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Cyber Freedom: No Gain Without Pain

By Bob Leggitt  |  5 June 2022

"If we really want freedom, we have to step outside the realm of mainstream browser cores. Doing that will require the construction of an entirely new digital ecosystem, with standards that true independent browsers can realistically support."

Late last month we sat with our popcorn watching DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg squirming in embarrassment as headline after headline dissected his operation's covert data deal with Microsoft. Only the tip of an iceberg, but proof, if any were needed, that in centralised tech, even the foremost champions of privacy are secretly working for the evil overlords.

So isn't it about time we walked away from this mire of deception and doublespeak? I mean, it's not like the DIY alternative costs a lot of money. There are forty-seven and a half bucketloads of free indie software out there, and creating a personal server on Linux has been heavily simplified by packages such as YunoHost and FreedomBox. We can install a personal search engine directly from a Linux package manager. We can host a website from our lounge. We can run our own online communication services. So why don't we take the DIY route?...

SWITCHING COSTS

There are numerous reasons why we stick with Big Tech and its associates, even when we know they're dishonest, and even when we know there are healthier alternatives. But by far the most obvious reason is the switching cost.

"Freedom is not a clickbutton selection. It's something we have to build. It takes work. It takes sacrifice. But if we don't build freedom now, the option is going to vanish from our menu altogether."

Big Tech products have huge advantages in connectivity, coverage, network effect, reach... It's no coincidence that the DuckDuckGo exposé which was finally picked up by the blog circuit and pushed out to the wider public, was the one Zach Edwards happened to post on Twitter. The blogs didn't jump onto one of the many exposés that other experts have tipped into the underbelly of the Fediverse over the past few years, because, simply, the Fediverse doesn't have the connectivity and viral potential that Twitter has. It doesn't have the search capabilities either, so even if journalists wanted to prize stories out of the Fediverse they'd struggle to find them.

It also costs us time and labour to switch to a healthier system. "Just switch to Linux" sounds so simple. But it's not something we can casually do one Sunday afternoon and then forget it. There's a significant learning curve, and it takes time to adapt. People want and need to get on with their lives. They neither have the time nor the wish to trudge around Linux forums scouring nine-page walls of jargon for solutions to problems that don't even exist in Windows or macOS.

"If you want oppression, test your web pages in Chrome. If you want freedom, test them in Lynx."

THE SEE-SAW OF CONTRIBUTION

There is, however, an important truth about tech products that require significant mental investment from the user. The more the user has to contribute mentally and in terms of labour, the more transparent the software. Command-line operating systems such as FreeDOS and TinyCore Linux demand mental investment and effort from the user. But their compact environments are so transparent that it would be almost impossible for them to hide a realm of surveillance tech. Learning to use them is a process that necessarily reveals their inner workings, so the user knows where they store files and data, and can oversee that process, and control it.

Conversely, Windows and some of the flightier Linux distributions are so incredibly complex that even technically-aware users find it almost impossible to keep tabs on what the software is doing.

"Finding every data dump on Windows is not like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's like looking for a thousand needles in a haystack. You're not gonna find them all, and even if you do, by the time you pick out the last one, the system will have created a thousand more."

A particular problem is obfuscation of storage. In a large operating system with many thousands of directories, machine code can bury nefarious things in places where a human is not going to find them. Saleable private data is collated on the user's own device, and then, in a classic reverse-trojan scenario, sent to the mothership stowed away in a communication the user either initiates or at least desires. The transfer of private data becomes inevitable, on the basis that the user can't intercept it at storage level, and doesn't want to block the communication that covertly transfers it.

The concept of software getting better behaved as it demands more mental investment and/or labour from the user is totally logical, since the road from Big Tech to "Libre" software changes the ratio of developer contribution versus user contribution. As the road winds along, the user contributes more and more, while the developer contributes less and less. At the end of the road we reach a point where there is no developer at all, and the user simply writes the entire instruction set themselves. The user then has full knowledge and control of the software's behaviour. The user has independence and freedom.

So, are the majority of consumers going to tread more than a few steps down that road? Let's be realistic: no. The switching costs are too great. That's why, if we want freedom, those of us who have advanced along the route to independence must help to reduce the switching costs for everyone...

FRUGALITY IS FREEDOM

Frugal, simple software holds the key to our freedom. The IndieWeb must accommodate it in the way the mainstream Web accommodates Big Tech.

Browsers are one of the greatest concerns for the future of freedom, since in the mainstream, their core development has been entirely monopolised by Big Tech. If we really want freedom, we have to step outside the realm of mainstream browser cores. Doing that will require the construction of an entirely new digital ecosystem, with standards that true independent browsers can realistically support.

The first thing the IndieWeb (and any resource that wants to be associated with it) must do, is drop all JavaScript dependency. JavaScript and the general drift towards programmatical web pages is the primary reason why genuinely independent browser developers now have no chance whatsoever of entering the market. The investment and labour it takes to support a vast and completely arbitrary range of ever-evolving scripting concepts is more than prohibitive.

SAVE THE INTERNET

So if you're shouting...

"Let's reclaim the Web from Big Tech!"

...And you're building pages that won't load without JS, you are precisely the reason why that will never happen. Are you listening Mastodon? Here's the soundbyte... WE WILL NOT CREATE AN INDEPENDENT WEB OUT OF JAVASCRIPT, PYSCRIPT WEBASSEMBLY, OR WHATEVER OTHER RIDICULOUSLY NON-STANDARD BULLSHIT THE NEXT GEN OF WEBSITE CREATORS HAVE THEIR BEADY EYES ON. Do what you like at the back end, but if the browser market is to reopen to newcomers, the front end has to be predictable. We need simple, consistent protocols that small browser operations can realistically support.

JavaScript has ruined the Internet to the point where even the dude who invented it now builds tools to block it. Quite aside from the stranglehold it's given Big Tech over the browser market, there are many reasons why JavaScript has destroyed cyberspace. Among them...

How much more ruin do you want?... I know in some cases JavaScript is the only way to put user-benefitting functionality into a page, and I've written pages with JS functionality both on personal sites and for commerce. But I've never built pages that won't load without JS, and I absolutely condemn those who force the acceptance of JS merely to load a page of static content with no functionality discernible to the visitor at all. That is literally saying to the public...

"Here is a Web resource that you necessarily require a Big Tech product to load."

Bringing the JavaScript rant to a conclusion, the takeaway is that it's our duty to keep Web pages compatible with browsers outside the mainstream. With truly independent browsers back on the agenda, there then opens up an escape route from Big Tech.

So, is there such thing as a truly independent, actively maintained browser at present?...

TRUE INDEPENDENT BROWSERS

There's more than one, but the grandfather of them is called Lynx, and with a birth date of 1992 it's as old as the World Wide Web itself. Whilst one might initially grimace at the command line interface and lack of media content, the browser is perfectly usable for knowledge-gathering and research via good quality sites, and its colourful display of text formatting is actually quite beautiful when a page is made properly compatible.

Links browser builds on Lynx to add a dropdown menu system, making bookmarking and feature control easier. Links2 heads beyond text-only mode, adding graphical support. Graphically-capable indie browsers also include Dillo and w3m. It would be wrong to imply that these browsers and others like them are currently viable for anything more than extreme niche usage. But that's something we, the content creators, can help to change. I'm in the process of revising this site for proper compatibility with true independent browsers, and we should all, at the very least, test our pages in them to see how they display.

Upon doing so, my first instict was to say:

"Terrible browser - doesn't properly interpret my page code."

But then I thought...

"Neither would Chrome if I hadn't specifically tested in it and adjusted to meet its tolerances."

This is the problem. We don't realise how much we bend over backwards to accommodate Big Tech and its ever-evolving 'guidelines', whilst neglecting everything we don't see as popular enough to matter. For the sake of freedom, we have have to change that. It's not enough for the IndieWeb to POSSE. If it wants to build freedom, it must bias its output towards genuinely independent tech. It must make that tech more accessible to the wider public. And it must agree on a set of publishing standards which all small browser providers can support. Only then will it be positioned to deliver the freedom it strives for.


Bob Leggitt.