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Websites that Offer Free and Private Services

3-5-19



By now, almost all of us have heard the saying about services provided over the internet, "If you don't have to pay for the product, you are the product." We know that usually means giving up information about ourselves that service providers can use to make money. They usually make money by selling our information to advertisers. For example, I think it's safe to say by now that most Gmail users know that Google reads their emails and sells the non-identifying information it finds to advertisers.

This saying about us being the product is almost always true; however, there are still some service providers that offer truly free services (i.e. can be used without giving up our privacy, although we may still have to put up with advertisements). I can think of four categories into which they fall:


  1. Those that use free services as a way of advertising their paid services.
  2. Those that have not yet grown to a size where they can start charging. Since they are still very small, their operating costs are also very small, so they don't have to charge, yet.
  3. Those that make money by subjecting us directly to advertisements and, therefore, don't need to collect information from us. With these, it may be unclear whether or not they are also collecting information from our internet browsers.
  4. Those that provide services that are designed to be free and stay free. These providers believe their services should be free, so they provide them for free.

The bottom line is that there are some internet services that are both free and private (private, meaning that they protect user's privacy), at least for the time being. There are others that may or may not be collecting information about us, but at least their business models don't require it. So, they may or may not be both free and private. With the latter group, you will have to carefully read their privacy statements to see if they protect your privacy. Cheapskatesguide.org falls into Category 2 and will probably stay there. But with a great deal of luck, it could grow to the point where it could move into category 3. However, that looks doubtful, given Google's severe penalization of small websites in its search results. With cheapskatesguide.org, Google actually ignores our keywords, substitutes its own irrelevant key words, and then penalizes our website because very few people click on our website based on those irrelevant keyword searches!

Given my experience with Google's discrimination against cheapskatesguide.org, I assume they are doing the same to many, many other small websites. So, my goal with this article is to point out some alternatives to the giant websites that Google likes--websites that are both free and private, yet little known, thanks to Google. I want to stick with basic services, not the more esoteric ones very few of us use. With this in mind, if you are currently using a basic service that you really like that is truly free, feel free leave a comment telling us why you like it. Here is my list of free and private service providers:



Email:

There is actually a growing list of email providers that now provide free and private email. So, things are looking very encouraging here. Some of the ones I've tried are:

Protonmail.com: This Category 1 provider, extends basic email services for free. Protonmail is billed as the provider of the world's most private email, because it's email is highly encrypted, and the servers are located in Switzerland, which has excellent privacy laws, to which they apparently adhere. I wish I could say the same about the US. Protonmail offers "end-to-end" encryption between Protonmail users, but you can also send and receive unencrypted emails to/from other email providers. Because of the encryption, no one at Protonmail is able to read their users' emails. I am doubtful about "end-to-end" encryption claims made by any service provided through an internet browser, because while HTTPS websites technically provide encrypted data to your browser, SSL/TLS encryption is likely not secure enough to prevent government snooping. I wouldn't even be surprised if governments had a backdoor. When I first began using Protonmail's free service, I sometimes had two problems: not being able to get access to my account and disappearing emails. However, an email to their support people seems to have solved this problem. I'm still evaluating Protonmail's free email service, but so far it seems usable, if you don't plan on storing more than 500 MB of emails on their servers or sending more than 150 emails per day.

Tutanota.com: This is another Category 1 provider of "end-to-end", strongly-encrypted email. Encryption is via open-source software. Tutanota's servers are located in Germany, another privacy-conscious country. With Tutanota, you get 1 GB of storage and unlimited emails per day. It's billed as an email service that's easy to use. I have a Tutanota account, but I haven't used it enough to have seen any potential problems with it. There are iOS and Android apps for it, but I use it through a regular internet browser.

Privyboard.terraaeon.com: Privyboard is a Category 2 encrypted email alternative. Full disclosure: Privyboard is associated with cheapskatesguide.com. Privyboard is a message board that uses strong, open-source, AES-256 encryption for all messages. The way it works is that you go to the Privyboard website with your internet browser, type in your message with a one-time password of your choosing, and you receive a randomized, nine digit message number for your message. The message is encrypted and stored on Privyboard for two weeks. Then it is automatically deleted. Since it's strongly encrypted, no one at Privyboard can read it. I should also mention that you never have to open an account, and Privyboard doesn't try to track or identify you in any way. The use of a message number means that messages are not associated in any way with users, for potentially the highest level of privacy that I can imagine. For someone to read your message, he must have both your message number and password. It is up to you to transmit your message number and password outside of Privyboard to any person or persons that you want to read your message. Depending on how secure you want your message to remain, you may transmit your message number and password via a combination of telephone call, regular email, snail mail, face-to-face meeting, etc. The only limits to Privyboard are that individual messages must be plain text and less than 25 KB (about ten pages), but you can send as many messages as you like.



Social Networking:

I am not a big social networking person, so I have very little first-hand knowledge of what I'll say below. But, not using giant companies as providers does seem like a good idea to me, and I know that many people are leaving Facebook to take back their privacy.

Diaspora.com: This a Category 4 provider that is billed as an encrypted, distributed social networking platform. This means there is no central server. All information resides on the computers of the users in encrypted form, so it remains private. The most interesting thing about Diaspora to me is that users pay to access it in a cryptocurrency and are paid in this cryptocurrency to create content. This means that if you want to use it, you must also create content. Although, I guess you could theoretically pay cash for the cryptocurrency. This strikes me as a great idea. But I wonder about the quality of the content. I know that one of its users has posted several links to cheapskatesguide.org (thanks mudflap), but the sites to which he has posted seem to contain little more than long lists of similar links. My attempts to access the Diaspora website via my internet browser have resulted in failure. It just seems to be loading forever. I don't know if this is because it doesn't work with Linux, or if there is something I'm not understanding about how to use it. Diaspora claims to have one million users, but who knows if those are active users using it exclusively for their social networking? Still, it seems like a step in the right direction.

I know there are several other social networking platforms that are truly free. But of those, none have over a million users.



Information:

"Information" is what I'm calling everything from news to instructions on how to rebuild your carburetor. I am not aware of many providers of information on the internet that provide free content without compromising the privacy of their users. Obviously, I don't know all of them, and I will not spend my time reading through many, often lengthy and obscure, privacy pages. One that I know that's both free and private is cheapskatesguide.org, but we only fill a very small nitch. I've been constantly disappointed in the websites of traditional news providers for their glacially slow loading, severe overuse of javascript, and frenzied firing of advertisements at users. This is enough to make me avoid them. I wonder if they realize the extent to which they've shot themselves in the foot?

That being said, my first information resource is usually Wikipedia, because they tend to give the most useful and concise information. I have no way of knowing the extent to which Wikipedia protects the privacy of its users. Their lengthy privacy policy states that they do collect users' information, so I can't say that they are both free and private.

Another service that falls under the category of information is search engines. By now, everyone should know two things: Google has just about cornered the search engine market, and Google does not protect our privacy. The next largest search engine provider is Bing. Bing is run by Microsoft. Enough said. Fortunately, there are several alternatives that at least claim to protect users' privacy. Below are the two I have experience with. I have not noticed either having lower quality search results than Google. By the way, having been around in the years before Google existed, an era when people frequently used all sorts of search engines, I feel that we now falsely believe there is something magical about search engines, and that only Google can do it right. I wish we would get away from that misconception.

Ixquick.com (AKA Startpage.com): This apparently Category 4 service uses Google's search engine to do it's searches, but it does not tell Google who is doing the searching. In other words, this is a way of using Google without letting Google get your information. Ixquick is based in Europe, where people still believe in privacy. Unfortuantely, since ixquick uses Google's search engine, ixquick propagates Google's discrimination against small websites through to the users of its search page. Ixquick says, "We don't track you. We don't profile you. Period." So, how do they stay in business? I wish I knew.

Duckduckgo.com: Duckduckgo appears to be another Category 4 search provider. I've started using it as a way of both retaining my privacy and avoiding Google's discrimination. Duckduckgo doesn't provide much information about itself other than the claim that it protects our privacy. Again, I wish I knew how it stays in business. They do have a good article on their blog that talks about some of the reasons that you may want to avoid use Google's search engine.



Music:

There are many good, free music sources on the internet. As far as I am aware, none of them protect user's privacy. The one I used most was Pandora.com. But then it started using 60% of my laptop's processor capability all the time. Obviously it was doing something with all that CPU power other than playing music. What it was doing, I have no idea. Cryptocurrency mining, perhaps? And there were a lot of advertisements. When the advertisements became videos, I saw the writing on the wall. When I couldn't take Pandora any more, I moved to Slacker. But I soon dropped Slacker, because I didn't have enough control of what music I was listening to. I'm not using any music service right now. If you know of a music service that won't bog down my CPU, has few advertisements, and let's me decide what music to listen to, please let me know with a comment.



Real-time Communication

By real-time communication, I mean chat, voice communication, and video communication. I don't use chat that much--just because I don't see the point, given the availability of email and voice communication. But then, I don't carry a cellphone around with me. Maybe I would feel differently if I did.

Although it wasn't private, Google Hangouts was "free". I used Hangouts a lot for a while, and I thought it worked well. It's main feature, as far as I was concerned, was that it could be used from the US or Canada to call any telephone in the US or Canada for "free". However, my understanding is that Google has announced that Hangouts is being phased out. I don't know to what extent that has been completed. I still use Skype, even though you can't talk for free to people using telephones, and it's run by Microsoft, i.e. inherently non-private.

The problem is that none of the above real-time communications services are free and private. However, I did find one.

Linphone.org: As far as I have been able to determine, Linphone is a Category 4, open-source VOIP SIP program. Wikipedia says about SIP, "The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a signaling protocol used for initiating, maintaining, and terminating real-time sessions that include voice, video and messaging applications". In other words, SIP is a general internet communications protocal; it is not limited to one company. Linphone is specific software that runs via the SIP protocol and offers free voice and video calling--in principle. In practice, I found the Linux version difficult to install and could not get it to work completely. I could either talk to or be heard by a friend, but not both. I don't know if that was because I couldn't find the newest version (despite looking), or if that was just because there is no Linux version that runs correctly on my computer. I also tried a couple of other SIP programs and had even less success with them. After a few hours of effort, I was so worn out by the experience that I gave up on Linphone, and SIP in general. The thing I really liked about Linphone--if I understood it correctly--is that it will always be a free service, in part, because it uses the SIP open protocol that no one company owns. You should also be able to transfer files with it--assuming you are able to get it to work. I hope the iOS, macOS, android, and Windows versions are easier to install and to get to work, but since I am a Linux person, I haven't tried any of these versions. Linphone claims to have "TLS with state-of-the-art cypher algorithms", meaning that all versions should be relatively private. Linphone also says it does audio and video encryption with SRTP and ZRTP. I've never heard of these encryption algorithms, so I don't know why additional encryption would be necessary. There seems to be quite a bit of useful information at linphone.org, so if you're interested, you may want to check it out.



Conclusion

I have listed mostly websites that provide free and private basic services with which I have direct experience. Many of the services provided by big providers that compromise your privacy can be replaced with these alternative services. If you are aware of others that you like, please let us know with comments.



Related Articles:

How to Avoid being Tracked and Spied-On while Online

There's no Such Thing as a Secure Computer--How to be Relatively Secure

How to lower Your Monthly Internet Bill

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