Category Archives: Rant

Gentoo eudev adopted by Eudev Project

A recent LinuxQuestions thread discusses the depreciation of the eudev fork which was created by Gentoo a few years back in order to keep systemd at bay. This step by Gentoo sparks some serious doubts among LQ members about what Slackware should do – is the inclusion of systemd near, now that eudev is dead?

Short recap: In November 2015 Slackware replaced its no longer maintained original udev with this new eudev (a standalone extract of udev out of the systemd sources but modified so that every dependency on systemd is removed). This change was actually my chance to announce the liveslak project as a ‘celebration to say farewell to udev‘.
In November of 2020, a similar event happened when Slackware replaced ConsoleKit2 with elogind – a standalone copy of the logind code extracted from systemd and with all dependencies to systemd removed. Both events were meant to keep Slackware free of systemd, at least for a while… who can stem the flow of water.

But there is good news. Yesterday, a collaboration between Alpine, Devuan and Gentoo contributors has announced their adoption of eudev and a new repository has been created where the new project will further develop eudev: https://github.com/eudev-project/eudev/blob/master/README.md . Let’s give these folk our best wishes!

Eric

How to ‘un-google’ your Chromium browser experience

… Aka the future of Chromium based (embedded) browsers


On March 15th 2021, Google is going to block non-Google chromium-based browsers from accessing certain “private Google Chrome web services” by unilaterally revoking agreements made with 3rd parties in the past.
Meaning, every Chromium based product not officially distributed by Google will be limited to the use of only a few public Google Chrome web services.
The most important service that remains open is “safe browsing”. The safe browsing feature identifies unsafe websites across the Internet and notifies browser users about the potential harm such websites can cause.

The most prominent feature which will be blocked after March 15th is the “Chrome Sync”. This Chrome Sync capability in Chromium based browsers allows you to login to Google’s Sync cloud servers and save your passwords, browsing history and bookmarks/favorites to your personal encrypted cloud vault inside Google’s infrastructure.
Extremely convenient for people who access the Internet using multiple devices (like me: Chrome on a few Windows desktops, Chromium on several Slackware desktops and laptop and Chrome Mobile on my Android smartphone) and who want a unified user experience in Chrome/chromium across all these platforms.
In order to boost the development of Chromium-based (embedded) browser products, Google made deals with 3rd parties as far back as 2013 (from what I could find) and spiced the API keys of these 3rd parties with access to crucial Google Webservices providing features that would draw users to these products.
If you offer a product that calls upon Google’s Web Services there is a monetary cost involved once the number of your users’ connections exceeds the monthly upper limit for free usage. So on top of providing us access to these Google APIs (in the case of Open Source Distro Chromium packagers) the Chromium team also substantially increased the non-billed monthly API consumption by the users of our distros’ Chromium browsers. This helped to prevent us poor distro packagers from being billed for Cloud API usage in case our browser packages gained popularity.
And then, early 2021, some Google white-collar people decided they had enough of these freeloaders.

When Google dropped the bomb on us – on the distro packagers in particular – a fierce discussion started in two Google Groups (posts in one group are mostly duplicated  into the other group): Chromium Packagers and Chromium Embedders. It’s like talking to corporate drones – every question we asked is replied to with the same bogus standard texts. Arrogance to the max!
Even more poignant is a parallel discussion in Chromium Embedders, where some large electronics manufacturers discovered that some of their commercial products are similarly affected. Consumer Electronic products that ship with browser-based embedded applications like Smart TV’s often use CEF (Chromium Embedded Framework) and Google will block access for CEF products to their “private” Chrome APIs just like it’s going to do with distro browsers – they are all based on the same Chromium source code and are all non-Google products.

If you wonder what happened to the Google motto “Don’t be Evil” – in 2018 that phrase was removed from the employee Code of Conduct. And indeed, looking at the discussions in aforementioned topics the top brass feels completely ‘senang‘ throwing us distro packagers under the bus while at the same time chastising us because apparently we do not adhere to their Code of Conduct.

Enough of all the bullshit – let’s look into the future. What can we do as Linux users, and what will I do as a distro packager.

Let me be clear: I do not want to take choices away from you. You can keep using Chromium, you can switch to Chrome, you can investigate whether Vivaldi or Brave (two chromium-based browsers with their own Google-free implementation of cloud sync) are better options for you.
I will however have to deal with the fact that I can no longer build a Chromium package that offers a synchronization of your private browser data out of the box. So what I will discuss in the remainder of this article are possibilities.

Chromium packages for Slackware are here to stay

… but I will remove my personal Google ID and corresponding secret from my chromium package. They will have been invalidated anyway on March 15 and are therefore useless. What I will leave in, is my “Slackware Chromium API Key” which keeps the “safe browsing” functionality alive if you use my browser.

I want to state here that from now on, I also explicitly forbid others / distros to re-use and re-package my binaries in order to  make them part of their own Linux Distribution: thinking of Slacko Puppy, Porteus, Slint and others. If needed I will use “cease & desist” messages if people refuse to comply. I am not going to pay Google for the use of my binaries in distros that I do not control. The use of my API key is automatic if you run my Chromium binaries, and it involves a monthly cost if Google’s Could APIs get called too much. I already had to negotiate several times with the Chromium people to avoid getting billed when their policies changed. So get your own API key and compile your own version of the browser please.
You can request your own APIkey/ID/string in case you did not realize that! You’ll get capped access to Google API services, good for a single person but still without access to Cloud Sync. If you introduce yourself to the Chromium team as a distro packager, they may help you with increasing your browser’s un-billed API usage.

There’s a public discussion in the Google Group threads that I referred to above, about your personal use of the official Google API keys. This could offer a way out of the blockade and would allow you to keep using Chrome Sync in a Chromium browser even after the distro packagers’ API keys have been invalidated. These official Chrome API key/ID/secret strings are contained as clear-text strings in the public chromium source code for a long time already!
While I am not going to advocate that you should do this, it is up to you (the individual end user of a Chromium-based browser) to find those strings online and apply them to your browser’s startup environment.

Let me explain a bit. When I compile Chromium, my personal API key and Google client-ID are being embedded in the resulting browser binary, and that’s why everything works so nicely out of the box. In future I will not be embedding my client-ID anymore, but my API key for the browser will remain. That his how Safe Browsing will still work (it’s associated to the API key) but Chrome Sync will stop working (because that’s associated with the Client-ID).
The good news is that Chromium browsers will check the environment when they start up, and look for specific variables that contain a custom API key and client-ID. My chromium package is built in such a way that it is easy to add such customization, by creating a “.conf” file in directory “/etc/chromium/”.
In the Slackware package for Chromium, you will find an example of how to apply such an APIkey/ID/secret combo. Just look at the file “/etc/chromium/01-apikeys.conf.sample”. If you remove the “.sample” suffix this file will then define three environment variables on startup of Chromium that tell the browser to use a specific service configuration.
And you  can also copy the Google Chrome key/id/secret into that file and then it’s as if you are using a Chrome browser when talking to Google’s cloud services.

An ‘un-googled’ browser experience

The above API blocking scenario is a “win/lose” scenario as far as I am concerned. For Google it is a “win”: they still get to collect the data related to your online activities which they can monetize. And you “lose” because in return Google won’t allow you to use their cloud sync service any longer. That is not acceptable. And it lead to a bit of research into the possibilities of turning this fiasco into a “win” for the user.
Turns out that there’s is actually an existing online project: “ungoogled-chromium – a lightweight approach to removing Google web service dependency“.
High-over: the “un-googled chromium” project offers a set of patches that can be applied to the Chromium source code. These patches remove any occurrence of Google Web Service URLs from the source code which means that the resulting browser binaries are incapable of sending your private data into Google datacenters. Additionally these patches bring  privacy enhancements borrowed from other Chromium derivatives like the Inox patchset, Debian’s Chromium, Iridium browser and Bromite.
Not just a “win” for the user but a “lose” for Google. They basically brought this down on themselves.

My conclusion was that a removal of Google associations from Chromium and at the same time improving its privacy controls is what I must be focusing on in future Chromium packages.

During my research I did look at existing alternative Chromium browser implementations. They all have their own merits I guess. I do not like to switch to Vivaldi since I think its development process is hazy i.e. not public. Only its complete release tarballs are downloadable. Or Brave – its sources are not available at all and it tries to enforce an awards system where you are encouraged to view ads – I mean, WTF? If I wanted to run a browser compiled by another party that tries to use me for their own gain, I could just stick with the official Chrome and be happy. But that is not my goal.

What I did instead was to enhance my chromium.SlackBuild script with a single environment variable “USE_UNGOOGLED” plus some shell scripting which is executed when that variable is set to ‘true’ (i.e. the value “1”). The result of running “USE_UNGOOGLED=1 ./chromium.SlackBuild” is a package that contains an “un-googled” Chromium browser that has no connection at all to Google services.
I make that package available separately at https://slackware.nl/people/alien/slackbuilds/chromium-ungoogled/

Be warned: using un-Googled Chromium needs some getting used to, but no worries: I will guide you through the initial hurdles in this article. Continue reading! And especially read the ungoogled-chromium FAQ.

The first time you start my chromium-ungoogled it will create a profile directory “~/.config/chromium-ungoogled” which means you can use regular Chromium and the un-googled chromium in parallel, they will not pollute or affect each other’s profiles.

You’ll notice as well that the default start page points to the Chrome Web Store but the link actually does not work. That’s unfortunate but I decided not to look into changing the default start page (for now). Patch welcome.

Which leads to the first question also answered in the above FAQ: how to install Chrome extensions if the Chrome Web Store is inaccessible?
The answer allowing direct installations from the Web Store afterwards is to download and install the chromium-web-store extension (Chrome extensions are packed in files with .crx suffix). You have to do this manually but the instructions for these manual installation steps are clear. Then, any subsequent extensions are a lot easier to install.

Another quirk you may have questions about is the fact that un-Googled Chromium seems to forget your website login credentials all the time. Actually this is done on purpose. FAQ #1 answers this: Look under chrome://settings/content/cookies and search for “Clear cookies and site data when you quit Chromium“. Disable this setting to prevent the above behavior.

Watching Netflix, Hulu or Disney+ content will not work out of the box, you’ll have to install the Widevine CDM library yourself. If you have been a Slackware user for a while, you may recall that I used to provide chromium-widevine-plugin packages, until the capability to download that plugin all by itself was added to Chromium source code by Google. Well… the un-Googled Chromium removed that capability again but I have updated my package repository with a version of the widevine-plugin that works with with the un-Googled browser.

Safe browsing is not available in un-Googled Chromium, since that too is a service provided by Google. Recommended alternatives are uBlock Origin or uMatrix.

Sync your browser data to an online service which is under your own – not Google’s – control

Now that we said good-bye to Google Cloud Sync, can  we still sync our passwords, bookmarks and browsing history to a remote server and access these data from multiple browsers? Yes we can!
Even better, we can sync that data to a place that is under our own control. Multiple computers using the same synchronized data will give you the same experience as your prior usage of Google Cloud Sync. This will then also not be limited to Chromium based browsers – Mozilla based browsers are able to access the same centrally stored data. Win!

The question is then: how to implement it? Is this something you can do without being an IT person or a Slackware Guru?
I will show you that the answer is “yes”, in a follow-up article dealing with keepassxc and xbrowsersync.

Have fun! Eric

Google muzzles all Chromium browsers on 15 March 2021

Ominous music

A word of caution: long rant ahead. I apologize in advance.
There was an impactful post on the Google Chromium blog, last friday.  I recommend you read it now: https://blog.chromium.org/2021/01/limiting-private-api-availability-in.html

The message to take away from that post is “We are limiting access to our private Chrome APIs starting on March 15, 2021“.

What is the relevance I hear you ask.
Well, I provide Chromium packages for Slackware, both 32bit and 64bit versions. These chromium packages are built on our native Slackware platform, as opposed to the official Google Chrome binaries which are compiled on an older Ubuntu probably, for maximum compatibility across Linux distros where these binaries are used. One unique quality of my Chromium packages for Slackware is that I provide them for 32bit Slackware. Google ceased providing official 32bit binaries long ago.

In my Slackware Chromium builds, I disable some of the more intrusive Google features. An example: listening all the time to someone saying “OK Google” and sending the follow-up voice clip to Google Search.

And I create a Chromium package which is actually usable enough that people prefer it over Google’s own Chrome binaries, The reason for this usefulness is the fact that I enable access to Google’s cloud sync platform through my personal so-called “Google API key“. In Chromium for Slackware, you can logon to your Google account, sync your preferences, bookmarks, history, passwords etc to and from your cloud storage on Google’s platform. Your Chromium browser on Slackware is able to use Google’s location services and offer localized content; it uses Google’s  translation engine, etcetera. All that is possible because I formally requested and was granted access to these Google services through their APIs within the context of providing them through a Chromium package for Slackware.

The API key, combined with my ID and passphrase that allow your Chromium browser to access all these Google services are embedded in the binary – they are added during compilation. They are my key, and they are distributed and used with written permission from the Chromium team.

These API keys are usually meant to be used by software developers when testing their programs which they base on Chromium code. Every time a Chromium browser I compiled talks to Google through their Cloud Service APIs, a counter increases on my API key. Usage of the API keys for developers is rate-limited,  which means if an API key is used too frequently, you hit a limit and you’ll get an error response instead of a search result. So I made a deal with the Google Chromium team to be recognized as a real product with real users and an increased API usage frequency. Because I get billed for every access to the APIs which exceeds my allotted quota and I am generous but not crazy.
I know that several derivative distributions re-use my Chromium binary packages (without giving credit) and hence tax the usage quota on my Google Cloud account, but I cover this through donations, thank you my friends, and no thanks to the leeches of those distros.

Now, what Google wants to do is limit the access to and usage of these Google services to only the software they themselves publish – i.e. Google Chrome. They are going to deny access to Google’s Cloud Services for all 3rd-party Chromium products (i.e. any binary software not distributed by Google).
Understand that there are many derivative browsers out there – based on the Open Source Chromium codebase – currently using a Google API key to access and use Google Cloud services. I am not talking about just the Chromium packages which you will find for most Linux distros and which are maintained by ‘distro packagers’. But also commercial and non-commercial products that offer browser-like features or interface and use an embedded version of Chromium to enable these capabilities. The whole Google Cloud ecosystem which is accessible using Google API Keys is built into the core of Chromium source code… all that these companies had to do was hack & compile the Chromium code, request their own API key and let the users of their (non-)commercial product store all their private data on Google’s Cloud.

Google does not like it that 3rd parties use their infrastructure to store user data Google cannot control. So they decided to deliver a blanket strike – not considering the differences in usage, simply killing everything that is not Google.
Their statement to us distro packagers is that our use of the API keys violates their Terms of Service. The fact is that in the past, several distros have actively worked with Google’s Chromium team to give their browser a wider audience through functional builds of the Open Source part of Chrome. I think that Google should be pleased with the increased profits associated with the multitude of Linux users using their services.
This is an excerpt from the formal acknowledgement email I received (dating back to 2013) with the approval to use my personal Google API key in a Chromium package for Slackware:

Hi Eric,

Note that the public Terms of Service do not allow distribution of the API
keys in any form. To make this work for you, on behalf of Google Chrome
Team I am providing you with:

    -
    Official permission to include Google API keys in your packages and to
    distribute these packages.  The remainder of the Terms of Service for each
    API applies, but at this time you are not bound by the requirement to only
    access the APIs for personal and development use, and
    -
    Additional quota for each API in an effort to adequately support your
    users.

I recommend providing keys at build time, by passing additional flags to
build/gyp_chromium. In your package spec file, please make an easy to see
and obvious warning that the keys are only to be used for Slackware. Here
is an example text you can use:

# Set up Google API keys, see
http://www.chromium.org/developers/how-tos/api-keys .
# Note: these are for ... use ONLY. For your own distribution,
# please get your own set of keys.

And indeed, my chromium.SlackBuild script contains this warning ever since:

# This package is built with Alien's Google API keys for Chromium.
# The keys are contained in the file "chromium_apikeys".
# If you want to rebuild this package, you can use my API keys, however:
# you are not allowed to re-distribute these keys!!
# You can also obtain your own, see:
# http://www.chromium.org/developers/how-tos/api-keys

It effectively means that I alone am entitled to distribute the binary Chromium packages that I create. All derivative distros that use/repackage my binaries in any form are in violation of this statement.

On March 15, 2021 access to Google’s Cloud services will be revoked from my API key (and that of all the other 3rd parties providing any sort of Chromium-related binaries). It means that my Chromium will revert to a simple browser which will allow you to login to your Google account and store your data (bookmarks/passwords/history) locally but will not sync that data to and from your Google Cloud account. Also, location and translation services and probably several other services will stop working in the browser. Effectively, Google will muzzle any Chromium browser, forcing people to use their closed Chrome binaries instead if they want cross-platform access to their data. For instance, using Chrome on Android and Chromium on Slackware.
Yes, Chrome is based on Chromium source code but there’s code added on top that we do not know of. Not everybody is comfortable with that. There was a good reason to start distributing a Chromium package for Slackware!

Now the one million dollar question:

Will you (users of my package) still use this muzzled version of Chromium? After all, Slackware-current (soon to become 15.0 stable) contains the Falkon browser as part of Plasma5, and Falkon is a Chromium browser core with a Qt5 graphical interface, and it does not use any Google API key either. Falkon will therefore offer the same or a similar feature set as a muzzled Chromium.
If you prefer not to use Chromium any longer after March 15, because this browser lost its value and unique distinguishing features for you, then I would like to know. Compiling Chromium is not trivial, it takes a lot of effort every major release to understand why it no longer compiles and then finding solutions for that, and then the compile time is horribly long as well. Any mistake or build failure sets me back a day easily. It means that I will stop providing Chromium packages in the event of diminishing interest. I have better things to do than fight with Google.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below

FYI:

There are two threads on Google Groups where the discussion is captured; the Chromium Embedders group: https://groups.google.com/a/chromium.org/g/embedder-dev/c/NXm7GIKTNTE  – and most of it (but not all!) is duplicated in the Chromium Distro Packagers group: https://groups.google.com/a/chromium.org/g/chromium-packagers/c/SG6jnsP4pWM – I advise you to read the cases made by several distro packagers and especially take good care of how the Google representatives are answering our concerns. There’s more than a tad of arrogance and disrespect to be found there, so much that one poster pointed the Googlers that take part in the discussion (Director level mind you; not the friendly developers and community managers who have been assisting us all these years) to the Chromium Code of Conduct. I am so pissed with this attitude that I forwarded the discussion to Larry Page in a hissy fit… not that I expect him to read and answer, but it had to be done. Remember the original Google Code of Conduct mantra “Don’t be evil”?

Warning about Python3 update in latest -current

Warning for people running Slackware-current and have 3rd party packages installed (who doesn’t) that depend on Python3. That includes you who are running KDE Plasma5!

The “Sun Oct 25 18:05:51 UTC 2020” update in Slackware-current comes with a bump in the Python3 version (to 3.9) which is incompatible with software which already has been compiled against an older version of Python3 (like 3.8).

I found 26 of my own packages on my laptop that depend on Python3 and they are all probably going to break when upgrading to the latest slackware-current. This includes Plasma5 ‘ktown’ packages but also several of my DAW packages.

I suggest that you wait with upgrading to the latest -current for a short while. Give Pat a chance to add Plasma5 to Slackware, because I am not going to recompile any ‘ktown’ package over this.
I will however look at my other packages (cecilia5, wxpython to name but a few) and recompile those against the newer Python. Watch this space for more news.

Disney+ finally works on Linux!

A little more than three weeks after the new Disney+ movie streaming service went officially live, the Disney company has added Linux support to their Widevine DRM protection. No more “Error 83”. No more need to install the Windows version of Chrome in Wine. Watching your favorite movies is now possible in the native Linux browsers – both Mozilla and Google based. Firefox will download the Widevine CDM (content delivery module) automatically, Chrome has the support built-in and for my Chromium package and other Chromium-based browsers you;ll have to install my chromium-widevine-plugin package.

I guess that a sufficiently large group of Linux enthusiasts have been complaining. And with success!

Enjoy! Eric