The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an enormous amount of changes in how people
work, play, and communicate. By now, many of us have settled into the
routine of using remote communication or videoconferencing tools to
keep in touch with our friends and family. In the last few weeks we’ve
also seen a number of lists and guides aiming to get people set up
with the “right” tools for communicating in hard times, but in almost
every case, these articles recommend that people make a difficult
compromise: trading their freedom in order to communicate with the
people they care about and work with.

In times like these it becomes all the more important to
remember that tools like Zoom, Slack, and Facebook Messenger are not
benign public services, and while the sentiment they’ve expressed to
the global community in responding to the crisis may be sincere, it
hasn’t addressed the fundamental ethical issues with any piece of
proprietary software.

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 each other advocate for their use.

In the suggestions that follow, a few of the tools we will recommend
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 your 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 their freedom,
privacy, and security.

Chat

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, their development isn’t easy.
Promoting real-time voice and video chat clients remains a High
Priority Project of ours. Though we may still be waiting for a truly
perfect solution, there are some projects that are far enough along in
their development that we can recommend them to others.

Audio calls

  • 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 us to go fully remote,
    the FSF staff 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 SIP protocol, it’s entirely true. Although it can be
    difficult to set up, it’s worth mentioning that 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.
    Providing video and voice calls through the browser via WebRTC, it
    also allows for presenters to share their screen in a similar way to
    Zoom. And unlike Zoom, it doesn’t come with serious privacy
    violations
    or threats to user freedom. 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 it’s used at the FSF primarily 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: Another much-used software program this LibrePlanet was
    OBS Studio. Illness, different timezones, or unforeseen travel
    were no match for the solutions that OBS Studio offered. 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 in one
    screen, and sharing audiovisual materials in a second window.

Text chat

  • XMPP: If you’ve ever used “Jabber,” older iterations of Google
    Talk or Facebook Messenger, then you’ve used XMPP. XMPP is a
    flexible and extensible instant messaging protocol that’s lately
    seen a resurgence 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 encrypted against individual staff members’
    private key. 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.

Long-form discussion

  • 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!

Document Sharing

If you’re unused 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.

File 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, making sure those files you need to exchange are only there
for just 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.

Conclusion

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 which 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 themselves are
likely to see an increased amount of 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.

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