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Better than Zoom: Try these free software tools for staying in touch

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an enormous amount of changes in how people work, play, and communicate. By now, many of us have settled into the routine of using remote communication or video conferencing tools to keep in touch with our friends and family. In the last few weeks we've also seen a number of lists and guides aiming to get people set up with the "right" tools for communicating in hard times, but in almost every case, these articles recommend that people make a difficult compromise: trading their freedom in order to communicate with the people they care about and work with.

In times like these it becomes all the more important to remember that tools like Zoom, Slack, and Facebook Messenger are not benign public services, and while the sentiment they've expressed to the global community in responding to the crisis may be sincere, it hasn't addressed the fundamental ethical issues with any piece of proprietary software.

After taking the LibrePlanet 2020 conference online, we received a number of requests asking us to document our streaming setup. As the pandemic grew worse, this gave way to more curiosity about how the Free Software Foundation (FSF) uses free tools and free communication platforms to conduct our everyday business. And while the stereotype of hackers hunched over a white on black terminal session applies to us in some ways, many of the tools we use are available in any environment, even for people who do not have a lot of technical experience. We've started documenting ethical solutions on the LibrePlanet wiki, in addition to starting a remote communication mailing list to help each other advocate for their use.

In the suggestions that follow, a few of the tools we will recommend depend upon some "self-reliance," that is, steering clear of proprietary network services by hosting free software solutions yourself, or asking a technical friend to do it for you. It's a difficult step, and the benefits may not be immediately obvious, but it's a key part of preserving your autonomy in an age of ubiquitous digital control.

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