Big American tech companies know way too much about us and are too intertwined with our personal lives, but they don’t have to be.
Nearly everyone reading this article likely has Google, Facebook, or Apple accounts. Almost as many likely have Netflix or Spotify accounts. In many ways, it’s remarkable that anyone can use these billion-dollar services for free or cheap, that with a login, we can access all of the knowledge of humanity, thousands of movies and millions of songs.
However, the adage is true, “if it’s free, you’re the product.” These companies sell your personal information to advertisers. But for very little money and a weekend of tinkering, you can rid yourself of these things and have nearly the same experience.
Thankfully in 2021, there are so many “free as in freedom” services available that are of equal quality to these “free as in beer” services. Already I’ve observed plenty of my friends dumping Facebook-owned WhatsApp for Signal.
Perhaps you’re like me, someone who’s very critical and wary of all of this data we’re just giving up to faceless, transnational corporations. Maybe you love the idea of using tools made by the open-source community. Maybe you hate surveillance capitalism.
Maybe you fancy yourself to be a libertarian, and you want as few governmental and corporate organizations involved in your life as possible. Here’s an opportunity to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.
Many people found themselves picking up eclectic new hobbies during the pandemic, and while people were baking bread and writing music, I decided to build myself a personal server.
I essentially built a new PC with additional hard drives and installed Debian Linux on it, but if you’re interested in doing something similar for a lower cost, I would recommend buying your own hard drives and using any old PC you have sitting around. You can also use a Raspberry Pi — a scientific calculator-sized computer — and format it and install either Debian Linux or FreeNAS.
From that point, you’d want to install Docker, which will allow you to install various services in “containers.” One of the first containers I’d recommend is Portainer so that you wouldn’t need to do everything from the command line. After you get comfortable with this, you can go on to do actual fun things.
If you can install a container and access it on your home network by typing your IP address and the port in your browser, like “184.108.40.206:8080,” then you’re well on your way. Make sure you set up excellent passwords to protect yourself and don’t worry too much about forgetting a complicated password on these containers. You own it, after all.
You could also buy a domain name, which will allow you to type in a nice web address instead of an ugly string of numbers to access your service from outside your home. You may also need to do some port forwarding on your router.
So now that I’ve managed to do all this silliness, how have I benefited from it? I don’t use Google Drive as much as I used to. Instead, I plan to use a private Nextcloud that functions almost identically. I don’t and have never used Spotify, instead, I have an Airsonic instance that hosts my personal music files.
I use Jellyfin instead of Netflix, and even share it with my friends, and I can access these things from anywhere. I just need to type something like “music.examplename.net” and enter a secure password to access it.
All of these services are open-source, freely available, maintained, and kept up to date by community developers.
I’ve even dropped Google search, and I don’t even use Duckduckgo. I take things a step further, and I host my own meta-search engine on my server. Worried about your password manager getting compromised the way LastPass was? Set up your own Bitwarden instance for free.
The beauty of this situation is that I’m no longer trusting private companies in Silicon Valley to do the right thing, waiting for governments to pass better laws, or risking a major data breach that would put all of my cloud data at risk. Instead, it’s all mine, and the security can be as tight as I want it to be.
Many people aren’t willing to spend the time to learn how their tools work, but I assure you that it’s a rewarding process. At the end of it, you’ll be something equivalent to an internet landowner. You will be much more independent of billion-dollar companies, and you’ll have a much better understanding of how the internet works.