Ben's Log

Digital Freedom With Conversations

| | | topics: Articles
id: 7f33344c-5694-4d0b-a4cc-621c7d709231

On a chilly December in Mashhad in 2019, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my friend Vit from the Czech Republic, who had come to my university to take Persian classes. In what might be considered stereotypical fashion, I was drinking an Americano and he had his usual V60.

Because Vit liked to go out for coffee quite often (it beat sitting alone in his small hotel room), we had the opportunity to talk about a lot of things. Being the civically minded person that he is, we talked a little bit about international politics and civil society in places like the EU. With Brexit well underway and the prospect of possibly seeing a united Craicistan in our lifetimes, it was impossible to avoid talking about such things. Having specialized in the study of the EU, Vit is a real expert.

As the conversation meandered into the broader state of things, Vit began to talk about the threat of "big data", and how large corporations like Facebook and Amazon are a threat not only to individuals, but to democracy, no less.

After all, what good is there in such businesses who know literally everything about you and keep track of everything you do online and offline? Facebook has access to your WhatsApp and Instagram, and alternatives like Telegram are only slightly better because in the end they are accumulating all your data on their servers, available for access at any time.

Being the tech enthusiast that I am, I already knew about and used good alternatives to these online platforms. Several months ago, my wife and I stopped using WhatsApp and Telegram entirely when I discovered the Conversations app and how to run my own messaging server.

The problem was, that while I raved about Conversations and showed it to my friends, none of them cared or showed interest in it. What do they care if it grants them privacy and true freedom from such evil corporations? That it saves democracy? I had even shown it to Vit personally and explained what it is a couple weeks prior, but clearly no one was interested.

I often mulled over the idea of writing a blog post attempting to explain to people why they should use Conversations and the open messaging protocol it utilizes, XMPP. It's harder than you think, because people don't really care about their privacy or freedom. They don't care how good the tech is, that decades of engineering has gone into the production of such amazing software. They don't care that it saves democracy, prevents genocide, etc.

But you know what? I don't care that they don't care. I have to write posts like this because at the very least I don't want the apathy of others to translate into apathy on my part. I'll just write the posts anyway in case even just one person benefits from it.

I realize that some people would use the XMPP messaging protocol if they simply knew what it is and knew how. Hopefully up to this point my post gave you some idea of what it is. (Even a slight idea.) Now here's how:

I'm going to focus on mobile because that's where people do most of their messaging nowadays. I could explain how to set it up on your desktop or access it via the web, which are all convenient possibilities, but mobile is our top priority.

First, get any Android device and install Conversations. It's on Google Play for a very small amount of money; you should buy it in order to support the project and its developers, who do important and thankless work. Alternatively, you can download it (also officially) for free from the software repository F-Droid. (Here is the link.)

If you use iOS there are other apps you can use. I can't help much there because I have little experience with Apple, but iPhone users often mention using ChatSecure. There is an app called Monal as well that I believe is available through beta testing.

Once the app is installed, you need to create an XMPP account. You can think of XMPP as working something like e-mail, where you need an account on a server, but it doesn't matter which one. To message someone you don't even have to be on the same sever; only their address is needed.

A lot of apps, including Conversations can suggest their own server. You're free to choose whatever you like, although if any of you plan to message me and send me attachments, I don't recommend using the conversations.im service simply because it's blocked in my country and therefore I wouldn't be able to open attachments without turning on my VPN, which I hate doing.

If you're looking for a server to sign up with, the number available is a bit daunting. This page randomly suggests five servers every time you open or refresh it.

trashserver.net comes highly recommended in spite of its silly name. (I suspect having an unattractive name is some clever way of controlling their user count.) They seem to have some affiliation with tchncs.de which also offers the service. (Yes, most of these guys are based in Germany.)

Other alternatives include jix.im and its related domains, which seems like a decent service based in Poland, a3.pm based in Finland, suchat.org in Spain, and so on. Some communities like disroot.org and lurk.org grant accounts if you write them a personal request.

Once you've got this working you can send me a message at ben@kwiecien.us or if you are having trouble getting it to work just send me a e-mail and I'll help you out. Only then will you be free from corporations like Google and Facebook spying on you and reading your messages.