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Alternatives for teachers to applications that market user data

13 February 2020

A list of applications that do not make commercial use of their user data.

Paedagogical innovation has become a must-have in Catalan classrooms over the last decade. This boost has often become tantamount to compulsively introducing new technologies, according to specialists. Experts such as Liliana Arroyo, a doctor in sociology and a specialist in digital social innovation, argue that any innovation must be subject to certain goals. In fact, technology is not neutral; we should ask ourselves who it is intended for, to avoid exclusions, and also what it is intended for. The latter question was asked by the Eticas Research & Consulting Foundation, when they launched the Entorns Segurs (Safe Environments) project, an initiative aimed at researching the use and management of student data at Barcelona’s schools.

In an interview with Ethics Director Gemma Galdon, we provide four highlights of the conclusions reached after the research: the tools provided by official bodies, those that have passed the control filter to avoid malpractice with student data, are not used. What many teachers do is use their free counterparts, which are much more efficient, but which operate under the motto: “if the tool is free, then the product is you.” Applications that do business with user data, which is even more serious, given the fact that we are talking about data from minors. Being aware of the fact that sometimes new applications need to be tested, we provide you in this article with some free and open source alternatives that will not expose you or third parties to the ethically questionable use of the data we generate when using them.


When we do a search on search engines like Google, the application stores data regarding the country code, the language chosen by the browser, the IP address and, according to the configuration, the home address, the personal image (if you have an account) and the web history of its users, if we use their browser, among many other things. This is why alternatives such as the DuckDuckGo search engine are emerging, initiatives that make privacy a hallmark of the house. Unlike Google, this search engine does not store the data of its users and even allows you to search in applications of its competitor without providing our data. This is possible through so-called bangs, terms with an exclamation mark that define where you want to look for something. Thus, if you want to search for a video on YouTube, enter !yt; if you want to search for something on Amazon, enter !amazon; or if you want to do the search with Google, opt for !g. The Catalan Wikipedia (Viquipèdia) article lists all the possibilities DuckDuckGo offers.


The open source equivalent of YouTube is PeerTube, a decentralised, federated video platform using peer-to-peer technology. This application federates different instances, i.e. different web pages that host videos: anyone interested can create their own by downloading PeerTube on their computer, but if they do not consider it necessary, they can use those created by others. When a video is posted to either instance, that video becomes available to anyone else. Thus, a decentralised video repository is created in a distributed manner, where users are the owners of the content they upload and no one does business with either the video searches or the files they upload, as YouTube does by inserting advertising in our videos. There is no data centre: when someone watches a video, it is broadcast directly from the instance where it is hosted, whereas if more than two people watch a video owned by one of them, all the bits of the video are shared between the users. A highly tempting proposal.


Teachers cannot be left out of the trend, and if there is a social network that is popular among young people, it is Instagram. With a similar philosophy to PeerTube, PixelFed offers a virtually identical interface to its Facebook-owned competitor, while operating based on the idea of federated instances. Anyone interested can install the application, create their own instance and upload their photos. All the above without ads, without third parties having access to our data and, perhaps the most enticing aspect, the photographs are not shown to us on the whim of an algorithm, but in chronological order, like the good old days on Instagram. Furthermore, we can choose whether we want the pictures to be posted publicly or privately, just for our followers. Nothing but advantages.


All of these tools require an email to register. Part of Google’s appeal is that, with a single account, you can have an email address and a lot of other tools, such as YouTube, Google Translate or Duo, the equivalent of Skype. In 2014, Google was in the spotlight for extracting data from student emails for sales purposes, hence asking students to open an account there does not seem like a good idea. Of all the alternatives out there, perhaps one of the most popular options is Protonmail. To begin with, this mail service does not require you to provide personal data or a mobile phone, as the search engine giant does indeed. Protonmail stores the tiniest amount of data so as to prevent abuse or detect spam. However, once an email has passed this filter, the message is stored in encrypted form, so that it is technically impossible for them to know the contents. Not bad at all.

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