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posted by Fnord666 on Friday April 17 2020, @08:57PM   Printer-friendly
from the suggestions-please dept.

With all of the Pandemic precautions that have been put into effect, many people are turning to "free" on-line conferencing services. As the saying goes, "If you are not paying for the service, you are the product". And, even if paid for (by yourself or by an employer), that does not mean freedom from having your information mined for advertising or other purposes.

I've not used any of the following, so please forgive me if I got the product names incorrect. Here are some of the big "free" services that I've seen mentioned: Zoom (whose security issues have been cited many times on SoylentNews), Apple (Group Facetime), Google (Hangouts), Facebook (Facebook Live) and Microsoft (Teams).

I suspect many Soylentils have now acquired some experience with on-line conferencing. I am hoping to draw upon your experience. Better still, I would love to see development and proliferation of alternatives to the "Big Names". Solutions that are self-hosted and as free as reasonably possible from the prying eyes of the big, data-warehousing corporations. Open source — free as in beer and libre — would be good, too

Aside: Way back in 2013 there was a great deal of media attention given to the revelation that the USA's NSA (National Security Agency) had been collecting metadata. Oft-touted was that it was only metadata. I immediately thought, "If it is only metadata, then why is there such resistance to terminating the program? They must be getting something of value out of it!"

Kieran Healy answered my question. He is a Professor of Sociology at Duke University and posted an illuminating article, Using Metadata to find Paul Revere. A humorous and lighthearted portrayal, written as if from the colonial era, Kieran uses relatively simple linear algebra on seemingly innocuous data to draw some startling conclusions. Fear not! No deep understanding of linear algebra is required! For the mathematically knowledgeable, sufficient details are provided. For the rest of us, summaries are provided which explain what each operation does and offers. If you've ever wondered why so many organizations want to know your contact list, this article makes things quite clear!

So, back to conferencing. To my knowledge, the preceding companies offer video chat, though I am more interested in strictly voice chat applications (but am willing to consider video as an alternative, too.) Skeptical of company's ulterior motives, I thought there must be some self-hosting solution. I'd like to be able to lease a low-cost, on-line server, like SoylentNews does from Linode. Then install the application on, say, Ubuntu and make chat available over the net using just a web browser.

Besides, I can't be the first person to be interested in this. It sounds like something tailor-made for an open-source solution. A cursory glance seemed filled with "marketing speak" and I could not tell the wheat from the chaff. Each offering trumpets their features and downplays (or even neglects to mention) their shortcomings. How to choose?

Yes, I realize that short of going nuts with onion routing and TOR or something of that ilk, there will necessarily be "footprints" left behind for ISPs, DNS providers, etc. to harvest. Still, the perfect is the enemy of the much-better-than-what-we-have-now, so I'm reaching out to our the community.

What user-platform-agnostic (smartphone, laptop, or desktop) browser-based conferencing software have you hosted or used? How did it work out? What worked well? What shortcomings did you find? What obvious question am I forgetting to ask?

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  • (Score: 5, Informative) by zeigerpuppy on Friday April 17 2020, @09:47PM (5 children)

    by zeigerpuppy (1298) on Friday April 17 2020, @09:47PM (#984330)

    My company has been doing a lot of work with open-source video conferencing alternatives over the last few weeks.

    Here's what we've found:

    There's really only one alternative if you want a robust multi-user (more than 4 people) video conference to work.
    That is Jitsi-meet with Jitsi-videobridge. It's cross platform compatible and really nice to use.
    However, it does require fairly significant resources (best to have a 1GBps connection up/down, at least 4vcpus). It's easy to install on Debian but you need to pay attention to making sure ports are open (TCP 80,443,4443 and UDP 10000).

    It's possible to also integrate with Matrix and have your multiuser chat launch Jitsi sessions (via the riot-web client).
    There's also some alpha-level work integrating jitsi with nextcloud.

    Now, the alternatives. Matrix video chat (native) didn't work very well for us (open no video/audio), we gave up and switched to jitsi (this could be just our fault and generally Matrix/Synapse has been really great for chat with multiplatform push support).
    Forget about Nextcloud Talk, it falls all over itself with any more than a few users. We deploy a lot of nextcloud servers but it looks like Talk is only scalable with the proprietary Nextcloud signalling server (very expensive).

    There's one other promising alternative, BigBlueButton. It integrates with Mattermost which seems nice. However, I think its use case is a little different and it's more of a one-to-many presentation tool.

    So I think Jitsi is the way to go, but be prepared for a pretty expensive set up bandwidth-wise.
    We're going to launch our service as a privacy respecting PAAS over the next few weeks, but it's not ready for primetime yet...

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  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 17 2020, @10:45PM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 17 2020, @10:45PM (#984355)

    Why do businesses think they need to videoconference anyway? All you need is presentation and file sharing. Why does anyone think you need to see people staring in the general direction of a camera (come on, you know that nobody properly looks into the camera). It sounds like all of the bandwidth and complication is going to the least useful part of the whole experience.

    • (Score: 2) by zeigerpuppy on Saturday April 18 2020, @01:24AM (1 child)

      by zeigerpuppy (1298) on Saturday April 18 2020, @01:24AM (#984404)

      i tend to agree with you that voice is the most important thing. However, video definitely has its uses. For instance: telemedicine, explaining how to use an object etc.
      It's also helpful to have software that integrates sharing of desktop windows. Video also helps people feel connected and is more engaging for children.
      I think you can make an argument that in most cases it's distracting, unnecessary and bandwidth consuming; but for the cases where it's really needed, it's indispensible (although I would like to see a low bandwidth animated avatar system which would be nearly as good!)

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2020, @07:28AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2020, @07:28AM (#984492)

        Sharing desktop open source is called VNC

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2020, @04:05PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2020, @04:05PM (#984580)

      Why do businesses think they need to videoconference anyway?

      Because it allows the PHB to continue lording over his minions much like in the office when the PHB drags 25 people into the conference room (when only 3-4 of them are really needed for the meeting). The other 21-22 people are present so the PHB can watch over them.

      Video allows the PHB to continue to lord over the minions because it requires the minion to appear to be alert and paying attention to whatever the PHB thinks is important.

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2020, @01:42AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2020, @01:42AM (#984414)

    So I think Jitsi is the way to go

    Thanks so much. is also interesting but jitsi-through-matrix looks better. Truly appreciate that you shared your conclusions.

    We're going to launch our service as a privacy respecting PAAS over the next few weeks, but it's not ready for primetime yet...

    When you do, can you slashvertise this? I'll want to have a look...