, who vouched for it, saying, “I use it every day and I’m not dead yet.” I highly recommend using Signal for all your texting.
Telegram: Telegram is another secure messaging app. However, it has a bit more functionality than Signal, allowing for groups and broadcast pages on the network, but I trust Signal more.
ProtonMail: If you use Gmail, you know that every single email you send or receive can be read by Google, right? They can see your purchases, your plans, anything you put in email. But ProtonMail, which is based in Switzerland, is encrypted email. And all their servers are in Switzerland, which has some of the most robust privacy laws in the world. Even if you keep your regular email, you need to get a protonmail address (it’s free).
ProtonVPN: The same company that makes ProtonMail also makes a secure VPN. What is a VPN? It’s a “Virtual Private Network”, and in this context, it allows you to surf the Internet without your local ISP or anyone else tracking your activity. There are many VPNs out there, but I trust ProtonVPN the most.
ProtonDrive: Guess who makes this? The Swiss company also has a secure file storage alternative to Google Drive (yes, any documents you store with Google are available to Google). This product is currently in beta, so it might not yet be available to you.
TOR Browser: This is the crème de la crème of privacy browsers. Without going into the technical details, it creates secure, encrypted connections to any website you are visiting. Note, however, that it often blocks normal sites due to security concerns.
Parler: RIP. We hardly knew ya. Parler is (was?) a centralized alternative to Twitter. It’s only as good as the people who run it and the companies they depend on. We see what happened there.
Gab: Gab is another Twitter alternative, but the big difference between Parler and Gab is that Gab is far less dependent on Big Tech. They don’t have apps in the Apple or Google app stores (although you can easily create a link on your phone screen and it acts like an app), and they use their own servers. However, it’s important to note that Gab will only be free as long as the powers that run it allow that to be the case. Also, right now Gab is almost unusable due to extremely high demand from everyone leaving Twitter.
MeWe: MeWe is a Facebook-like platform which is far better regarding content moderation and privacy. Personally, this is my favorite alternative social media platform right now, but I’m under no illusions that it couldn’t one day be subsumed by Big Tech.
Odysee: A YouTube alternative, Odysee is a truly decentralized video-hosting platform based on the LBRY cryptocurrency platform. This is the real deal, folks. If you want to host videos without fear of them one day being deleted/deplatformed, put them on Odysee.
Flote: I’ve only been recently introduced to Flote, but it is touted as a decentralized social media platform, similar in functionality to Twitter. I haven’t used it much, but it’s possible this will be the future of social media.
This is not a completely comprehensive list, and I’m sure it will become dated rather quickly. But hopefully this primer will help people get started on the path to digital freedom. Just remember, when possible, always choose encrypted, open-source, decentralized technologies.