Why Open-Source Matters for Digital Democracy? Interview with Plausible Analytics

50 min read
This is the first episode of the series of interviews with the “Champions of Democracy” featured by the Lifestyle Democracy channel on YouTube.

This article features the transcript of the first video interview with Marko Saric, the co-founder of Plausible Analytics that was conducted on April 14, 2021.

In this interview, I spoke with the co-founder of Plausible Analytics, Marko Saric, about how they are using their open source tool to help make the web a bit more “human-friendly” with a privacy-first approach. Plausible Analytics launched in 2020 and has experienced remarkable growth in just a year. At the time of the interview, it had numbered over 2,000 subscribers from all over the world and has reached financial sustainability.

Plausible Analytics is “an open-source project dedicated to making web analytics more privacy-friendly. Our mission is to reduce corporate surveillance by providing an alternative web analytics tool which doesn’t come from the AdTech world.”

Quick Summary

This section contains the key takeaways of the interview with Marko Saric.

  • Now it is a great time to be in the “ethical”, “transparent” and “open-source” side of creating applications and other web tools.
  • Open-source tools can be financially sustainable and can even experience rapid growth as the experience of Plausible Analytics shows.
  • The three aspects that can help make the web more ethical and human friendly are: alternatives (such as DuckDuckGo for Google Search or Plausible Analytics for Google Analytics), people (putting pressure on corporations) and regulations (such as GDPR).  
  • In a few years we may go back to contextual ads and personal profiling and targeted ads may be banned.
  • Open-source software is more widely used than we think. Most web servers are powered by Linux (open-source operating system), WordPress, a popular content management system (CMS) powers over 30% of the world’s websites.
  • Governments should produce software that is open-source.

Full Transcript (Unedited) & Video of the Interview

Note: The transcript below has been redacted to enhance readability with the help of an automated tool. Some of the words have been adjusted without changing the original intent of the author. If you spot a mistake, please leave a comment below and we will correct it.

Introduction to the Lifestyle Democracy Channel

If you prefer to watch and listen to the interview, please check it out here:

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Hi, I’m Stefan from lifestyle democracy, the community where we learn to live and build democracies, one day at a time.

Today is the first video interview for our blog and also for the channel Lifestyle Democracy. It is a pleasure to have a very special guest to join us for the 1st video interview or video podcast.

Before we get started with the main topic of our discussion, which is the interview with Marko Saric, who is one of the co-founders of Plausible Analytics, we would just like to give you a brief introduction to Lifestyle Democracy so you get a better understanding of what the channel is about and how it related to what our guest will be talking about later in the show.

The motto of Lifestyle Democracy is to learn to live and build democracies, one day at a time. If you’ve been following the news [lately], you may have come across that democracy is in decline. There was a survey recently published by The Associated Press where they surveyed adults in the United States, and they have concluded that 16% of those surveyed believe that democracy works well or extremely well in the United States.1 AP-NORC Poll: Few in US Say Democracy Is Working Very Well. https://apnews.com/article/ap-norc-poll-us-democracy-403434c2e728e42a955c72a652a59318. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021. As we know, the United States is considered the beacon of democracy.

So, if very few people in the United States, around 16% of those surveyed [by the Associated Press] in February of 2021, have recognized that democracy works well or very well, it speaks to the decline of the faith in democracy in one of the countries that is most lauded for democratic practices.

In our view here at Lifestyle Democracy, democracy is in decline not because democracy does not work, but because there is absence of democracy.

I will just repeat it one more time,

People confuse the absence of democracy with lack of democracy.

Stefan Ivanovski

They see the failures of our current most popular model of democracy, which is representative democracy as a failure of overall democracy.

If I take myself as an example, would you consider me that I am an Olympic swimmer if I only practiced for the Olympic Games once every four years?

Every four years is roughly the time when we go to the polls to vote. So, if we just vote once every four years, does that make us be [an active] part of a democratic society?

So, what happens these 1,459 days between elections? This is what we are going to be talking about today and this is what the Lifestyle Democracy channel is about. It is about highlighting the examples from around the world, interviewing people such as our guest today to share with us how we can democratize different spheres of our lives, beyond just the political, beyond just participating in democracy during the elections, which happen once every four years or much less frequently.

The idea of Lifestyle Democracy is to show us how we can make democracy part of our everyday life, how we can take small steps to democratize the areas of our lives that matter the most, or where we spend the most time. For example [democracy] in our workplaces where we spend about half of our waking hours, and where about half of our lives go.

Education, where we spend about a quarter of our lives, and also our families. How do we democratize our families? But what do we mean by democratizing families, workplaces…?

The core idea comes from the Greek words, which form the root of the word democracy, which are demos, people and kratos, power. It is about empowering people. At Lifestyle Democracy, we see democracy as empowering individuals and communities, without harming others or the living environment.

This is a very important notion that we would like to stick with throughout our interview and throughout the rest of the video podcasts that you will be hopefully following.

The idea is that democracy is not an end goal. This is why we say to learn to live and build democracies one day at a time. So, it is about, exploring and finding different ways how democracies work.

Introduction the Our Guest and The Topic of the Interview: Digital Democracy

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: For example, today’s topic of discussion is going to be about digital democracy, and how the work that Marko, our guest, is doing, relates to some of the aspects of that. So, we need to understand how digital democracy can be democratized.

How can we empower people to participate in the digital sphere?

And, there is no singular model. This is why we say democracies because we are still learning, we are adjusting and learning how to make democracy work as the technologies evolve and change.

So, without further ado, I would like to invite our guest today, who is the co-founder of Plausible Analytics. For those of you who do not know, Plausible Analytics is an open-source tool that helps website owners receive information about visitors to their website while respecting the visitor’s privacy.

One of the main competitors, probably, or the most well-known website analytics tool is Google Analytics. This is a tool that that is available for free for website owners such as ourselves, here, at Lifestyle Democracy. It is a free tool that website owners can use, but the challenge is that Google is known to be more invasive or more keen on collecting the data from the visitors and Plausible Analytics is one tool that offers privacy friendly analytics for websites.

I will not speak much more about Plausible Analytics. I would like our guest to introduce himself to the audience and kick-off the interview. So, Marko, if you can, please introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a little bit about Plausible Analytics.

Interview Kick-Off with Marko Saric, Co-founder of Plausible Analytics

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Sure, sure, Stefan. Thanks for having me on. Good luck from the new podcast. I hope it works for you. So yeah, my name is Marko Saric. I am a co-founder of Plausible Analytics, Stefan gave a good introduction already.

[Plausible Analytics] It is an analytics tool that you can install on your site to get some insights to know how everything is going and learn how to improve your connectivity future. It is done in a different spin which fits more with our modern world where we have different privacy regulations such as GDPR and so on.

So, Plausible Analytics is a new way of doing that previously, privacy first way, and we feel a little bit better way of doing it than what we are used to from before, from tools such as Google Analytics.

About Plausible Analytics & Open-Source

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: OK, very good. So, why is there a need for another analytics tool? Isn’t analytics space already saturated given that Google Analytics is a free tool and it’s a very powerful tool as you well know it, it provides very in-depth analysis where website owners can learn about how much time visitors spend on the different pages of the website, how they interact with the website. This is a very useful set of information that the website owner can learn how the audiences interact, where they come from and understand how to better target the different audiences. So, why and how did you Plausible Analytics start and what makes it different?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: So, basically, we’re a two people company, me and my cofounder. I joined just about over a year ag. My co-founder is a developer who started developing Plausible and we were at the stage where it was ready to be released and joined to help with the communication and marketing side of things.

We tried to strike a balance, so Plausible Analytics is useful, like you’re saying, you can find useful information about your site, such as what people like about your content, where they find you, and things like that, but we try to angle it towards being privacy-first, which Google does not really have a good reputation about. So, Google Analytics is free and easily installed on something like 80% – 90% of the all the websites in the world and on the web.

But it’s collecting a lot more datasets than [they] and [you] need. So Google’s business model is all about data collection for the “surveillance capitalism” and collecting as much personal data as possible in order to build personal profiles and then share that data with different companies in order to sell advertising and target those people with personal advertising.

That business model has taken Google Analytics and analytics in general to an area where we feel, now it’s no longer just about being useful to website owners, but it is about these extra levels of insights, hundreds of different reports and different data points about people that that most of us do not need.

So, we are very simple. We are privacy first, we’re very easy to use, and very easy to understand, and we are very lightweight and we are loading fast.

So, basically all this baggage that Google has because of the advertising and the surveillance capitalism, we got rid of, which made our tool so much better. Even though it is not a free tool, it’s still a very nice and even better alternative for many site owners, that do not necessarily care about all this extra insights for advertising purposes.

What Google Analytics was in the 1st place was interesting Insights, useful Insights, actionable insights, so they [website owners] can learn a little bit more about what happens to their sites so they can do better in the future and create even better websites and better user experience.

So, that’s why there’s a need for a new one. We’re trying to strike a balance between user friendly and then usable and useful, but also you know privacy first and compliant with the different regulations and so on.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Very good. So, I would just like to share a disclaimer. When I was building website, the default web analytics tool and also the one that’s most well integrated that comes with many integrations, is Google Analytics.

So, I started with Google Analytics first, but then when I started writing and preparing the website, I just saw a clash of values with what I was trying to promote and what Google Analytics stood for. Like, some people say, if Google Analytics is free and if you’re not paying, then you’re the product.

And then I felt that I needed to find an alternative, I searched online, and I stumbled upon Plausible Analytics and some other open-source tools and we here at Lifestyle Democracy actually use Plausible Analytics, but we are not an affiliate, just wanted to share that disclaimer with the audience.

The reason, why Marko is invited here is because of the philosophy behind Plausible Analytics.

So, I wanted you to tell us a little bit more about how the idea was born and what are the values that Plausible Analytics stands for that sets Plausible Analytics apart from some of the other tools?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah, so my co-founder, if you look back say five years ago, we were both very happy with Google. We were using their products, they have a lot of great products, a lot of people get value from using them. We were recommending some to our friends and family. They are fast, and they are great tools and they helped us a lot. Be it Google Photos or Gmail. There are so many tools, YouTube and so on.

So, over the last, maybe two or three years, our relationship with Google started changing after, you know, after maybe we became less ignorant about these things and more aware of some of the issues with the business model that we slowly were starting to focus on.

So back in the day, they were more about users and creating tools that would improve people’s lives. I feel over the last few years, it’s become more about, shareholders, shareholder value and then kind of squeezing more out to users in order to make more money so they can get their stock prices higher and so on.

We were feeling this and we started researching alternative tools to Google Search, Gmail and so on and then slowly started transitioning our own personal lives from being dominated by using Google tools to trying to find these different, more “ethical” alternatives.

We both had experience with analytics. I come from the marketing world. I was using [Google] Analytics and I don’t know how many websites I’ve installed it on over the last 15 years or so. My co-founder came from the developer side of things, where he was requested to install Google Analytics by marketing teams and so on.

We both had previous experience with this set and we felt there was a need for something different, something that looks at it from a more modern perspective in 2021, where it’s not all about, you know, taking as much profit as possible, and there are all these different regulations in place now that did not exist few years ago and all these different kinds of “scandals” we’ve seen about the surveillance, capitalism and so on. Our approach was to try to build something that fits with our views and our modern world we are living in.

So, we made it very opposite of how Google approaches things in many ways. Plausible Analytics is 100% open-source tool. All the code, everything else we do, is very transparent and in the open. We share everything, from the code itself, how it’s built, so people can actually review it and then come to inspect it and check: ‘Are these guys actually doing what they’re saying they do in terms of privacy or are they selling some data to other places and so on?’

[The code] is in the public, so you can explore it, check it, and verify it. You can check on our website so you can see our traffic, you can see how many visitors we get and everything. We share things, such as, the revenue we get, the number of customers we have.

In general, we kind of go all the way on the other end of the spectrum in terms of being proprietary huge tool that’s all about profit to on our end being completely open-source tool, that’s just trying to, in our little way, make the web a little bit better, a little bit more user friendly, people friendly.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: When I was researching analytics tools, I was specifically looking for, and you touched upon this a little bit, tools that are open-source. These tools tend to be reviewed by the community like you were saying and they have more trust and credibility in the eyes of the users themselves.

I’m a non-technical person, so I wouldn’t be able to verify on my own whether or to what extent Plausible Analytics offers this privacy options that you are advocating for. I have to take other people’s word for it on the Internet. But when I was researching about Plausible Analytics, I saw you had quite an impressive growth in terms of revenues and [all of that] in a relatively short time.

What do you think makes Plausible Analytics such a successful tool analytics tool? Or what are the contributing factors that made Plausible Analytics such a success? You come from the marketing side and your co-founder comes from the developer side. How did you make this rapid growth, happen over a very short time?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: I am not a technical person either, so I cannot verify the code myself. My co-founder can and obviously thousands of other people have gone through the code on our GitHub repository. So, it’s all there.

But yeah, how did we grow so much? I joined [Plausible Analytics] in March last year, 2020. There were couple of 100 customers and I think our revenue was about $400 a month. Right now, we are at $19,500 or something like that in terms of MRR.

Stefan Ivanovski, Plausible Analytics: MRR stands for? For those who may not be familiar.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: [MRR] is monthly recurring revenue. It is basically how much revenue we get per month. We are a subscription business, so in order to use Plausible you need to pay and then you pay monthly subscription depending on how large your site is. That’s how we can predict how much revenue will get per month. We grew from about 400 to about 19,500. The same is with the number of websites who are using us. We grew from something like a couple 100 to now about 15,000. This is 15,000 different websites where Plausible Analytics is installed.

Which also means that we have taken away from than a billion views from the eyes of Google, of Google Analytics. Most of the websites that come to us have used Google Analytics in the past and they decided to switch to Plausible Analytics and remove Google Analytics.

This means that in our little way we are taking 1 billion and something, now it is something like 1.4 billion page views at this point. At least, these are not page views that are accessible via Google Analytics.

Why was there such a strong growth? We have seen this in other “ethical” alternative products, such as alternatives to Gmail. Some of these have had huge growth over the last couple of years. Services like ProtonMail, Hey.com…

So, we’re kind of in the same trend that they have been riding on. More people are becoming more aware of these issues of Google, surveillance capitalism and privacy. People are understanding now that when something is for free that does not necessarily mean that nobody is paying for it, it means that you are paying with something else, in this case your data or one in your case, the visitors date of your website. We are riding all of this together, which helps us with the growth.

The fact that we are also so direct, if you come to our website (www.plausible.io), I think, within a few seconds you will understand what we stand for and what we are against and how we’re different from the “norm,” which is Google Analytics. We spell it out very clearly, what the differences are, and I think that direct, honest and upfront message really helps build connections, build relationships and build trust, in addition to our open-source aspects that you can verify that what we are saying is what we are doing so you can verify that it’s not just “marketing,” or some random words.

Our approach, our communication and positioning on the market, and obviously that the whole kind of privacy thing is really growing with more and more people being happy to say that I put some money and I am paying for the kind of tools that I feel are more ethical, better, more privacy friendly.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Youtouched upon the values and also open-source nature of Plausible Analytics, meaning people from around the world can independently verify their code. Given the spectacular growth that you’ve had and also some of the other alternatives that exist out there; it seems like there is this dichotomy, or opposing views on software being open-source versus proprietary, like Google or some other companies.

Do you think that there is a time when big corporations such as Google or Microsoft would ever venture more ambitiously in the path of developing open-source software? It seems for you that it it’s working. People are paying for something that they can actually do themselves, right? For example, people can use Plausible Analytics for free, right?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yes.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: So how does open-source add value if I, let’s say, as a non-technical person, can use it to start out. Usually when starting out budgets are more important, so how does open-source become something that is sustainable financially given that the code can be taken by somebody and applied in some other context, and maybe we can change the name of it to something else.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Is there a risk that this can happen, and how does Plausible Analytics deal with this?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah, open-source software is a bit of a funny world to be in. You are right, the fact that we have made our code open, we have also made our code ready and available, so if you want, you can take our code, download it and you can upload it and install it, on say your own server, which means that you can run and manage your own self-hosted version of Plausible Analytics completely without any connection to us. You don’t need to pay us anything, you don’t really need to be in touch with us at all. We don’t know anything about you. We don’t have any telemetry or any kind of stats that we collect about it, so you can ride on your own.

We made it like that. It’s part of the principles of open-source and the kind of values we like to stand for. We’d like to have that opportunity for people that want to have it, but can’t pay at the moment. We would rather have people use Plausible, than not use Plausible at all. It’s there, it’s available, and the way we think about it, the “hosted” platform, the one for which you have to pay is there because we make that whole process easier for you. You don’t need to worry about having a server, or installing or upgrading it or doing a backup so you don’t lose any data. Or, in case you have an interview and you get tons of visitors and then your server crashes.

You know you don’t need to worry about these things if you were on the hosted version. By paying us the fees we charge, we take care of all these things for you. We make sure everything is running at all times, it’s fast loading, uptime is all there no matter how much traffic you get, and that’s a service, that for many individuals, but also for many companies, mostly for companies, it’s worth paying for, because that means that they don’t need to have resources to keep the servers running and so on.

So, it really works for us, this kind of balance is great. We get both options for everyone and many people you know, as I explained before, are happy to pay for an open-source product that they can get for free, because of all the others reasons such as the services and uptime.

Sustainability is a big topic in the world of open-source. It’s mostly because of that people can use it for free and in some open-source projects there is not this clear disconnect, what do I get for paying, or that kind of thing. In our case it’s quite easy and quite simple.

Quite a few open-source projects that are used by Microsoft and all these big corporations, are also very donation based. The majority of the people that use them do not actually pay for these products, then this sustainability question is much tougher because you might have a tool that’s used by millions of people, but the couple of people, or the team that is building the tool, cannot have a full-time income from doing it. They might have a full-time job on the side or so, and I feel this needs to get better in the open-source world in general, so we can have more people and more projects done in this way so more people and companies can get access to it, but the people that are building those tools and that are communicated by those tools also need a way to make a living from doing that.

In the case of Plausible, I feel like we’ve really done well in that sense. We’ve built a sustainable business, even though it’s open-source. I’ve heard of many other projects that have not been able to do the same. But, I think that in the future it will become easier even for other projects to keep it all open-source, transparent, and out there for everyone, but also have enough interest and enough people who are happy to pay for it, so they can actually quit their jobs and then focus on this full-time, which makes the whole ecosystem much better and stronger and will end up resulting in better open-source tools [available] to everyone.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: That’s very good. Given your success with Plausible Analytics and provided it being an open-source tool that others can use, what would you recommend to other developers, enthusiasts or individuals who want to develop some software that is open-source, that is ethical, that in some way in the words here, that we like to use that democratizes the digital sphere.

What are the recommendations and maybe some of the lessons that you have learned of your recent success be for these people who want to start some open-source software and also make a living out of it? Just another sub-question, before you answer this one. Are you currently full-time at Plausible?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yes, both of us are full-time. A few months ago, actually last year, we were not able to get in salary because we were just starting out. Then, there was not enough revenue to pay full salary. We were basically able to do this because we were living from our savings for the last eight or ten months.

I think that this year in January was actually the first month we were able to fully cover the costs of Plausible, the costs of our own personal bills and stuff and pay our own salaries. I think we are at a sustainable level, mostly because it took quite a long time to get to this stage and took some savings for both of us to be able to get there.

How can others do it? That can be a model, if you have enough savings and go for it, if you believe you have a great idea in an area that you are passionate about. Now, it’s a great time to be ethical, privacy first, open-source. The world needs these kinds of solutions because what the world used today are tools made by “surveillance capitalism.” It’s made by Google, Facebook and others. So, the world needs these better and more ethical solutions.

And there’s a lot of space and a lot of opportunities for growth. If you don’t have any savings, or you cannot quit your job, you can always start as a side project. Start building it up over the weekends and in the evenings. It is how many of the open-source projects, even the ones that are very popular are made by people who are not actually working on them full-time. It is something that they do as a “hobby” or a passion project on the side.

So if you want it, now it’s a great time to start something that is ethical, privacy first, transparent. There is a really, really big need. If you just look at tools you are using yourself, and everyone else is using around you, in most case they not ethical, privacy first, open-source. They are “free” because you are paying with something else, such as with your data.  

Privacy & Adtech

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: You mentioned the word, “ethical” a lot. Now, I would like to move to the next part [of this interview] and focus on privacy. Your Twitter signature says “Escaping the adtech machine and making the web a bit more human friendly”?

I would like you to expand on this a little bit and tell us what do you define as adtech machine and why is there a need to escape it?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah, I mean it’s very similar to what we discussed already. The whole web is funded by the ad tech, by the surveillance capitalism. In many cases, even though we have, you know, GDPR, which requires these companies can get clear consent for people to track them and so on, that not really happening on when I surf the web and check websites.

If they follow the law and make it easy to like click to say “yes” or “no” and are giving a clear choice, a very easy to understand choice, then there would be no need to escape the adtech. The way the web is right now, with all these tricks and hacks and things that websites are using to get more data from you, I feel this is causing growth in things such as ad blockers, browsers such as Brave, which is blocking, all the “bad” stuff, automatically for you as you surf.

Basically my point is, at the stage where we are right now, the incentive for all sites and businesses to collect more data because it makes them more money, it’s really difficult to coexist with the idea that the web is human friendly, because if you want to be human friendly, you will give everyone an easy way out of this tracking. But, you know that you will suffer in terms of the revenue you will get it.

We need to find a better balance. There is growth in many of the tools that are trying to do that and Plausible is one of them.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: What do you mean by ethical? You’ve mentioned there is a lot of space for growth for solution that are ethical. What do you define as being ethical?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: For me it’s about transparency and trust. I think that a lot of people have lost the trust on the web with the companies, in the last, five years or whatever. There is lack of trust basically. By “ethical,” I mean you are open and you are transparent and you tell it as it is. Even if your business model is ads, you will just say it the way it is. I want to collect this and this data about you for this purpose, please give me the kind of consent, “yes” or “no.”

Basically, when I say ethical, this is what I mean, transparent and having the person, the “user” as the key valued person here, the one that is actually important, rather than just get numbers for advertising purposes. Actually, you are thinking about your users having a great experience that they can trust and that’s my approach to “ethical.” It means more openness, more transparency and respect. It feels that the web is missing that right now.

The are alternatives to email providers, search engine providers and the whole market is coming up with alternative over the last few years. They all have that in common, the transparency aspect. They are upfront, they are honest and they tell it like it is and they are not just trying to have you as another number in this huge ad collection.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Very good. Realistically speaking, Google isn’t going away anywhere. Advertising is not going away anywhere, anytime soon. It’s not just Google, it’s also the other the other big tech companies in the digital space. They’re not away anytime soon. What do you think it would take to make these companies, or what should do these companies to be more ethical or more human friendly?

There are a lot of these companies like yours that can be bootstrapped with savings, a bit of passion, and you have spectacular growth that you’ve experienced in the last couple of months, actually over a year now, but these are going to constitute a small percentage of the web. Google still, largely dominates the web, it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth.

What do you think it would take for these companies or how can they become more ethical, more human friendly?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: My answer is clear, but I don’t think they have any intention or interest. At least, that’s what their actions or last few years have shown. They need to be pushed to be more ethical and transparent. They cannot do that by themselves, even though the path is clear.

And how they get pushed, there are several answers. One is alternatives, such as DuckDuckGo for Google Search, Hey and ProtonMail for Google Mail, or Plausible for Google Analytics. Once people notice that they have an option or a better tool, suddenly they notice that, actually I don’t think they notice that, 1.4 billion page views is gone from Google Analytics over the last few months because of this other alternative Plausible. Or, I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of people have signed up for different email service providers rather than Gmail and have moved their communication over.

One is alternatives that will kind of bite and take a little bit for from all of them.

Well, the second one is obviously people. I mean people, the “users,” even though it’s difficult to reach out to Facebook or Google and tell them your opinion, it’s not like you can speak to a person there, it’s kind of like a faceless corporation, but people voicing what they what they want to see is, a different part of this whole thing. If you keep saying, ‘you are doing this, this is bad, I don’t want it, I am going to use you less,’ that’s a strong message, even for the largest corporations.

The third aspect I would is regulation. I feel GDPR has made such huge difference in this space in opening…actually large corporations realizing that they cannot do as they have always done anymore, just because there is this regulation in place that might fine them for continuing those kind of illegal practices.

So, between alternatives, with people speaking their mind and regulations forcing companies these companies to change, we might not be able to remove Facebook, or Google, which is not realistic is not anyone’s goal really, but, we might make a better and more independent web. 

You know, where you actually don’t have one company that stands for 90% of everything, but you have many of 15 or 20 different components which will stand for 1% or even more.

So basically, it’s not to replace, that’s unrealistic, but to gain from them, so they go from, say, 80% of people who use Google’s browser and Google Search, to maybe at some point they go down to 30% or 40% and because there’s so many other competitive alternatives that they prefer, and that’s a win in so many ways in the future.

And the point you made about ads, ads are not going away, I don’t have anything against advertising, but the fact is that advertising is not done right now with a privacy first, it’s not done with the concept of people.

If you look at Google few years ago, first many billions they made was completed on ads, but contextual ads. Those are ads that do not need any personal data, they do not need any profiling of people, they just need context.  

So, for example, if there are people on your site reading about Digital Democracy, there will be ads about relevant to topics to that.

Let’s say we are reading about sports, then there will be ads about sports or buying sports shoes and other stuff.  

For example, if I’m searching for something on Google, the ads will be based on what I’m searching rather than on who I am as a person.

Similarly you could do geographical based, so that’s context as well. Let’s say, if I’m looking for something on this site and I’m based in specific country, then the ad will be based on what I would like as a person based in that country rather than who I am and what my browser behavior has been in the last few months and what websites I have visited and things like that.

I feel that there’s so much data, but I really feel that that’s where we have to go back. Is that because of pressure regulation or some other pressure? I think that’s where we will end up end up a few years down the line is that we will go back and say personal advertising is banned, you cannot buy and ad here and surveil the web and see what sites are the people visiting and what kind of tools they are using or everything about them to sell them targeted ads.

And contextual advertising works. There is no third-party or neutral tool or research that has shown that personal ads are stronger than contextual ads. There is proof of that. They are equally good.  Contextual ads can easily replace [targeted ads], and they do not need any tracking. They are just based on the page your viewing, the content you are viewing, the location you are in. There is no need for anything special or fancy algorithms. 

Even though we know ads will not go away, there are much better and much human friendly ways to advertise. And Google knows, and they have made many billions doing that. They should be happy to go back to that.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Last time I check, that was a few weeks ago, I think that Google has made over 90% of its revenues from advertising. It seems like the whole company’s focus is on gathering data for targeted advertising.

At Lifestyle Democracy, we like to walk the talk or practice what we preach, it’s not easy, but in the context of ads, how do you market Plausible Analytics? What type of marketing practices or advertising practices do you use?      

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: We’re a bit different just because of our stance is against Google. It would not be good for us to go on Google and advertise to get customers. If you are starting a company or a website, to say that Google Analytics is the norm, going to Google and Facebook and paying them to get your customers, is the norm too in advertising. The majority of businesses, websites would go to Google and say, we will pay you this much money and you will get us this many visitors, and hopefully we convert some of the customers. That is the norm.

But because of our stance or philosophy we said we will not do advertising, we will not do paid advertising. We have given Facebook and Google $0.00, so we don’t do any of that. We also don’t do any of these popular growth “hacks,” patterns and other tricks in order to get people to start using us.

The same way our message of analytics is open, transparent and ethical, the same way our marketing. This is what you see is what you get. So, basically, we have a long list of techniques and strategies that we intentionally avoid them. These strategies such as paid ads on Google, are some of the main ways that the average company grows. We are not really traditional in that aspect.

The way we grow. We help people. We write a lot of content. We tell it like it is. We spread some of the message about and some of the bad aspects of Google and surveillance [capitalism].

We also create a lot of content in general that helps site owners about different aspects of what they’re doing and analytics. And just in general, the fact that we are so “fresh,” that also helps a ton, as people get to know us, they get so excited, and they really loved the idea and the kind of how different Plausible different.

We get a lot of people who have spread the word through word-of-mouth. That’s how we grow organically without the need for personal data, without the need to pay to grow. We basically are grateful to people who use Plausible and then tell their colleagues, friends or other site owners about their experience.

That is how we spread the message one site at a time, and every day there’s a few websites that uninstall Google Analytics and use Plausible and we feel that’s the way to grow.

We can also force this by investing a lot of money through Google Ads, but it would be inauthentic and fake, we say one thing and do another. That is something we don’t want to be a part of, so we are happier with this slower, organic growth, one site at a time. We don’t need to grow by million websites every day and we don’t need to overtake Google at any point. We are happy to growth naturally, with this stability in mind.

Digital Democracy

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Very good. Thank you for that Marko. Now, I would like to move a little bit towards some of the topics that you’ve touched upon and the overall theme which is digital democracy. What do you understand by digital democracy?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah, I mean this is a new term for me. At least, I was not aware of it, at least not until you’ve reached out. I was thinking at first it’s you know something about voting online, and doing the votes and elections online, using digital means.

But the way I understand it, it is very similar to what we discussed and how Plausible is built, it is something that empowers people and respects people, and gives the opportunities to do things, that  treats them well and with respect.

The fact that we are transparent, open-source, fair, transparent, upfront and direct, no tricks involved, I think all of this, if every company, every website, every business was like that, it would be a more democratized web for all of us.

That’s kind of my understanding right now.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Very good, very good. Why do you think privacy matters for democracy? I know one of the cornerstones of Plausible Analytics is privacy and based on what I was reading on the website, which by the way regarding, just going back a little bit to the advertising that you were discussing, I found the blog very useful and the information that you have posted there.

I also read about the strategies that you avoid to use. Some of them go against the advise that I’ve been given about how to grow the blog, which is very interesting. But, this is something that we can discuss at some other point perhaps.

Given that privacy is very important for Plausible, [why and] do you think it matters for democracy?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: I think privacy and what you believe in as a person should be your choice. You know you want to share that or you don’t want to share that, that should be up to you.

I feel some of that is lost by all this data collection and you know the fact that if you visit one website, then you will be followed with some advertising about that specific topic for weeks and it feels like you’ve given something of yourself away without giving your consent to it, then it feels like you were abused, kind of like your privacy was abused.

I feel [privacy] is a cornerstone of digital democracy. It is important for democracy, digital or not. It’s there to make people feel that they have some control or some say in their lives.

Privacy is very important. I don’t know how we can do without it.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Do you think Plausible Analytics contributes to democratizing the digital space and to what extent?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: I mean in our little way you know, like our hosted websites, and who else is using Plausible by self-hosting, it makes the web more open to everyone. Now, you have an alternative that’s not made by [Google] and you can use it any way you want, you don’t even need to pay for it.

In our little way, this is what I meant with the whole movement privacy first and so on, then if you put Plausible with the hundreds of other projects than you do something similar for different aspects. Then definitely that can be felt how the web is becoming more democratized and more open for everyone.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: How do you ensure the privacy at Plausible? For me, it was very important, when I was building the website, I started out with Google Analytics and I read that I had to have a GDPR cookie [consent banner] and I didn’t want to have any cookies. But I still wanted to have at least some notion of how many people are actually visiting the website. I wanted to get data on actual people.

I can get some of the data through the hosting provider, but the information is incorrect because there are a lot of these bots and the numbers are just inflated. So how do you count visitors? And how it differs from Google, which typically is able to gather more information, or has more information about the users and more context on the users? So, how do you differ? How do you actually count while at the same time stating that there is no need for any sort of consent cookie to visit a website which is run on Plausible Analytics for analytics purposes?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: We are built completely from the ground up. We started with nothing, which means that we could think about how the web is today and how the privacy regulations start today. We could build from that point of view and we basically start everything with minimal data collections.

[First] I think that Google Analytics allows you to see couple of 100 different reports and all combined there’s several hundreds of different data points they collect about each individual person on this site. While we have everything we do have is on one page, so there is one report rather than hundreds. That means we need much less data. We collect much less data. We display much less data than Google, which means in general automatically, you’re much more privacy friendly.

[Second] What else we do is, we’ve taken a very strong point on many of these aspects. For example, Google Analytics, can track, they create this “user id” about everyone. Let’s say you have five (5) different devices. Google would know that it’s the same person between your computer, your phone, and your second computer and your smart TV or whatever. They would know it’s the same person using these devices.

Well, we’ve made it clear that you cannot track across all devices. If you have five different devices and you visit a plausible website, we will see with five different people. Meanwhile, Google would know you are the same person. So, that’s a very clear distinction that is privacy first and same distinction is being made with the analytics sites.

With Google Analytics, you can track across sites, so Google Analytics would know you’re visiting site A site B, site C, and then they will be able to build a profile on all the sites you’re visiting. While sites that use Plausible, there there’s no way to say that you visited site A, site B, site C. We feel this is a huge boost to privacy as you do not have a profile that can be used to track across sites.

And the third one, important one is that we have no persistent identifiers. I think that Google, has 4, 5 or 6 third-party cookies that they place when you visit a site using Google Analytics which track you over many days or months across different websites that you visited on different devices. We do not use cookies, at all. We have none of these persistent identifiers, which means that if you come back to the same website in one month, that would mean that this would be five different people, rather than the same person having returned five times over the same month.  

We made so many steps to make Plausible privacy first, while not making it inaccurate or not usable enough, like for example you mentioned  with all the bots and so on, we don’t have any bots.

It’s privacy first and it does not give you as much data and with that level of detail and so on, but it gives you more than enough that 15,000 websites are now using it without problems, including some very large corporations and companies.

You can get services, like we mentioned personal data advertising versus contextual advertising. You can get a lot of useful information even for site owners with their analytics without tracking people across devices, or across the different sites they visit across the different days.

That’s the balance we are taking and at this time, the core idea of Plausible is that so this will never move to something else, this will always stay like this, privacy person.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Do you collect any IP addresses or any information about the users? How do you know that the user is a user coming from a mobile device [for example]? On Plausible, you can see where the user also connects from, whether it’s a particular country in the world.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Basically, the way every visit, that is the way every browser request works on the web. Every browser request sends two pieces of information: one is the user agent, which sends your browser version, operating system version, and then it also sends the IP address.

These two pieces of data that every website gets every time you visit them, there’s no way to remove that. We used that in order to display the stats. Then, we take several steps to not store any of the data or log it in the future.

So, the IP address  that the other user agent sends, we use to get the stats, but then there is no scheme keeping in the future to track anyone using those details more long-term.

We use the way the browser and the internet works with the data, but we don’t have any extra steps to do so, such as placing cookies or taking even more information that we don’t need, such as what Google Analytics does.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: And since you’re open-source and the code is on GitHub, it can be downloaded. A competent person can verify the code and ensure that what you’re seeing is really what you do.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah, that’s quite easy. And we actually get requests quite often. We get people checking it just because they’re curious. A lot of developers use Plausible so they can actually read the code, they understand it, then they’re curious, how it’s done.

We get a lot of people just looking at that code and it’s been reviewed by many. It’s all there in the script. You can see how what I explained right now is what we have actually explained in normal words, so anyone can understand it.

But we have the code as well, they typically say: ‘I don’t want to read the article about this.’ The article explains it to normal people. [The developers] can read the code and they can see that the article and the code say the same thing. That’s possible.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Very good. I have, three final questions. One of them is do you rely on other open-source tools for your daily work?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah! I love open-source even though I’m not a developer. I use Linux so I’m calling, I am speaking to you from a Linux computer, which is fully open-source and my main browser is Firefox, which is a fully open-source.

Plausible is open-source and it is built on a lot of open-source databases and tools. So yeah, I’m all into open-source and we need more open-source projects and we need more open source.  

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: I would like to ask another sub-question to this one. You mentioned that you use Linux and open-source. Sometimes the perception of people is that open-source software, since they are usually projects that people develop after their full time job over the weekends and evenings, generally they don’t have this team of developers that are providing support.

What do you see as some of the challenges of why [more] people are not [using] or the reasons why people are not using as much open-source?

I’ve tried the Linux distribution Ubuntu, I don’t know if that’s the particular one you are using.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah.

Stefan Ivanovski, Plausible Analytics: For me, sometimes it was more difficult to use because you need to code, and if you wanted install something in Windows, it’s much easier, I don’t know about Macs, people say it’s even much easier to use and maintain.

So what are some of the challenges or the reasons why you think more are not using open-source software, even though it’s free, the code can be verified and so forth. Why do you think more people are not using open-source tools?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Some open-source tools are widely used. Linux runs every server in world pretty much. WordPress is open-source and, I think, over 40% of the web is run on. People use it to create websites. There are some open-source tools that are used more than others.

In general, proprietary products are stronger and they use more sources.

The problem for Linux specifically would be that it’s difficult to buy computer with Linux preinstalled. When you go to a store, you buy a computer with a Mac or Windows pre-installed. It’s difficult to buy one with a Linux pre-installed so that’s kind of like a really big issue for that.

Basically, another challenge, in the past at least, the image was that always that open-source tools are made for developers, by developers. They are not user-friendly, or the design is not user friendly or intuitive or nice.

I feel [this is changing and] Plausible Analytics is a great example. Many people that come from proprietary tools said this is beautifully designed it’s faster, it’s so much nicer than the proprietary one, like Google Analytics.

I feel the open-source world has understood that over the last couple of years and has moved to create a more intuitive and nicely designed tools that are easy to use even for developers and not tech people like me.

I’m using Linux (open-source operating system) right now on something called Fedora. I use it, but I don’t need to code. I don’t even know how to code, so I won’t be able to code on it if I needed to. But, you can [do] everything [on it. It is all] there in your user interface. It looks beautiful, it runs fast. It’s an amazing product.

I have not used Windows for maybe 20 years, but I’m coming from Mac. I have used Mac for about 15 years before moving, maybe about three (3) years ago to Linux. I feel I’m not missing out on anything and I’m gaining a lot, which some of the same aspects that we discussed, such as transparency and open-source and ethical aspects, that Linux is great at.

Yeah, there are challenges in open-source, especially the kind of resources and more people need to be able to work full-time to work on open-source, they need to have resources to do so, the people need to start paying for the tools they use in order to enable them to do so.

Things are progressing for sure and I think it will just get easier and better in the future. Maybe, next time you check Linux, you will be like ‘wow, [this is great and all I need]’ At least this has been my experience.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: I’ve used Ubuntu, until about the end of last year. I had dual boot between Windows and Ubuntu, so I know if I log onto Ubuntu, then I am pretty safe if I want to browse the internet, I don’t need to worry about this spyware that sometimes Windows has.

It’s interesting that you mentioned that the open-source world is recognizing the need to be more user friendly and have better use experience.

Maybe if there was a global fund where people can pitch in money and then funds are distributed to open-source developers, maybe we would have more open-source solutions. So, the developers who are creating these tools would have a steady income. It would be kind of like these innovation funds that they have for startups, but maybe we need one for the open-source world. This is something that we will explore at some other point.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: For example, I believe the governmental institutions should be using open-source solutions. I am sure they have thousands of computers. For example, the employees, are using Windows computers and they are paying fees for that, and I feel if people in power who say, ‘let’s put that money and put it into open-source projects’ that would be an amazing thing for open-source, that would put more money and more resources in the open-source world, which will make better products for all of us and also be a better experience for the people who work for these governments and so on.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Yeah, that’s a great idea because then people can also verify the code and ensure that the code does what the code is intended to do. Then people would have more trust. The world is moving towards e-government options, digital solutions and then if it’s all open-source and people would trust these institutions because the developers would ‘say yes the government is not collecting this data and this data is safeguarded properly.’

Definitely I can see how that would bolster trust in the digital sphere which is going to be a dominant or a very influential and very important part of…

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Would be amazing! That would be amazing and the fact that the open-source tools are so much light, so much more lightweight than priorities. For example, Plausible is 45 times lighter than Google and it loads much faster, but Linux compared to Windows or Mac, runs much faster.

The first time I switched to Linux three years or so, I installed Linux on an old computer, and it runs fast. While it was very, very slow in Mac, Linux can run very fast because they are built in a better way, there is none of this privacy baggage that collects all the data in the background and waste a lot of resources.

In many ways, open-source can help. If governments,… if people individually can switch it and talk about it, but something like governments saying like ‘from next year all our technology will be open-source and we will spend the money from proprietary tools on open-source,’ that would be so amazing.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Democracy

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Now, I would like to move on to our second to last question. We’ve touched upon topics, Google, Big corporations, data, you also mentioned profiling of data and I guess part of this profiling of data of users will become even more sophisticated as we move forward and as the technologies of artificial intelligence become more sophisticated.

What are your thoughts on the future of democracy in the world of rising and more sophisticated artificial intelligence?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Yeah, and I guess we have the choice to decide how the future will be. Either we can continue in the current path where these big corporations are taking advantage of everyone and they will now just use these AI tools to do it even better and even more or we can say through regulations, through people making differences, through better tools being available, we can say right now that’s not the future we want and that we want to use these future technologies for better purposes for everyone.

I feel it remains to be seen what the future is. I am hopeful. I’m working in this space because I’m hopeful that it can make a difference, but obviously know we will see. It will take a few more years before anyone knows anything.

But definitely you as an individual have big power, to do what you do, to take the steps for yourself personally obviously, but then tell people that trust you, your family or friends or network, your colleagues. You have a quite a quite a big role to play in this.

If we can get a lot of people that believe in this to actually take steps and actions towards a better future, I think, that the future will be there and that the governments will understand it and they will start pushing for it, for regulations and so on.

It becomes difficult for those who want to abuse to do what they want because people will be more aware of it, people will be more vocal against its people who have alternatives to go away from them.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: IfI may summarize some of the points that you have said. If we want to see a more human, ethical or like we say here, democratized digital space, then perhaps we need to consider making the software that we use on a daily basis open-source so that developers can verify and ensure that what he said is what is being done.

Also, if we’re talking about artificial intelligence, which is going to become more and more important in the years to come, then maybe we need to consider making it open-source and also put a challenge to these big corporations of today and the future corporations that will rise tomorrow, the unknown corporations, to pursue the path of open-source development.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: For sure.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Perhaps that’s one way to go.

Marko, the final question is, do you have any final comments that you would like to share?

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Well, I mean, my last answer is the message that I’d like to send. Perhaps the proprietary tools and the surveillance capitalism is the norm and the dominant force in the web, but if you feel like something is not as it should be, you can take steps in your personal life, you can start talking about it, start informing other people about it and that will kind of make a difference in the long run for us all.

I feel that that’s worth doing worth and worth fighting for, and that’s what we’re doing at Plausible at least.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Yeah, thank you very much Marko for your time and telling us about your insights and thoughts on the world of open-source, telling us more about how possible analytics works and how it puts privacy first, while at the same time helping make the web a little more human friendly.

It was a pleasure to have you as the first guest on Lifestyle Democracy Channel.

Marko Saric, Plausible Analytics: Thanks Stefan and good luck on all future 100 episodes.

Stefan Ivanovski, Lifestyle Democracy: Thank you! Hopefully yes.

So, just for the for the viewers, we would like to remind them that if you would like to continue seeing more interviews like this, please leave a comment below.

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Thank you very much for your time and until next time.

Open-Source Tools Mentioned during the interview

  • Plausible Analytics, open-source, lightweight analytics alternative to Google Analytics.
  • ProtonMail, the first encrypted open-source email based in Switzerland.
  • Brave, a privacy first browser that is also free and open-source.
  • DuckDuckGo, alternative search engine to Google that puts privacy first.
  • Fedora, a free Linux-based open-source operating system.1

Action Items (For Individuals, Policy Shapers and Organizations)

As usual, we post the action items that you can take. Hopefully this interview inspired you.

  • DEMAND BETTER SERVICE LOUDLY AND CLEARLY: As individuals, we have big power to shape and influence how the big corporations on the web are treating us. We need to demand better services from the existing major service providers on the web and tell our friends and family about it. Already, big corporations are adjusting to this trend and they are stating more clearly what information they are collecting and for what purpose.
  • TRY OPEN-SOURCE TOOLS YOURSELF: Check out some of the open-source tools that are listed in the previous section if you have not already done so. For a comprehensive list of open-source tools, you can check out the following Wikipedia article.
  • PROMOTE OPEN-SOURCE, HUMAN FRIENDLY AND PRIVACY FIRST TOOLS: There are many tools that put people first, are privacy friendly and are affordable. Some of them are listed in the previous section. If you use some of these tools or others, please share your experience with others or in the comment section below.
  • SUPPORT OPEN-SOURCE TOOLS: Developers of open-source tools typically work outside of their full-time job. They are pro bono developers. Consider donating or paying for open-source tools that you use and like so these people can make a living out of it and ensure the project’s sustainability.
  • BUILD PRIVACY FIRST, HUMAN FRIENDLY AND OPEN-SOURCE TOOLS: There is a great demand for “ethical” tools, as Marko Saric says. He strongly believes that now is a great time to build more alternative tools. The experience of Plausible Analytics, but also of other tools with similar philosophies, demonstrates that there is strong demand as illustrated by the high growth and quick acceptance from individuals and big companies.
  • INVEST IN, DEVELOP AND USE OPEN-SOURCE TOOLS: As the world, i.e., the services that governments provide become digitized, it is important that people continue to trust these services. Governments can gain trust by investing in, developing, and using open-source tools that put people’s needs, privacy and dignity first.
  • 1
    AP-NORC Poll: Few in US Say Democracy Is Working Very Well. https://apnews.com/article/ap-norc-poll-us-democracy-403434c2e728e42a955c72a652a59318. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.

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