In times like these, it becomes all the more important to take a closer look at tools like Zoom, Slack, and Facebook Messenger.
After taking the LibrePlanet 2020 conference online, we received a number of requests asking us to document our streaming setup. As the pandemic grew worse, this gave way to more curiosity about how the Free Software Foundation (FSF) uses free tools and free communication platforms to conduct our everyday business. And while the stereotype of hackers hunched over a white-on-black terminal session applies to us in some ways, many of the tools we use are available in any environment, even for people who do not have a lot of technical experience. We've started documenting ethical solutions on the LibrePlanet wiki, in addition to starting a remote communication mailing list to help anyone advocate for their use.
A few of the tools we recommend here depend upon some self-reliance; that is, steering clear of proprietary network services by hosting free software solutions yourself or asking a technical friend to do it for you. It's a difficult step, and the benefits may not be immediately obvious, but it's a key part of preserving your autonomy in an age of ubiquitous digital control.
To those who have the technical expertise and available infrastructure, we urge you to consider hosting instances of free communication platforms for your friends, family, and community at large. For example, with a modest server and some GNU/Linux knowledge, you could help local students learn in freedom by volunteering to administer an instance of one of the programs we'll be recommending below.
The need to self-host can be an uncomfortable reminder of our dependence on the "cloud"—the network of someone else's computers—but acknowledging our current reliance on these providers is the first step in making new, dependable systems for ourselves. During dangerous and stressful times, it's tempting to sideline our ethical commitments for easier or more convenient ways to get things done, and software freedom is no exception. We hope these suggestions will inspire you to inform others about the importance of freedom, privacy, and security.
When we can no longer communicate face-to-face, tools for voice and video calling often come to mind as the next best thing. But as evidenced by the size and success of the proprietary software companies that sponsor these tools, they aren't easy to develop. Promoting real-time voice and video chat clients remains on the FSF's High-Priority Project list. Though we may still be waiting for a truly perfect solution, the projects below are far enough along in their development that we can recommend them.
- Mumble: Mumble is a real-time, low-latency program for hosting and joining audio conversations. Clients are available for every major operating system, and even large rooms tend not to put too much stress on the network. When it was time for the FSF staff to go fully remote, we turned to Mumble as a way to have that "in-office" feel, staying in touch in rooms dedicated to each of our teams and a general-purpose "water-cooler" room.
- Asterisk/SIP: When we give tours of the FSF office, people often think we're joking when we mention that even the FSF's conference phones run free software. But through Asterisk and our use of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) protocol, it's entirely true. Although it can be difficult to set up, free software can manage your traditional phone lines. At the FSF, we transfer calls to digital extensions seamlessly with tools like Jami and Linphone.
Video calls and presentations
- Jitsi: Jitsi was a key part of LibrePlanet 2020's success. By providing video and voice calls through the browser via WebRTC, it also allows for presenters to share their screens in a similar way to Zoom. And unlike Zoom, the application does not have a record of sending personal data to other companies. The connection between callers is direct and intuitive, but a central server is still required to coordinate callers and rooms. Some of these, like the Jitsi project's own Jitsi Meet server, recommend proprietary browser extensions and document-sharing tools. If you're able, hosting your own instance is the most free and reliable method.
- Jami: While we primarily use it for its SIP support, Jami (previously GNU Ring) is a solid communication client in its own right, allowing for distributed video calls, text chat, and screen sharing.
- OBS Studio: OBS was another much-used software program at LibrePlanet. Illness, different time zones, or unforeseen travel problems were no match for the solutions OBS Studio offers. It's a flexible tool for streaming video from multiple inputs to a web source, whether that's combining your webcam with conference slides or even your favorite free software game. At LibrePlanet, OBS allowed our remote speakers to record their presentations while speaking on one screen and sharing audiovisual materials in a second window.
- XMPP: If you've ever used Jabber or older iterations of Google Talk or Facebook Messenger, then you've used XMPP. XMPP is a flexible and extensible instant messaging protocol that's seen a resurgence lately from clients like Conversations.im and encryption schema like OMEMO. XMPP is the instant messaging method we prefer at the FSF when we need to discuss something privately or in a secure group chat, as everything is sent through servers we control and is encrypted against individual staff members' private keys. Also, access to the FSF XMPP server is one of the many benefits of our associate membership program.
- IRC: Messaging services have become all the rage in office atmospheres, but nothing about Messenger or Slack is new. In fact, Slack (and its counterpart for video games, Discord) takes more than a few cues from the venerable Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC remains an enduring way to have a text-based chat in real time, and as evidenced by web clients like The Lounge or desktop clients like Pidgin, it can be as stripped down or feature rich as you like. For a true hacker experience, you can also log into IRC using Emacs.
- Encrypted email: While it's asynchronous and maybe the most "old school" item on our list, GPG-encrypted email is a core part of the FSF workflow and helps guard against prying eyes, whether they're one room over or in an NSA compound across the country. The initial setup can sometimes be a challenge, which is why we provide the Email Self-Defense Guide to get you up and running.
- Discourse: Discourse is the message board software that powers the FSF associate member forum, and we couldn't be happier to recommend it. While the concept may seem a little antiquated, message boards remain a good way to coordinate discussions on a particular topic. Discourse's moderation tools are intuitive and easy to use, and it even includes achievements for users to earn!
If you're not used to working remotely, finding ways to collaborate with others on a document or presentation can be a challenge. At the FSF, Etherpad is the main tool that we use to keep live meeting notes and work together on other documents. It provides all the features you need for quick collaboration, including comments, revision tracking, and exports to a variety of formats. You can host your own instance, or you can select an instance made available by others and start sharing.
At the FSF office, we have a common server to store our files. Not everyone has the luxury of a setup like that, and especially not due to the fast changeover from office to home. To avoid using proprietary "solutions" and disservices like Dropbox, you can turn to the widely popular Nextcloud to synchronize your text and email messages, share calendars with coworkers, and exchange files privately with your friends.
If you need something temporary, there's always Up1. Up1 is a temporary, encrypted text- and image-sharing program you can host locally. It makes sure the files you need to exchange are only there for as long as it takes for your friend to download them. And while we don't use it ourselves, we've heard good things about the Riseup network's instance of Up1 and will occasionally suggest it to those wanting a quick and easy way to share files while retaining their freedom.
This is just a small selection of the huge amount of free software out there, all ready to be used, shared, and improved by the community. For more suggestions on both local and web-based programs, visit the FSF's Free Software Directory, our volunteer-run wiki that aims to be a comprehensive list of the thousands of free programs available for everyday use.
As always, free software is a moving target. We reap as much as the community puts into it, and as more and more attention shifts to the crisis caused by the novel coronavirus, the tools are likely to see increased development. Please collaborate with us on the LibrePlanet wiki's entry on remote communication to help people find ways of communicating that put user freedom as a priority.
Supporting the FSF's crucial work in campaigning for software freedom—especially in times like these—is one of the greatest things you can to promote the creation of ethical tools for communication. Please consider joining as an associate member or donating today.