Remote Education: My Children's Freedom and Privacy at Stake


At the beginning of March 2020, we started to hear worrisome news about the spread of COVID-19 in Spain. Within days, all public events, conferences[1] and gatherings were disallowed. Even a traditional celebration historically held in this period, the Falles[2], was canceled.

Next came the stay-at-home order from the government and the indefinite suspension of all in-person educational activities. Teaching had to go online, but were schools, colleges and universities prepared for this? The answer is no. In order to switch to remote education, they needed videoconferencing platforms, communication systems and servers they did not always have. And this is where the problem starts.

Educational institutions began to choose whatever they needed unilaterally and independently. Each teacher, school or university picked a different program or platform on the spur of the moment, basing their choices on the sole criteria of practicality and popularity of the software. Far more important factors, such as the freedom and privacy of their students—or their own—were left aside. Students and parents had no say, it was a take-it-or-leave-it approach.

Why were hundreds of students being condemned to use software that is unfair to them? Why should all data (voice, images, videos, handwritten documents) be owned by a company? The price of proprietary systems is the surrender of our freedom. It is the voice of our children and their image on video—everything is recorded on third-party servers for later analysis and exploitation. Too high a price to pay.

The situation was unacceptable. It was time to say NO.

My children's schools

Marta (10) and Javi (12) attend public schools in San Antonio de Benagéber, Valencia, for their compulsory education. Apart from that, they are involved in extracurricular activities at three different private institutions. Marta takes elementary clarinet classes at the local non-profit Music Association (to which I provide web and email hosting.) Javi takes trumpet lessons at the Professional Conservatory of Music to prepare for admission to higher music studies in that institution. They both also attend a local English Academy.

My fight

For my moral grounds, I cannot let my children use nonfree software. I was determined to fight, but how? I was alone in this, and still under quarantine. I realized I could help people cope with the emergency by offering solutions I could easily find in my field of knowledge: free software they could use for their specific needs.

But I also realized the task was not easy. It was necessary to start with small steps, realistic goals. With the private schools, I thought, they should be more inclined to listen, since there I am not only a parent, but also a paying costumer. And at Marta's Music Association I was also their server provider, so surely they would trust my opinion on issues related to information technology.

“A walk of a thousand miles consists of lots of steps. Each time you don't install some nonfree program, or decide not to run it that day, that is a step towards your own freedom.”  (Richard Stallman, Saying No to unjust computing even once is help).

The first step

When a professor from Marta's music school called me to invite me to create a Skype account for my daughter's lessons, I said, “Have you read the terms and conditions of that service? Skype is widely known software, but that doesn't mean it's the best choice. Have you heard about Jitsi? I can help you. I will send you all the information right now with an explanation on how to use it so that you can try it. It's also free/libre software, it does not intercept communications and it does not collect or store any data.” Very enthusiastically, he replied, “Thank you, I really appreciate your advice.”

I immediately emailed him all the necessary information, complete with detailed instructions he might need to get started. Two days later, I received an email from the school principal thanking me and saying that all teachers and students had agreed to use Jitsi.

I was amazed. By being positive and showing my intention to help, I got the school teacher to understand and listen to my advice.

Screenshot showing Marta and her teacher during a clarinet lesson 
over Jitsi.

Marta takes a clarinet lesson over Jitsi.

The second step

Results were not as immediate at the English Academy.

When they decided to go online, they surprised me with a call to say I needed to open a Skype account for my children's first remote class, which was due the following day. There was no time. There was no way out. Either that, or the kids would miss their lessons. I accepted—for the moment.

Later that day, I engaged in what seemed a never ending battle with them. To make my case, I first sent them a well reasoned and informative letter. I reminded them that Skype is owned by Microsoft, a company that develops freedom-denying software, and explained what free/libre software is. I mentioned the abusive clauses in the company's privacy statement, among which the fact that Microsoft records and analyzes users' communications, and it can hand that data over to other companies. I suggested to replace Skype with Jitsi and offered to help. I even said my children would quit the institution unless it changed to a free/libre platform.

They did not respond. They were forcing almost one hundred students, their teachers and their parents to open a Microsoft account in order to use a piece of software that takes advantage of them. They were failing to see the seriousness of the issue, dazzled as they were by an impressive display of misleading information about the software they considered to be “well-known,” thus good.

I resent my email to the principal of the school, and this time I forwarded it to teachers as well. I waited. I called them and talked to them at length. Once again, I made it clear I would withdraw my children from their school unless they changed that software.

Eventually they understood my position and became aware of the dangers of Skype. They finally agreed to use Jitsi!

The third step

In the meantime, after two weeks of staying at home, Javi was taking his trumpet classes over Skype. At the next lesson, I sat next to my son and spoke to the teacher. I began by thanking him for his work, since Javi was making progress despite the difficult situation. Then I mentioned my concern about privacy and other issues that these nonfree programs present. I told him pretty much the same things I had told the other teachers. He was surprised, “I didn't know about this! Is there any other program we can use?” So I invited him to use my Jitsi server, to avoid interruptions and guarantee the best sound quality.

Since then, Javi takes his trumpet lessons on Jitsi. The teacher then asked me if he could use the same server with all his trumpet students and I agreed, of course. The purpose of that server is to help anyone who may need it.

Screenshot showing Javi and his teacher during a trumpet lesson 
over Jitsi.

Javi takes a trumpet lesson over Jitsi.

Going forward

I managed to raise awareness about freedom and privacy issues and expand the use of free software in my community. More than two hundred people in town are now using Jitsi. But I want to do more, I want to keep walking. For one thing, I want to reach the local public schools, knowing beforehand what a challenge that is.

I will keep fighting nonfree software, specially in schools, armed with the resources I have at hand: my servers, on which I have installed free/libre high quality platforms for everyone to use, such as Etherpad, BigBlueButton, and the Jitsi server I mentioned before. Right now many people are using them, so I am soon going to upgrade the hardware to allow more simultaneous connections without loosing quality.

What is most important, I am armed with knowledge about the philosophical foundations of the Free Software Movement and the increasingly significant role that software plays in our daily lives.

Thanks

Thanks to my mentor, Richard Stallman, whose support and encouragement helped me become aware of the value of my efforts. Thanks to him for urging me to share my experience with the Free Software Foundation, and to the FSF for mentioning my work among others they included in an article about freedom and privacy in remote education. Thanks to Dora Scilipoti from the GNU Education Team, for her precious advice and help in writing this text.


Author's Notes

  1. With help from the GNU/Linux Users Group of Valencia, I had organized a series of Richard Stallman's speeches in several areas of Spain from March 22 to 26. They all had to be canceled.
  2. More information about the Falles and the rare moments in history when this old event was suspended.

Footnote

[*] Javier Sepúlveda is an Industrial Design and Computer Science Engineer. He is the founder and executive director of VALENCIATECH, a server administration company that runs and offers exclusively free software. He is a GNU speaker and free software advocate.


Photos courtesy of Javier Sepúlveda. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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