Digital Independence

Jul 23, 2018 · 2048 words · 10 minute read

My recent experience made me look more closely at my backups, how I manage my data, and how much is locked away in places and formats that are hard to back-up and restore from. If I, or anyone else, wanted my data to be more digitally independent, what are the important points to consider?

The core motivation is that being independent, you have control. You can manage your data, how you want, without being beholden to outside parties.

When thinking about this, I want to take a pragmatic approach, one that doesn’t discount any options, but is also aware of the trade-offs you might be making between things like ease of use, privacy and cost.

With that in mind, here are my principles for digital independence; but how you get there is entirely up to you, the important thing is to be mindful of the choices you are making.

  1. You own your data, and manage access to it.
  2. Your digital identity and online presence is owned by you
  3. You can easily move between platforms, providers and services
  4. Costs for services should be affordable

Before looking at each of these in more detail, I think it’s worth emphasising that I’m focusing on independence and choice first, and other factors second. There are people who are very focused on personal privacy in various forms, and that is a valid concern with any number of good reasons, such as:

  • Being tracked. People shouldn’t be followed everywhere they go, for commercial or other reasons, by online entities. It’s not acceptable in real life, and just because it’s easier online, doesn’t mean it should be acceptable there
  • Having complete control over all of their personal data
  • Needing secure and free means of communication available, such as for those working in hostile environments
  • Dealing in possibly controversial topics, that are then subject to erratic editorial decisions and removal on privately owned platforms

Being more digitally independent will probably improve your online privacy in many ways, but doesn’t mean you have to become a kind of online Thoreau, running your own mail server on a wood fired Raspberry Pi in a forest near a pond in New England somewhere.

It’s ok to use whatever service you think provides you with a net benefit, while being aware of the downsides, ensuring that you use it on your terms, and if that calculus changes, the ability to change provider at little effort.

One last distinction we need to make is between your data, and data about you. In many cases these are the same, e.g. you have a bank statement with your bank details on it.

I’ll be focusing on your data. Data about you is a much harder topic; it is almost impossible to not generate it in a form owned or accessible by someone else, both practically and legally. If you send an encrypted email, the content may be unreadable, but if it travels between servers on the open web, the header information of sender and recipient are still visible, and necessary for delivery to work, and can be read and stored by every link in the delivery chain.

1 You Own Your Data, and Manage Access to it

You can’t claim to own or be in control of your data if other people can choose to access it, especially without asking you.

In some ways this is the easiest to accomplish. Simply keep everything on a local hard drive, job done. That’s probably a fine solution for a lot of your data, and certainly you should always want a local copy of anything you value, but it can be limiting.

Chances are at some point you will want to share data with other people; the most common is photos, but perhaps documents or other things.

Here you can choose one of many services or they may be partially chosen for you; if that’s where a particular group of friends interacts and you want to interact with them1.

At this point you cross into territory where you don’t have complete control of the data anymore. Pick whichever social media platform or cloud provider you like, but most, if not all, of the following will apply:

  • Your data may be shared more widely than you expect. Anyone who can see your content can copy it, and in some form share it on. It might also be that they, or you, accidentally over-share because you’ve not understood the many, and often not clearly explained, privacy settings and controls.
  • Platform maintainers or administrators can legitimately access your data. I include content moderators in this. Mostly they don’t need to, and statistically it’s very unlikely that a human from the platform will ever see it, unless it’s somehow causing a problem or reported, but it can happen. This can include law enforcement, from your own, or other jurisdictions, being able to request access, to which the maintainers may not be able to say no, even if they want to.
  • You get locked out, or your data is deleted by accident. This is the case that I’ve seen most amongst friends. Either through your fault, or that of the platform, accounts can get inadvertently locked or deleted. When this happens you’ll often find that, for a platform providing you with a free service there’s no customer support or personalised help that you can reach; it’s not like a paid service where there can be an expectation of support.

If you’re OK with these, and in some circumstances I am, that’s fine, but be aware of them. For these reasons above, never let something that is important to you exist only on such a platform.

2 Your digital identity and online presence is owned by you

This might seem obvious for people who benefit from marketing themselves via a web presence, but I think it’s relevant to everyone.

This is especially true of emails, and why I think having your own domain for email is important. That way it’s constant, even if you switch the back end that sends and receives the emails. Why do you still see people with Yahoo and AOL email accounts? Because those addresses are everywhere, and you probably can’t remember all the places you used it. By not changing the address, or at least keeping it in parallel, you can be sure that no-one loses the ability to contact you.

While lots of ways of sending messages have been developed since email, and email has a whole host of problems and limitations because of the age of the underlying technology, it is still the baseline. You need one to sign up for many services, and apart from a phone number or physical address, it’s about the only form of communication more traditional entities (e.g. banks, insurance companies etc.) will accept. In some ways email is the lowest common denominator, but it’s good enough. MP3 are no longer the best digital audio format by almost any measure - other than you can use them everywhere. The same is true of email. Having your own domain allows you to keep that continuous point of contact.

Using your own domain as a website is for many more secondary, and only if you are concerned with having a public web presence or services run from your own servers.

If you work in digital media a website as essential marketing tool, and then you don’t want to leave that up to the whims of some other platform. The simplest setup is to forward your web address to your current service of choice, and change that forwarding if you switch. This still gives you the main benefit, of being able to move service providers and people can still find you, and not being locked in to something that no longer suits your needs, or perhaps isn’t worth the money if it’s a paid service. This brings us nicely to the next two points.

3 You can easily move between platforms, providers and services

If you have the ability to redirect people from a fixed address (email or URL) to your current location, you have much more freedom to change where that is to suit your needs. But changing your current service to a more attractive offer requires the ability to move the data you want from one to another.

Mostly this means using formats that are open, and easily readable or convertible. There are genuine open standards for things like documents, but there are also de-facto standards that in many cases act the same way. The big three Microsoft Office formats (Word Documents, Excel Spreadsheets and PowerPoint Slides) can also be widely opened for free, even if editing to or writing those formats is not as easy.

In some cases this is not possible. You can’t move all your friends from Facebook to Tumblr and expect them to engage with you in that platform if you want to move, and that is the ultimate vendor lock-in, because the platform owns the links and the connections, and there is currently no way to export those to some other service and continue using them in the same way.

Another area that is difficult are files associated with specialist applications. Graphics (Photoshop), music (Logic, Abelton) or video editing applications or similar. Here you hopefully devised and tested a workflow that works well for you, and that’s why you committed to that ecosystem. (Often your employer may have picked an ecosystem, but then it’s a matter of company strategy how to manage their data.)

If you’re used to Abelton for music production, your skills in that tool are probably such that changing to something else is going to cause you bigger problems than not being able to open old files. In this case it’s the end result that’s important long term (the song, the image, the video) rather than the working files, and the end result can be stored in something more widely accessible.

4 Costs for services should be affordable

Freedom is rarely free, but in this case that luckily only a moderate amount of cash, and it should stay that way.

Paying for a service has a number of benefits beyond the service itself. First it makes it very clear who is the customer, and what it is that’s being sold. Services that are free to you are normally charging someone, so what are they getting from you? In many cases this is advertising, a la Facebook and Google. The second benefit is that if you’re buying a service, there is hopefully some real support available and maybe even consumer protection laws to keep providers in check.

This is not guaranteed of course, and you should compare options - but hopefully by being more independent you have the option to switch providers if you are unhappy about service or price, and this means there is a competitive market for these services.

The price of registering a domain name depends on the name and extension, but .com or country code TLDs can be had for around 20€ a year or less. Once you have that you can choose to connect it to services from other providers or forward people on. There are many free hosting and email solutions (such as Gmail or Windows Live mail) which you can use with your own domain. If you want to go further you can of course, for a little more money and effort, either pay for a private server and manage some services yourself, e.g. website and email, or pay for that service directly.

The theme Digital Independence ended up becoming a sort-of mini series of posts, which by this time includes:

  1. Goodbye Time Machine, Hello Rsync
  2. Digital Independence (this post)
  3. Backup Strategy
  4. Exporting my Photo collection from Apple Photos
  5. Moving from Blogger to Hugo

  1. This is, either implicitily or explicity, the goal of many social media companies. To charge advertisers the highest prices, they want to know what you see and do everywhere, and that’s easiest if everything is done on their platform. By making their platform or service the way groups of friends communicate, you have a very effective lock-in. You can’t copy your friends to another provider, you would have to persuade them all, and their other contacts to all move, which is almost impossible. ↩︎