5 years ago: Digital Feudalism and How to Avoid It

I learned a lot in those five years and we’re still working for the same goals. Surveillance Capitalism is worse than it ever was but we also have new hopes: @Purism, Mastodon, @gnome, DAT, …

The one thing I’d change is to replace “open source” with “ethical technology” and “free (as in freedom)” in my words.


Open source is a licensing scheme, free software and ethical technology are software ideologies. As far as I understand it, the first aligns with the goal of surveillance capitalism, the second may be used for it, and the third openly conflicts with it.

@aral And, AFAIU, the two solve the problems of surveillance capitalism differently. In case of free software, the problem is social - who we federate with. In case of ethical software, the problem is legal - who we allow to use our software.

When we met 5 years ago I suggested to build on what was available instead of spending years in developing from scratch a new Open Source device. I'm not sure of it but maybe incremental improvements and joining forces with existing groups working on different fields of expertise could have got us further than we are now.

Want to use different names to define what we are doing? What about: Technological & Data Sovereignty?
@Purism @gnome

@paolo @aral @Purism @gnome. I wonder what apps are going to be made for the Librem 5. Will it become competetive? Will it be usable voor everyone?

@KeaW I'm keeping an eye on it but at $599 it isn't really a phone for the masses.
I just bought a Wiley Fox at about £120 with good specs on which I'm going to install LineageOS. Not a perfect security phone but a step forward in terms of usability and privacy for all.

@aral @Purism @gnome

@paolo @aral @Purism @gnome Didn’t the UK requested a backdoor in every device that is British, that leaves Britain?

@aral bit surprising to see @gnome mentioned as a "new" hope, when we've been doing this thing for 20 years. 😅

@mathieu @gnome Did it have the same approach and focus it has today? (And twenty years ago, I was a very different person.) :)

@aral @gnome the focus on simplifying things, making it accessible to all, started with GNOME 2.0.

The technological landscape was very different though at the time, and the approach really only reached maturity with 3.0 (which itself took years to mature)

@aral @gnome note: I say "we", but I wasn't there 20 years ago. 😛

@mathieu @aral @gnome It all comes back to Allan' talk about what is/makes GNOME.

@aral @Purism @gnome today I was told that google G Suite for education has 70m+ customers and that in the USA, two schools in three are using it. I haven't checked this figure, but if it is even close to being true we are placing the data of millions of children into the hands of the largest dealer in data on earth - before we even give them a choice.

A whole generation sold into data serfdom.

We have to get the technology you are talking about into the hands of educators.


@StuC @Purism @gnome If the first thought people have when they hear Google is “Philip Morris” – we have a chance. Who’d support cigarettes in schools? No one. The problem is that they’re still socially acceptable. And it doesn’t help that the likes of Mozilla go around handing them out and getting paid billions for it.

@aral @StuC @Purism @gnome

Is this an analogy or is Phillip Morris literally involved (because nothing would surprise me at this point)?

@jjg @StuC @Purism @gnome Analogy. Given the state of things, you’re not wrong to ask :)

@StuC @aral @Purism @gnome

Has anyone written or analyzed this risk? When you put it in these terms it sounds terrifying to someone who knows about these things but I’m curious if there is some media that explains it well that I could share with laymen.

@StuC @aral @Purism @gnome I'm fairly sure the G Suite set don't do anything too nasty with the data compared with the free consumer stuff; the problem competing is cost & integration. Cost per user is tiny and no one has to worry about their data centre dieing or maintaing hardware or software or security installations. The integration stuff is also tough - you get the mail, live document editing, chat, calendar etc all in one - all works as one; and once you have the mail the rest is free.

@StuC @aral @Purism @gnome

I was interviewed by New York Times on topic of Google’s reach into classrooms. I tried to give critical voice from teacher perspective, worried about Google grooming students as users ... Ease of use/low cost is why so many schools default to it ... I realize I am part of GAFE problem, so I work to find balance, alternatives, info to kids about Google biz model (hook ‘em young)

@dogtrax @StuC @aral @Purism @gnome ironic how Google wants to be in the middle of even this. It wanted to auto-download the vimeo app on my phone.

(Now why I'm not using a de-googled phone? Because my old one was stolen and I didn't get around to degoogle the new one yet...)

@StuC @aral @Purism There is also a matter of digital exclusion when you give companies like Google a free pass to educational system.

What happens with students that don't accept the Terms of Use required for using G-Suite or Chromebook?

studies, university, tech exclusion 

@comzeradd @Purism @aral @StuC I did, and basically I couldn't access to the basic pedagogic documents like the bibliography, the table of contents, and even the texts we should study and be noted for it.

This fucking sucks, but as a student they wouldn't even read my emails. I once came to give them a bug report and the guy smiled at me, saying "thank you, we got it!", but before I closed the door another guy in the room told me I should tell another service about it.

Basically, this uni had no idea of how an IT system worked, and the stuff just maintained itself via scripted updates.

re: studies, university, tech exclusion 

@comzeradd @Purism @aral @StuC tbh I'm not even sure someone there knew the root password.

Then the town's unis merged because muh Shanghai ranking, and they switched to Moodle.

@StuC @aral @Purism @comzeradd


ex is grandson of "Son of Sam"

did the 1997 Dali Murders in Brussels, Belgium.

Worth the #respect

@comzeradd @StuC @aral @Purism Those students generally get lower grades and are bullied by their teachers and school administrators into accepting the Terms of Use.

Generally, the ToU for Windows/Mac machines at schools are much worse than that of G-Suite for Education, eg: playing any games would be a CFAA violation. I've seen this as a mandatory click through before logging on in a number of Seattle area school districts.

@aral @Purism @gnome

In case you wanted to know what their COPPA compliance looks like:

Consent is mandatory, i.e. there is no opt-out of data collection with G Suite accounts. No parent/guardian consent = no G Suite.

This is the template they offer to schools:

They claim not to use collected data for advertising. They mention sharing data for policing, but not limited to law enforcement, or legal policing.

@rook @aral @Purism @gnome well COPPA was passed in 1998 (I think) but as late as 2014 the previous incarnation of this product was the subject of a number of law suites involving an even older law FERPA. Why because Google were doing exactly what they say they now do not do. Profiling for advertising.

Google's business model is monetising your digital online self. It's like putting a fox amongst chickens and telling it to "Stay".

@StuC @rook @aral @Purism @gnome

a forum I help moderate which was very popular with teens and young adults in 2000s had COPPA compliance built in to the software; ISTR it was fairly toothless and more to keep younger users in order and make it easy for a private org owning the online resource to deal with disputes amongst them.

We ignored it and instead voluntarily complied with accepted practice for social networks in the UK and EU as these were fairer and more effective..

@StuC @aral @Purism @gnome you need to make a compelling argument to school superintendents. They set district mandates, generally speaking.

@StuC @aral @Purism @gnome See also the comments in the right corner above:
Google is creating customers, users of Google products by offering products ‘for free’.


Thank you for the article, I read and enjoyed both it and many of the comments.

This kind of corporate grooming seems to me to be of far more consequence than the poor decisions of adults to store their stuff with Google, because the the children and parents are being divested of choice.

As Aral rightly pointed out - privacy is not about not sharing your data, it is about having the choice of who get's to share your data.


@StuC @aral @Purism @gnome The rise of G Suite for Education has been lead by $200 Chromebooks that are always up to date, instantly interchangeable between users, and are easily managed centrally.

While the Pinebook ($100 laptop of similar spec to a $200 chromebook) has the hardware nailed, the software stack to put on it in an educational environment isn't advertised, nor are most school district IT departments even aware other offerings exist outside G Suite for Education, Microsoft & Mac.

@bikecurious I wasn't criticising the user experience. I am sure Google work hard to provide a good one.

As to the price, well, the obvious question must be "why is it so inexpensive?" .

Because Google see's it as a loss leader?
Because they are betting on getting your data in the end?
Because they are denying their competition market share?

Another question I ask myself is...
"Is there something Google could do to remove all doubts? "

and I think there is - Zero Knowledge Storage.

@StuC The price is so cheap due to Google being able to cut almost every corner with Chrome OS. No need for an i5 CPU, or sizable storage/ram is a recipe for a cheap bill of materials. Google isn't doing contra-revenue for most Chromebooks AFAIK.

There is no incentive for Google to remove all doubts about Chromebooks either, the decision to use Chromebooks is made by school administrations and enforced against the students by teachers and peer pressure to conform.

@aral Great talk. What do you make of services which aren't open source, but state clear alignment with privacy -- subscription instead of ads, no data mining (or even end-to-end encryption), easy data export?

@james Depends on their funding and corporate structure. The key risk is that they’ll be Trojan horses – if they get too popular, one of the surveillance-based businesses buys them and slowly erodes privacy – see WhatsApp. If VC-funded, it’s basically a given that this will happen unless they IPO (and even then, the internal loss of control of the original founders – is they were driven by their social mission instead of profits to begin with – may change its character).

@aral Hmm yeah, Trojan horse is a good way of putting it. My main concern of open sourcing as a founder with bootstrapped products is that someone will deploy a clone and undercut my pricing, making it unsustainable for me to continue developing the product.

@aral What do you think of something like this: . Hasn't left draft status as I'm not sure it's a particularly bullet-proof solution. WhatsApp a good counter example as network effects are so strong that it's too late for people to leave even with ample notice, but for apps with a good single-user utility I can see it helping. Do you think that sort of approach could help / is there something similar I'm not aware of?

@aral (For an example of how it looks to an end-user, who isn't concerned with the exact clauses)

@james Would AGPL not protect you? A first-hand example: @better is an example of us having the tool open source and yet being able to sell it on the App Store as we still have copyright. It’s released under AGPL (server-side) and GPL (client-side).

@aral @james Perhaps the best approach is to maintain the expectation that one will switch services from time to time depending on which are taking preferred principles seriously, and promote that attitude as a deliberate alternative yo choosing a walled garden and staying there no matter how weedy it gets.

@brejoc yeah I can't front - I push @elementary to everyone I know trying to break out but can't afford the steep price of high-end laptops. @aral @Purism @gnome

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