How to be a free European citizen online

European alternatives to liberate your technology!

Rafa Font avatar

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Judita was reading the news about the “Digital Markets Act”, the brand-new regulation of the European Union to deal with “Big Tech”. Some platforms were called “gatekeepers”.

Well,” – she thought – “here goes one more English term that now will have a second life as European slang. I wonder if, as a user, I need all this regulation.

She then closed the Chrome browser on her Android phone and turned to the Windows laptop by her side. She quickly opened three tabs: one for the web version of WhatsApp to stay up to date with her social life, another one for LinkedIn to check for colleagues’ updates, and a third one for her Gmail account. Someone sent a video link, so before starting her afternoon work shift, she opened YouTube.

She stopped for a second.

Her Instagram account blipped on her phone, notifying her of something. She was happy she was using Facebook a bit less these days.

A thought came to her mind. She returned to the article about the “gatekeepers” and she read again who they were: Alphabet (owner of Google, YouTube and Android), Amazon, Apple, ByteDance (owner of TikTok), Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), and Microsoft (owner of Windows and LinkedIn).

In just five minutes, she had used 7 out of the 11 applications listed above. Her email received a notification: the book she had ordered in Amazon was on the way. That made it 8.

Maybe, in the end, as a user (as a digital citizen!), she could get some help from the Digital Services Act.

European institutions are setting limits to Big Tech

Europe is a beast dealing with technology. When a new European law comes out, it might affect the whole world. This happened with the RoHS (to remove hazardous substances from electronics), and with GDPR (to protect personal data). International companies that operate in Europe have to comply, and sometimes it’s cheaper to adapt their whole business to what Europe requires. That’s the well-known “Brussels effect“. Its latest hit has been Apple’s switch to USB-C (also known as “standard european port”) in the iPhone15.

The more recent additions are the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). They complement each other.

The “Markets” act (DMA) defines “gatekeepers”, with which Judita is now acquainted. Some of their obligations are: not to abuse their position of power to promote their own products, not to use personal data gathered through one product into another (e.g. feed Facebook with WhatsApp data), and allow you to install software from other sources (in Android, having other “stores” apart from the Play Store).

The “Services” act (DSA) defines new obligations for “online platforms“. For instance, ads must be prominently marked as such, and the user can know who is paying for them. Another example: illegal activities should be prevented (like online stalking).

There are 19 platforms who get special treatment under the DSA. These are the “Very Large Online Platforms and Search Engines“, those with more than 45 million users in the EU (including as well Wikipedia, Booking, or Pinterest). They are mandated to run risk assessments of potential infringements, mitigate them (for instance by reinforcing their content moderation), and if there’s still a problem, they have to put in place a crisis response mechanism. Their algorithms will be audited (such as the one that composes your Twitter feed, or the recommendations you get from YouTube).

The changes that the “Services” and “Markets” acts are bringing have been requested by concerned citizens. For example, the People vs Big Tech movement followed the negotiation of the DMA and DSA with a rallying cry: “We’re people, not users”. Their manifesto, The People’s Declaration, signed by 100+ organisations, is a call to stop surveillance for profit.

Judita’s bad week with technology

Judita is a (fictional) reader of the European Perspective. The day in which she realised how digital gatekeeping was a thing, was the first one after her holidays. This made her think of how, during this period, she had got upset with technology.

First, it was “infinite scrolling”. One day, she stayed in to rest while her partner took the kids to the beach. At some moment she got bored, opened Twitter, and the next time she realised, two hours had gone by. And she wasn’t any calmer! On the contrary, she felt more tense, angrier. She looked bitterly at her phone, thinking: “Are you not supposed to empower me? To enable me to pursue my dreams, not to divert me from them!

Her parents called right after, to ask for help filling their taxes online. “Darling, we’re completely lost. Your father is looking for some password of a certificate that he has written somewhere…” She spent two hours helping them upload the tax declaration. She thought: shouldn’t technology be for everyone?

The next day she got an email: “Hi to all parents! I have uploaded 200 pictures of the kids’ class farewell in this OneDrive folder…” But she uses Google Photos, so, in order to keep them, she had to download them (one by one) and upload them again in her account. Were the pictures not in the cloud already? It seemed these two clouds were incapable of talking with each other!

She opened Instagram. A group of her friends had posted the day before a picture of them on the beach, but she could not find it now. She texted them to check and this was the reply :”We had to take it down, it was getting so many rude comments!” Wow. So much for encouraging participation.

One day she managed to use some skills learned at work, when she received a phishing attempt. She recognised the false email address and reported it. But once more, technology was getting in her way. Shouldn’t users be more protected against cybercrime?

To round it all up, she got to read about a new data centre soon to be built by a river close to her home town. To cool the servers, it was going to absorb fresh water and return it to the current 2-3 °C warmer. Wait a second, shouldn’t environment and technology go hand by hand?

This is not the technology that we signed up for

Instead, it’s closer to a dystopian novel. Machines have not taken over, but they’re really messing with us. Technology was supposed to be different.

  • Technology should empower you. Doing more, with fewer intermediaries.

  • Everyone should have access to technology.  It should be both safe enough for your kids, and easy enough for your parents.

  • You should be able to choose.  Pick a photo provider from a company, and a storage provider from another, and they should work together.

  • You should be able to express yourself. With the usual, well-understood limit of not being a jerk.

  • The online environment should be safe.

  • IT should be sustainable. Energy consumption should be low, and hardware components should be recycled,

These six principles were established in December 2022 in the “European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles“.

Big Tech is Big, but is it Tech?

Big Tech business model is based on capturing your attention

In 2022, 80% of Google’s revenue came via ads. For Twitter, it was 90%. For Meta (including Facebook and Instagram), over 98%. We could call them the “Big Ads” industry instead of “Big Tech”. Some of them might charge you for other services, which we could well consider to be ancillary.

In order to sell more ads, they tailor them to the audience.

To tailor them to the audience, they gather more user data, including their online usage.

To gather more data, they have to increase the time you’re online (this is the well-known metric called “engagement”).

To increase engagement, they develop techniques such as “infinite scrolling”.

Judita might feel bad after having had two hours of her time captured by social media, but this is exactly what social media was designed for.

Please give me your data

Recently there was a new Twitter competitor entering the market, called Threads, developed by Meta/Facebook.

In the screenshot below, you can see the amount of permissions to access your data that Threads requires:

Why would a social media tool need my health and fitness data?
Why would a social media tool need my health and fitness data?

Threads hasn’t launched in the European Union yet because they can’t figure out how to do it while complying with the personal data regulation in place.

Unfair competition

Big Tech companies have a history of disagreements with the European Union in terms of competition1.

Microsoft 

  • Wouldn’t allow users to set their browser of choice. The European Union fined them with € 561 million in 2013.

  • Is being investigated if, by including Teams in the Office 365 bundle, it’s abusing its dominant position.

Google 

  • Was fined with € 2.4 billion in 2017 because it was using the search engine to show more results of its own shopping comparison service.

  • Was fined with € 4.1 billion in 2018 because it imposed the Google Search engine on Android devices, abusing their power.

  • Was fined with € 1.49 billion in 2019 for prohibiting advertisers to advertise in the other search engines.

  • Is currently being investigated for abuse of dominant position regarding their technology to sell ads.

Amazon

  • Agreed to make changes in Prime and BuyBox to avoid being fined for unfair competition.

Apple

  • Is being investigated to see if developers who offer tools that also Apple offer, are being discriminated against in the Apple Store.

  • Is being investigated to see if it forces content creators to use Apple Music  or Apple Books (which charge a fee).

  • Is being investigated to see if their iPhones are programmed to work only with Apple Pay and block all other payment providers.

However, European governments still advertise big American tech companies in their front pages, for free.

Translation: I went to the (Portuguese) #government website and the more I think about it, the more absurd everything seems to me. Notice in the upper corner of the site, 5 logos of North American companies, that's what it is there. Why the hell should the Portuguese (or any other) government advertise foreign private companies, companies that oblige citizens to register in order to access the contents that the government publishes there? What's the point of this!?
Translation: I went to the (Portuguese) #government website and the more I think about it, the more absurd everything seems to me. Notice in the upper corner of the site, 5 logos of North American companies, that’s what it is there. Why the hell should the Portuguese (or any other) government advertise foreign private companies, companies that oblige citizens to register in order to access the contents that the government publishes there? What’s the point of this!?

Meet the European Alternatives for Digital products

Under the European vision of being online, you’re above all a citizen. You have rights, you are protected. Technology is here to serve you.

Under the current state of affairs, you’re above all a customer (if not a product, as your data is being sold to the real customers). You get benefits, such as the use of technology, but this is a subproduct, not its main aim. The bread and butter of the company is serving ads, not serving you.

To counter this situation and shift towards the original goal, enter “European Alternatives for Digital Products“, a website that lists European IT tools. Constantin Graf, a freelance software developer based in Vienna, is the person behind the project.

Why European Alternatives? There are several practical reasons for this:

  • To support local businesses. Why should money keep flying out of Europe, many times tax-free, when it can stay and power our own economy?

  • To use a product that supports data protection. Tools made in Europe are better at complying with the European laws (for instance, the General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR).

  • To make it simpler to get VAT refunds. A European company doing business with another European company might be eligible to VAT refunds. This is not the case if you deal with a non-European one.

  • Services are hosted in the EU. For many companies it’s a mandatory requirement that their sensitive data do not leave the EU.

But overall, and this is what this article is about, to support the freedom of the online citizen.

“European Alternatives” features more than 300 European applications. They’re open to receive suggestions from users, and they are getting around 1 new suggestion per day. Out of the 300, we have selected 5. Think of these as potential first steps into a more free digital experience.

Reclaim your digital identity with Proton Mail instead of Gmail

Let’s consider the following two facts together:

  • Google, as we saw before, makes 80% of their revenue via personalised advertising. Through their many services, they amass personal data to feed the needs of advertisers.

  • Today, email is your digital identity.

This means that if you’re using Gmail, your digital identity is controlled by a company whose main goal is not to sell technology, nor to build email systems, but to sell personalised ads. With this in mind, it’s easier to understand why Gmail scans the content of your email (to personalise the ads), and why it inserts advertisements in the middle of your Inbox.

In 2014 a new company was created to reclaim people’s control over their privacy, starting with email. From Switzerland, Proton Mail kickstarted with a crowdfunding campaign of over $500.000. Some of its strong selling points have been security, privacy, encryption and open source. 9 years later they’re a profitable company with offices all over Europe. See, for instance, Proton’s job openings in Spain, France, Czech Republic, Lithuania and even North Macedonia.

We spoke with Andy Yen, former researcher at CERN, founder and CEO of Proton. Yen admits that “It’s more profitable to sell personalised ads, as it might be more profitable to burn coal for energy, but it’s not sustainable, and it’s not what we do.” Proton is not in the ads business; it’s in the tech business. Under a “freemium” business model, their software is free, while paying users can access extra functionalities. Today Proton offers: Email, Calendar, File Storage, Password Manager, and VPN, at a bundled cost of €10/month. At the moment, they’re not working on new products, but on strengthening their current suite.

Andy Yen is used to talk with the EU bureaucrats. He explains to them that he’s not asking for a subsidy (that would not be sustainable either). Instead, he wants a level playing field, equality of opportunities. He’s straightforward: “European tech has the money, the talent, and the ambition, but it lacks the appropriate rules“.

Close shot of Andy Yen, CEO of Proton, with the caption "European tech has the money, the talent, and the ambition, but it lacks the appropriate rules (to compete with American Big Tech)."

Why this is not a level playing field?, we asked Yen. “All my distribution channels are mediated by American Big Tech: the Search, the Browser, and the Application Stores. When I sell a product there, my direct competitor is getting a 30% cut of each sale.

In this article, we have mentioned how the EU has fined several times Big Tech companies due to abuse of dominant position. Isn’t that a way forward? Yen is not optimistic. He reminds us that these companies are larger economic entities than several EU countries. The amount of the fines just equals some days’ worth of their revenue.

And what about DSA, and DMA, the brand-new rules created by Europe? For Proton’s interests, they’re a good way forward, a step towards that level playing field. Under these rules, for instance, in Android you should be able to get your software via a different source than the Play Store. Andy Yen looks forward to their enforcement: “In 6 to 9 months we will see if they work“.

Mastodon instead of Twitter

Twitter is working hard to destroy its own status as the Internet’s public arena, one scandal at a time.

Mastodon is one of the more popular Twitter alternatives. It was created in 2016, and it received several waves of the Twitter Migration, especially in late 2022 after the acquisition by Elon Musk. However, Mastodon still has only 10 million users, compared with the several hundreds that still use Twitter.

Mastodon is run by a German non-profit. It doesn’t have advertising, so you can be sure that you’re not the product. The source of revenue is crowdfunding, so if you want to secure its future, you better contribute (starting with € 1 / year).

Mastodon doesn’t have (yet?) two features that have been blamed for toxicity: infinite scrolling, and quoting posts. These are not exempt of community debate. For instance, Mastodon recently introduced full text search (before, you could only search hashtags). This benefits discovery, but it also can expose some communities to trolls. So it was rolled out with an “opt-in” mechanism: you have to activate it if you want to use it.

If you want to experience a calm session on a social network, jump over to Mastodon, and find us there! 

Mastodon is just one implementation of something bigger, called the “Activity Pub” protocol. Some other implementations will appear, and the idea is that you can choose the one you like best, and still be able to follow me on my favourite one. Unlike today: if I choose Facebook, you have to open an account on Facebook to follow me.

In what is called the Fediverse (the Federated Universe) there are also alternatives for Instagram (PixelFed) and YouTube (PeerTube).

DeepL instead of Google Translate

Online translation is a topic which we don’t need to introduce. You probably already know Google Translate.

You might be interested in checking the European Alternative for a maybe even better translation, the German “DeepL“. Use it online, or better, add the plugin to your favourite non-Google-supported browser.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to offer The European Perspective in all EU languages using DeepL
Maybe one day we’ll be able to offer The European Perspective in all EU languages using DeepL

Toggl: time tracker

In the category of time tracking, there is no nemesis. No American Big Tech is entrenched to eat your soul and digest it in form of data bits when you’re tracking your time.

Then why are we including this? Because this company is from Estonia, a technology powerhouse. Small and discreet, Estonia is one of the top European tech players, and we want to give them recognition.

Toggl makes you more productive. Time tracking is a super-power of yours waiting to be discovered. This is the sort of enabler we were talking about at the beginning of this article.

And these people draw comics. The developers themselves.

Nerd content alert! Skip the comic if you don’t understand it… or ask us about it in the comments!- How to save the princess using different programming languages

Comic header: "Git the Princess. How to save the princess using 8 programming languages", by the Toggl squad

The best tool for software developers comes from the Czech Republic

Now that we have slipped into nerd territory, let’s quickly describe a tool for developers in which they can write code, upload it, test it… it’s an Integrated Development Environment called “IntelliJ IDEA“.

IntelliJ is developed by a company located in Prague, called Jetbrains, who also created a programming language called Kotlin (Java developers will be familiar with it). 

Up to here we have presented some winners, or at least some good candidates. But there are other areas in which competition with the evil forces of surveillance capitalism are more difficult. Let’s see three of them.

THE SEARCH

Is there space to compete with Google Search, at 85% market share? Some European search engines are trying that, but the picture is not rosy.

We’re going to single out Ecosia, a German one, for two reasons: it’s non-profit, and “green”. In 2014, it became the first German company to be registered as a “B. Corp”, certifying its social and environmental impact. They make money via advertisement, and every 50 searches you do, they plant a tree. Their data centers are powered with their own solar panels, and they claim that these generate twice as much energy as they actually use.

So why is this green engine not rosy, you’d say? Because the search results are not entirely theirs. They get them from Microsoft’s engine, Bing, and they apply on top their own algorithms before presenting the results to the user.

To start using Ecosia the quickest way is to configure it as the default search engine in your browser (for instance, for Firefox you can download the adequate plug-in).

THE BROWSER

This is another Google kingdom. Google Chrome became the most used browser in 2012 and in 2018 it went over 60% of market share.

There is a possible European competitor: Vivaldi, a product of a Norwegian company. Vivaldi’s main selling point is “we don’t track you”, and it blocks trackers and ads. This is, at the core, the opposite business model of Big Tech: technology created to harvest your personal data vs just technology.  So how do they make money? In two ways: first, through sponsored bookmarks that come preinstalled when you get Vivaldi (which you can remove later), and from THE SEARCH discussed above: if you select Ecosia (or some other browser with which they have a deal) as your default browser in Vivaldi, the search engine pays Vivaldi. 

THE CLOUD

The Cloud is Amazon’s domain.

To understand the game in the Cloud, we can simplify it dividing in two blocks:

  • Block 1: This is just a standard platform where you can run your own software. Just place it in a container and start it up. All Cloud providers offer similar and compatible services.

  • Block 2: Here you find software which is vendor-specific. Some services are similar across vendors, but not interoperable. You can’t mix a service in provider A with another in provider B: you have to choose one family of services and establish a long-term relationship with it to maximise what the cloud can offer.

A company migrating to the Cloud has to answer two questions:

  • Do they want to be independent of the provider? If the answer is a hard yes, this company will only use Block 1. If they want to keep their options open to switch providers tomorrow, they have to say no to vendor-specific services.

  • Which provider do they select? 

Here we will find the big three (Google Cloud, Microsoft’s Azure, and Amazon Web Services). But the debate is not only technical. Public institutions will ask: “is there no European Alternative for the Cloud“?

If you are OK doing just Block 1, then yes, there are alternatives. You can get your virtual servers from companies like the French OVH, or the German Hetzner (see European virtual private server (VPS) hosters).

But if you want to do Block 2, European companies are not yet fully competitive against the big ones. The catalogue of cloud native services that the European leader in this area, OVH, can offer, is still limited.

De-Googling your phone with Murena

Do you want to take it further and escape as much as possible from the influence of the Gatekeepers? Enter the business of Murena. This company, fully focused on privacy, has changed Android to remove all the components that send your data to Google. Their own version of the phone operating system is called “/e/OS”, which is open-source and free.

We spoke with Veronika Pozdniakova, Communications Manager at Murena. She showed us a de-googled phone that had everything needed to work: Email, Calendar and Drive, provided by Murena Cloud; collaborative office applications, powered by OnlyOffice, and Maps, using (the also European tool) Magic Earth. Veronika also showcased the “Advanced Privacy” tool, which allows you to block the trackers on your apps, fake your location, and even hide your IP address, for a maximum of privacy. Researchers have analysed the personal data collected by the usual phone providers, and this is what they say: “/e/OS collects essentially no data and in that sense is by far the most private of the Android OS variants studied.

On top of this, you can purchase this operating system running on a European, ethical phone: see Murena phones with Fairphone and /e/OS preinstalled. And if you prefer to extend the life of your current device, the /e/OS system supports some older models that have been abandoned by Android. This operating system can be a good choice in the fight against e-waste, by being installed on old phones that can keep running for longer.

Murena is a fully remote company employing 40 people, you can follow them on Mastodon, and also check out their job offers, several of them for Android specialists.

Screenshot of Murena’s app “Advanced Privacy” with the three privacy options active: No trackers, Fake geolocation, Hidden IP Address.
Screenshot of Murena’s app “Advanced Privacy” with the three privacy options active: No trackers, Fake geolocation, Hidden IP Address.

Judita’s route to technological freedom

Judita installed the Ecosia add on her Firefox browser. It seemed like the easiest recommendation to follow. She still comes back to Google every now and then, but her “tree counter” on Ecosia is growing!

Next in her scale of easy-to-do was getting a Mastodon account. After a few weeks of finding interesting people to follow, subscribing to some hashtags, and having calm and polite exchanges in the platform, she decided that she felt better there than on Twitter.

She started to plan her move out of Gmail. That was going to be more complicated. But the fact that Proton offered Drive, a Password Manager, and also a “one-click” process to migrate all her email, made her optimistic.

She started to save to buy a de-Googled Murena Fairphone 5. Although for now, the most ethical option is to use the phone she has to the maximum of its life.

She hasn’t quit Instagram yet. However, she has opened a PixelFed account, and she’s experimenting with it.

It still seems that there’s a long way to go to get a European, Big Tech-free alternative for LinkedIn.

Not everything is free, but she has now more control than some months ago. Her parents are calling again. Will she be able to get them to use any of these European tools?


  1. Source: Antitrust Cases Search https://competition-cases.ec.europa.eu/search ↩︎
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Comments

2 responses to “How to be a free European citizen online”

  1. Lorcan Lyons avatar
    Lorcan Lyons

    Super rundown!

    It’s hard to be optimistic about our ability to regulate these giants though when the Commission uses Prometric to recruit, who require Chrome; when the whole organisation is locked into Office and Teams (which is the same thing); when management are lapping up AI for the most mundane uses; etc.

    1. Rafa Font avatar

      Yes, those who know the internal works of the Commission can point out to several flaws and inconsistencies between what they say and what they do.

      I use to define the European Commission as a hydra with a thousand heads. It can be the best one defending the seas while promoting ultra liberalism in trade, enable moving of worker across the border while not understanding remote work for its internal staff.

      Let me position myself on the optimistic side regarding the DSA and DMA and those in the Commission who promoted them 🙂

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