Purism, the social purpose corporation that makes devices which respect your privacy, wants to provide us with a true alternative to the data-sucking walled gardens of Android and iOS. You may have heard of its upcoming Librem 5, a crowdfunded device that runs entirely free software.
Now the company is pushing Librem One, a full suite of online services powered by open source code.
Librem One offers private messaging, mail, VPN, and social networking. But given how suspicious many privacy-conscious people are of any service running on someone else’s servers, who is Librem One for?
What Is Librem One?
Librem One is a bundle of online services from Purism. These tools provide you with a suite of modern communication tools that don’t require giving up control of your data, nor do they lock you in to only chatting with other Librem One users. Purism promises no ads and no tracking. The collection consists of four components, with more to come in the future.
1. Librem Chat
Librem Chat is based on Matrix, an open chat protocol that has been around for since 2014. Matrix does for instant messaging and VOIP what SMTP does for email. It allows people using different service providers (think Gmail and Yahoo) to communicate with one another. This is in contrast with the approach employed by iMessage, Google Messages, and Facebook Messenger, which all require people to use the same service to chat.
So Librem Chat is a new service provider, rather than a new service. It’s a new way to interact with infrastructure that already exists. You can connect with other Matrix users at librem.one, matrix.org, or any other Matrix domain. The mobile apps are based on Riot, an existing Matrix chat client. Matrix supports end-to-end encrypted text, voice, and video chats.
2. Librem Mail
Librem Mail is an end-to-end encrypted mail service. Encrypted email has existed for a long time, but the technology can be complicated to set up.
Librem Mail uses K-9 Mail and OpenKeychain. This combination takes the challenge out of using encrypted mail. Librem Mail users can exchange encrypted email with anyone whose mail is encrypted using OpenPGP.
Librem Mail is the only Librem One app that doesn’t yet exist for iPhones.
Download: Librem Mail (Android)
3. Librem Social
Librem Social uses Mastodon, the free and open source alternative to Twitter. Rather than host everyone’s accounts and posts on one company’s servers, Mastodon empowers people to host their own.
Many Mastodon servers are hosted by enthusiasts, and they can go down at a moment’s notice, taking your data with them. With Librem Social, Purism is offering a professionally maintained server that’s supported via paid subscriptions (not that you have to pay to access to server). This can offer more reliability than you may have experienced with various Mastodon servers to date.
4. Librem Tunnel
Librem Tunnel is a VPN to keep your web browsing behavior private. The service is end-to-end encrypted and, according to Purism, anonymous. The company has partnered with Private Internet Access to provide the feature.
Librem One and the Librem 5
Purism makes a line of Librem laptops that only run free software and comes with hardware kill switches for the webcam, mic, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. If all goes well, a Librem phone will launch in 2019. It aims to be the first consumer-ready smartphone that runs entirely free software. As with the Librem laptops, privacy is the main sales pitch.
The Librem 5 isn’t intended to be a device solely for tinkerers and hackers. It’s to be a true iPhone or Android alternative. But as you may have noticed, those phones are less about functions or features and more about services. The question isn’t whether a device can play music—it’s whether it can play Spotify.
Purism’s phone won’t come with Spotify. Don’t expect Instagram or Snapchat. Even if the Librem 5 could attract those companies, these apps would defeat the point of a phone that doesn’t track you. These companies are all spying on you.
With the Librem 5, you’re not only choosing an alternative device, you’re choosing alternative services. These services, like the phone itself, are here to help you reclaim your privacy. Trying them out on Android or iOS beforehand gives you a chance to see if switching to a Librem 5 may be feasible.
Downsides to Librem One
Librem One is based entirely on free software projects that already exist. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually part of how the free software community is intended to work. Small companies like Purism can hit the ground running without having to build everything from scratch. Purism can bring new users to existing projects, helping those platforms to grow. This spawns further development and makes the experience better for everyone.
But that also means that everything Librem One is offering is already available elsewhere. Librem One isn’t the first encrypted mail service, it’s just another option. For a few years now, Matrix has offered people in the know with a more resilient and less centralized way to message one another. Mastodon is an existing free and open source alternative to Twitter. There are more than a few VPNs for mobile devices.
Even the Android and iOS apps themselves already exist, just with different names.
In short, what Purism has announced isn’t a suite of new services. Instead, what’s on offer is a new repackaging of things that are floating around on GitHub. But that’s not the point. What Purism has done is give people a way to better secure most of their online communication without having to know what all the various components are. Just purchase a new phone, create an account, and start being more secure online.
Nonetheless, if you’re already well acquainted with all of these projects, then you might feel there’s nothing to see here. You may also see bugs that don’t exist in the original versions of each app. It remains to be seen which versions will offer a better experience in the long run.
Alternatives to Librem One
Let’s say you have no interest in ever purchasing a laptop or phone from Purism. Or maybe you don’t trust one company, no matter the company, managing this many essential tools. Fortunately, you have options.
- For encrypted email with fully or partially open source code, there’s Tutanota and ProtonMail respectively. Prioritize having open source email over end-to-end encryption? You can also check out Kolab Now.
- For messaging, you can use Matrix without having to go through Librem One. Or you can download Signal for a more conventional all-in-one chat client.
- For social networking, take a look at our guide to Mastodon.
- As for Librem Tunnel, well, there are so many good VPNs out there, you’re welcome to take your pick.
If you use one of these alternatives, in most cases you’re still supporting the ecosystem that Librem One is a part of. If more people use Matrix or encrypted email, that provides more people Librem One users can securely communicate with. The opposite is also true.
Should You Use Librem One?
Librem One is one-stop-shop for privacy and security. That makes it an easy place to point people who don’t have the technical knowledge, or the patience, to research individual tools.
Librem One is also good for anyone buying a Librem 5 and wants software they know will run on their device.
On the other hand, if you want maximum control over what you use, there are a growing number of tools to safeguard your online presence. Some options, such as Disroot encrypted mail and cloud storage, offer features that Librem One doesn’t yet have. You can wait for Purism to add more apps and services, or you can start using the best free and open source privacy tools already available.