Living without home internet to increase software freedom

I am always a strong proponent of avoiding software that is not designed with your best interests in mind. A core belief of the Free Software movement is that only software which allows you to run, study, change and share it without restrictions can allow you to compute as a sovereign on your own devices. Therefor, Free Software fans will find alternatives of the proprietary programs they have installed on their devices which is pretty easy to do. Install a GNU/Linux or free BSD operating system, use free Office programs, run browsers like Firefox instead of Google Chrome and so on. Purists will then even think about avoiding packages functioning close to the hardware-level like drivers for their WiFi cards. They may replace the standard Linux kernel with a Linux-libre kernel to have a fully FSF-approved system like Parabola or Trisquel and are even fine with some parts of their laptops not working anymore. The first steps are easy but spiralling into this will make things more and more complicated, especially when societal ignorance towards the issue of proprietary malware often forces you to run it just to do the most basic things.

I am already very far down this path. On my laptop only the standard Linux kernel relying on non-free driver packages remains a stain on my personal software freedom. Switching from Arch to Parabola is on my TODO but for now I already feel quite good about my system which has the added benefit of using libreboot.

But here comes the big problem: I am kind of missing the point of the idea behind Free Software if I only take a look at my locally installed packages. Proprietary software will harm me just as much if it is run on servers which I connect with. And this brings us to the really difficult part of being a Free Software purist: the World Wide Web.

The modern web subjects users to all sorts of code running in the background which is used to spy on and advertise to them. But not only this, profit-incentives drive the design of websites themselves. They usually dictate what you see on social media platforms. What they call "engagement" should actually be conceptuallized as "entrapment" as any profit-oriented social media site has a monetary interest in keeping people on the site by all means necessary. The longer your eyes are glued to some timeline, the more valuable the ad space gets that they sell. Therefor all sorts of design decisions are made which make the lives of users objectively worse. For example, infinite scrolling on your timeline gives you the feeling of endless content without any breakpoints where you can stop. Algorithms on Facebook and Youtube drive people to extremes to increase engagement making these platforms great radicalisation tools used by fascists. Push notifications try to instill a fear of missing out as do stories on Instagram that only exist for one day, which creates social pressure to open the app every day to keep up with your friends. All of these design decisions take user freedom away and concentrate power in the hands of whoever runs the business.

So even if you have all your local system liberated from proprietary software, you will be just as enslaved to it if you spend your entire day on social media platforms. I have not had personal accounts on proprietary social media sites for many years now but of course some (for example Reddit and Youtube) are just as browsable without the accounts so you will fall into the same design traps that registered users will fall into.

So how can you surf the modern web while also defending your own freedom? I think you can not. You could of course for example stop your browser from running non-trivial java script but this would make a lot of websites, also those which you are forced to use, completely unusable. I suggest that the solution for this will not be technological but behavioral. After deleting all social media accounts, you simply may want to start using the internet much much less to be not as subjected to this malicious design. This is what I wanted to do for a long time but never had the willpower to actually do it. I have come to the realization that building plans of behavioral changes on the weak foundation of willpower is in many cases doomed to fail. The better approach is to design your environment with your own best interest in mind, something noone at Facebook or Google will do for you. The way I did it is simple: completely cutting of my access to the internet for the majority of my day.

Home internet is regarded as a necessity by many. It is something you have to organize when moving into a new apartment in the same way you need to think about electricity and heating. But does the importance of home internet really compare? When I moved to Göttingen I did not organize a contract with an internet provider so for the first month or so I did not have a router at home and only relied on the mobile data I got from the smartphone I still had back then. I did not have a lot of MBs to spend basically only allowing for texting and audio streaming. Stuff like video streaming would have eaten up my available data very quickly. What did I do then during the first month? I went 5 minutes to my university campus to download Youtube videos I found interesting with the command line application yt-dlp. I immediately noticed how this positively affected my relationship with Youtube. I used it much less and basically only checked for channels which I already knew I liked and only downloaded videos that I actually seeked out. I was not being passively pushed and pulled by some illusive algorithm, I was actively wandering through the channels I liked and stored the videos I wanted to watch locally to later consume them at home. This already gave me a taste of how less internet access can positively affect my life. I could basically counter malicioud software design with my own behavior which was directly dictated by my environment.

But of course, good things come to an end when you do not appreciate them enough and are not consequential with the lessons you learned so I got my router and it was back to normal. I dabbled around with putting a timer on my router but I undid this once and never reinitiated it. A few months ago I switched from my smartphone to a dumb phone to make a first step in removing myself from constant internet access everywhere at any time. The next step, unplugging the router, came a month ago. And I found out: I can live just fine this way.

I am not saying that this is feasible for everyone but I think most people that live in a city could do just fine without having home internet. Here is how I do it: I take my laptop to work and quickly check emails and Signal messages in the morning and answer them. This usually takes five minutes. I then close my laptop again, put it away and have a normal full work day. When my work day is over I give myself an hour to do stuff I need to do online. I usually do not need a full hour for this so I can use the remainder to do stuff I want to do like downloading youtube videos, installing software, running my daily pacman -Syu, chatting and so on. When this time is over (sometimes it is less than an hour because I have no desire to do anything online) I pack my stuff and go home. And here, I live internet-free. If I had to urgently connect to the internet again because I forgot something that needs to be done ASAP (never happened so far) I would go 5 minutes to the university campus and do what needs to be done. On weekends I get my daily internet access in libraries. I sit there for an hour and do my stuff and then go again. This also creates a good reason to leave the house everyday and prevents these weekends I never enjoyed where I am just home all day doing senseless stuff online which I got no real enjoyment from.

The internet for me is now more of an opt-in thing. I have to actively seek it out which makes my interaction with it much more purposefull. And in the time I am offline I have this great benefit: boredom. Yes, you read that right, I consider boredom a treasure that has been almost completely lost from our digitized society within less than a decade. This entire emotion has become so rare and foreign to us but it can actually contribute greatly to our lives. What happens nowadays when you feel this emotion creeping up on you? You can immediately get your phone out and scroll through something. Instantly, you will get some sensory stimulus which convinces you that you are doing something, no matter how catatonic you may look to an outside viewer. We never let boredom fester for longer amounts of time, like a full minute or even a bit more. But what happens when you can not get this instant escape from boredom? Do I just sit at home all day being bored for hours on end? Of course not. Letting boredom grow and linger motivates us to do things that require a higher activation energy. Things that are not as immediate and easy but things that may be more fulfilling and rewarding in the long term. I personally leave my house much more to go for walks, I have a much easier time keeping my place clean, I spend more time learning about computers or playing the guitar. All of these things require time. Time, profit-oriented companies will want to you to spend for their benefit, not for yours. People will make this compromise just to escape boredom the very instant it shows itself.