Cookies on this website

We use cookies to make our website work properly. We'd also like your consent to use analytics cookies to collect anonymous data such as the number of visitors to the site and most popular pages.

I'm OK with analytics cookies

Don't use analytics cookies

Home / Journal / How to be a free European digital citizen

IT engineer Rafa Font explores practical alternatives to big tech.

Technology was supposed to be different. It should empower us to do more, with fewer intermediaries. But instead, we are trapped by  “infinite scrolling”, and our productivity derails. Everyone should have access. It should be both safe enough for kids, and easy enough for older people. But reality is different.

This is not the technology that we signed up for

We should be able to choose providers. A photo provider from a company, and a storage provider from another, should work together. But when someone sends you pictures on OneDrive, but you use Google Photos, you need to download them one by one and upload them again.

We should be able to express ourselves (without being jerks). Why, then, did our friend have to take down that Instagram video of her holidays, as she was getting so many rude comments?

The online environment should be safe. However, we recently received a suspicious email asking us for our credit card details, which we promptly marked as “phishing”. 

IT should be sustainable. Energy consumption should be low, and hardware components should be recycled. Compare that ideal with the reality: data centres built beside rivers, returning the water used for cooling 2-3°C warmer.

These six aspects (productivity, access, choice, freedom, safety, sustainability) are extracted from the “European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles”, from December 2022. It seems we’re still far from the ideal.

Big Tech is Big, but is it Tech?

Their business model is based on capturing our attention, measuring what we do, and then showing us personalised ads.

We might think that the main revenue of the Big Tech industry comes from technology. It doesn’t. It comes from advertisements, so we could call them the Big Ads industry instead. In 2022, 80% of Google’s revenue came via ads. For Twitter, it was 90%. For Meta (including Facebook and Instagram), over 98%.

This is their play book:

  1. In order to sell more ads, they tailor them to the audience.
  2. To gather more data, they have to increase the time we’re online (this is the well-known metric called “engagement”).
  3. To increase engagement, they develop techniques such as “infinite scrolling”.

The European Union has a history of disagreements with Big Tech, and there’s a long list of fines issued due to competition misbehaviours. Despite all this, European governments still advertise big American tech companies in their front pages, for free. Because free publicity is what you do when you show the icons of Twitter/X, Instagram, and Facebook in your front page.

The European Union has brand-new laws for the online world: the “Digital Markets Act” (DMA), and the “Digital Services Act” (DSA). As digital citizens, do we need all this regulation?

“Do you feel bad after two hours scrolling social media? This is exactly what it was designed for.”

You might be using the Chrome browser on an Android phone. On your Windows laptop, maybe you use WhatsApp web app for your social life, LinkedIn for your professional contacts, and Gmail. You just received a message: it’s a friend sending you a YouTube video. Your phone blips: it’s an Instagram notification. You spend more time there now than on Facebook.

In just five minutes, you have used 9 tools that are directly affected by the new regulation.  

European institutions are setting limits to Big Tech

European laws might affect the whole world. This happened with the RoHS (to remove hazardous substances from electronics), and with GDPR (to protect personal data). International companies that operate in Europe have to comply, and sometimes it’s cheaper to adapt their whole business to what Europe requires. That’s the well-known “Brussels effect“. Its latest hit has been Apple’s switch to USB-C (also known as “standard European port”) in the iPhone 15.

The DMA sets obligations for “gatekeepers”: not to abuse their position of power to promote their own products, not to use personal data gathered through one product into another (e.g. feed Facebook with WhatsApp data), and allow you to install software from other sources (being able to get your apps from other “stores”, not only the Play Store or the App Store).

The DSA, in turn, targets “online platforms”. On them, ads must be prominently marked as such, and users can know who is paying for them. Those with more than 45 million users in the EU get special treatment. These are the “Very Large Online Platforms and Search Engines” (e.g., Wikipedia, Booking, Pinterest). They are mandated to run risk assessments of potential infringements, mitigate them (for instance by reinforcing their content moderation), and set up crisis response mechanisms. Their algorithms will be audited (such as the one that composes your Instagram feed, or the recommendations you get from YouTube).

Four European Alternatives for digital products that you can use today: Proton, Mastodon, Murena and Fairphone

Under the European vision of being online, you’re above all a citizen. Technology is here to serve you. Under the current state of affairs, however, you’re above all a customer, if not a product. You can use technology, but this is a sub-product of the ad-selling business.

It’s time to meet the resistance. 

On the website “European Alternatives for Digital Products”, Constantin Graf, a freelance software developer from Vienna, is compiling a list of IT tools created and hosted in Europe. He’s doing it to support local businesses and improve data protection, as EU-produced digital tools tend to be better at complying with related EU laws than US-made tools. Hosting in the EU is an important requirement for companies handling sensitive data.

These tools support the freedom of the European digital citizen. Let’s highlight four examples that you can use right now.

Reclaim your digital identity with ProtonMail

Today, email is your digital identity. Gmail scans your emails to insert related advertisements in the middle of your inbox. That’s their business.

Proton is not in the ads business; it’s in the tech business. It was created in 2014 in Switzerland to reclaim people’s control over their privacy, starting with email. Some of its strong selling points have been security, privacy, encryption and open source. 10 years later they’re a profitable company with offices all over Europe.  

Andy Yen, Proton’s CEO, is an advocate of local technology: “European tech has the money, the talent, and the ambition, but it lacks the appropriate rules”.

“The European Union has a history of disagreements with Big Tech, and there’s a long list of fines issued due to competition misbehaviours.”

One appropriate rule would be, for instance, being able to avoid the official application stores, because they take a 30% cut of each sale. The right to choose a different application store is part of the new EU regulation.

Mastodon: a free, open-source, decentralised social media platform

Twitter/X is working hard to destroy its own status as the Internet’s public arena, one scandal at a time.

Mastodon is one alternative. Created in 2016, it received several waves of users in the Twitter Migration, especially in late 2022, after Twitter’s acquisition by Elon Musk. However, it still has only 10 million users.

Mastodon is run by a German non-profit. It doesn’t have advertising, so you can be sure that you’re not the product. Its source of revenue is crowdfunding.

Mastodon doesn’t have two features that have been blamed for toxicity: infinite scrolling, and quoting posts. 

De-Googling your phone with Murena

Do you want to take it further and escape as much as possible from the influence of the gatekeepers? Enter the business of Murena. This company, fully focused on privacy, has created their own version of the Android operating system. It’s called “/e/OS”, it’s open-source and free, and Murena has removed all the components that send data to Google.

This de-googled phone has everything needed to work: Email, Calendar and Drive, provided by Murena Cloud; collaborative office applications, powered by OnlyOffice, and Maps, using (the also European tool) Magic Earth. 

Its “Advanced Privacy” tool blocks trackers on your apps, fakes your location, and even hides your IP address, for a maximum of privacy. Researchers have analysed the personal data collected by the usual phone providers, they say: “/e/OS collects essentially no data and in that sense is by far the most private of the Android OS variants studied.”


To round this up, you can get the /e/OS de-Googled system on top of a European phone, from the ethical brand Fairphone.

What makes a phone more “ethical” than others? European repair communities (like The Restart Project or Repair Café) provide this answer:  “the most ethical phone is the one you already have”. That’s because extending its life reduces e-waste and prevents mining of new resources.

Fairphone, based in Amsterdam, agrees, and claims to offer the second most ethical choice. In their 11 years of experience, they have worked on ethical sourcing of minerals, providing living wages to the workers involved in manufacturing, and extending the life-span of their products.

Minerals needed to build phones often come from countries in conflict, where child labour is common. Fairphone sources their materials in coordination with the Alliance for Responsible Mining. 

“Minerals needed to build phones often come from countries in conflict, where child labour is common.”

Note that phone manufacturers don’t buy minerals directly. Instead, they commission electronic parts from intermediaries. Fairphone is going out of the traditional way to source ‘ethical minerals. But not everything that glitters is gold: Fairphone 4 had 40% of ‘fair’ materials. There’s still a long way to go.

Workers’ conditions are also important. Part of Fairphone earnings go into complementing worker’s salaries to reach a “living wage”. They do this with mine labourers and electronics assembly staff. 

Finally, e-waste. On one front, Fairphone collects old phones for recycling. On the other hand, they increase the lifespan of their products. Fairphones are the most repairable devices in the market, having received a 10/10 score from the repair company iFixit. They roll out software updates even for their older phones, reaching up to 7 years of support.

The difficult route to technological freedom

There are other areas in which European competition with the forces of surveillance capitalism is more difficult. 

  • The Search. Google occupies 85% of the market. A European search engine, called Ecosia, offers a non-profit and green alternative. Every 50 searches, they plant a tree. However, the search results are not fully theirs: they use in the background Microsoft’s engine, Bing, and apply on top their own algorithms. Still, it’s a good option to make Ecosia your default search engine. If you want to know another possible future player in this area, check out “Stract”, the open-source search engine developed by Danish PhD student Mikkel Denker. 
  • The Browser. Another Google kingdom, with over 60% of the market share. A European competitor is the Norwegian company “Vivaldi”. Their main selling point is “we don’t track you”, and it blocks trackers and ads. They make money via sponsored bookmarks, and from search engines (if you select Ecosia as your default search engine in Vivaldi, the search engine pays an amount).
  • The Cloud. A typical question from the European administration when moving IT systems to the cloud is: is there a European provider? We’ll single out two options: the French OVH, and the German Hetzner. They can offer a virtual private server, but they’re not well-equipped to compete with the large array of cloud services that Amazon, Azure, or Google have.

Let’s start!

We have presented here four European alternatives useful to regain some digital freedom. They are not theoretical options, but practical choices, on the market today, waiting for users like you.  

We can find ourselves with a Fairphone in our hands, with the /e/OS system installed and no Google surveillance, using Mastodon as the social network of our choice, and using Proton for our Email (and Calendar, Drive, and Password Manager). 

With alternative technology, we can be more free digital citizens, and start looking at the tech scene with a different perspective.

Rafa Font writes the newsletter The European Perspective, telling stories of the sociocultural, non-institutional Europe. He is an IT Engineer working for European institutions, a Green activist, and a Work From Anywhere advocate. You can find him on Mastodon:
Mining for minerals used in mobile phones in the Congo.

© Creative Commons.