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Better than WhatsApp: Try these Free Software Apps and Services
We recommend using Free Software apps like Element, Quicksy or Conversations that connect to Free Software powered services. These services allow users to choose their service provider without losing the ability to talk to users of other providers following the same standard. Free Software ensures users' freedom and interoperable services ensure there is no vendor lock-in.
Any non-free app controls the user while free software app is controlled by its users. When we are talking about free software, we are not talking about price, we are concerned about freedom.
Comparison of different apps and services
Non-free software client and server + centralization (Example WhatsApp): does not respect user's freedom and creates vendor lock-in.
Free Software client but non-free server + centralization (Example Telegram): client software respects freedom, server software does not respect freedom and creates vendor lock-in.
Free Software client and server + centralization (Example Signal): respect user's freedom but creates vendor lock-in.
Free Software client and server + federation (Example Matrix and Quicksy/XMPP): respects users' freedom (as a user or as a community) and no vendor lock-in.
Free software client + peer to peer design (Example Briar, Tox): respects users' freedom and no vendor lock-in.
Some basic concepts
Vendor lock-in: Ability to switch service is too hard because it requires convincing every contact to move to a new service.
Peer-to-Peer Design: Design which enables a user to communicate with another user directly without involving any service provider in between. Both parties need to be online at the same time for the design to work efficiently.
End-to-End Encryption: Only the users involved in a communication can read the messages.
WhatsApp and other non-free apps
WhatsApp app is a non-free software which does not respect user's freedom and privacy. WhatsApp does not provide its users the access to its source code and actively bans anyone creating a Free Software app that can connect to WhatsApp service. They claim their app provides end-to-end encryption, but we cannot verify if they actually implemented end-to-end encryption without any backdoors (access of app remotely without user's permission) or loopholes. Being non-free app is enough to reject WhatsApp, so we are not going to talk about other bad things about WhatsApp.
There are three broad categories of messaging systems with Free Software apps - Centralized services, Federated services and Peer-to-Peer systems.
A. Centralized services
Pros:The client apps for Telegram is Free Software.
IRC and Matrix users can talk to Telegram users through a bridge without creating a Telegram account.
Cons:The Telegram service component — that enables communication between the Telegram users — is proprietary (non-free) and is not federated.
End-to-end encryption is available only on the Telegram mobile apps.
Needs phone number for signing up.
Summary: The official Telegram clients are a amalgamation of free (as in freedom) and proprietary (non-free) components; the Telegram service component is 100% proprietary.
Pros: Signal app is Free Software like Telegram, and in comparison to Telegram it offers server software also as Free Software which makes it better than Telegram.
End-to-end encryption is enabled by default and groups chats are also encrypted.
Cons: Even though you are allowed to set up Signal service yourself, the users of your service will not be able to talk to users of the official Signal server, making it practically a vendor lock-in.
Needs phone number for signing up.
Summary: Signal is better than WhatsApp and Telegram.
B. Federated services
A federated system is a collection of independent service providers which can communicate with each other. Federation is important to take full control of your communications. You can choose a trusted provider or be a service provider yourself. No single entity can force their terms on users. Examples of federated systems are mobile phones, emails, matrix , XMPP etc. For example, you can buy a SIM card from any mobile service provider and talk or send SMS to subscribers of other providers. Similarly, you can create an email account with any service provider and send emails to people who are registered with a different email provider.
Pros: Federated with XMPP, Control over the policies of the services, switch to any XMPP provider without losing ability to talk to all your Quicksy contacts.
End-to-end encryption is enabled by default and group chats are also encrypted by default.
Cons: Needs phone number for signing up
Summary: Quicksy is better than Signal because of its federated design.
- XMPP via apps like Conversations, Dino
Pros: In addition to all pros of Quicksy, the phone number/email is not mandatory for an account. If you self-host, metadata retention is under your control.
Cons:The process of choosing a service provider and creating an account can appear to be difficult since it may be unfamiliar, no automatic contact discovery.
- Matrix via apps like Element, FluffyChat
Pros: In addition to all pros of XMPP, Matrix asks your permission before you are added to a personal chat or added to a group chat.
Cons: The process of choosing a service provider and creating an account can appear to be difficult since it may be unfamiliar, no automatic contact discovery.
Summary: XMPP/Matrix is better than Quicksy from perspective of privacy and freedom at the cost of a bit inconvenience of creating accounts and finding other users automatically.
Note: Since XMPP/Matrix allows you to have your choice of apps instead of the ones mentioned above, please choose apps which support end-to-end encryption (OMEMO for XMPP). The choices we mentioned have end-to-end encryption by default.
C. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) systems
Peer-to-peer instant messengers can talk directly without requiring any servers. Examples are Briar, Tox and GNU Jami, etc. The messages are end-to-encrypted and are stored only locally in the devices since there are no servers involved. There are no servers that could intercept your communications, so it gives you the ultimate privacy and freedom. To exchange messages, both peers need to be online, which might be a bit inconvenient.
We recommend you to choose any federated system or peer-to-peer messenger according to your use-case so that you get full control of your communications, freedom and privacy. It is very important to reject proprietary services like WhatsApp which takes freedom away from the user. FSF India, FSCI or other volunteer-run organization in India would be glad to extend support to anyone needing more details on undergoing such a shift.
The "Comparison of Instant Messengers" infographic — Copyright © 2021 Riya Sawant. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.