Your freedoms are eroding as technology becomes more closed

TL;DR: We’re not doing a good job of keeping the Internet and related technologies as open and egalitarian as they used to be, allowing a dangerous oligopoly to reemerge. How can we reverse the trend? And by we, I actually mean you.

I see some worrying signs that we’re going backwards in terms of freedom. Read on for some scaremongering.

The browser wars are back, and worse than before

The web browser market is currently controlled by two American megacorporations, Microsoft and Google. The mobile browser market adds another American megacorporation to this mix: Apple.

Microsoft has begun abusing its operating system monopoly again by resurrecting tactics from the 90s. They pop up little warning dialogs urging users to switch to the Edge browser if they’ve set a different default browser. Microsoft gives reasons like “Want longer battery life? Switch to Edge”. There is also anecdotal evidence of Windows 10 simply switching your browser to Edge whether you asked for it or not.

Google on the other hand is making sure to shove their Chrome browser in your face wherever they can, they are not ashamed to use their various platforms for this. YouTube, for example, pops up a little bar claiming that YouTube would run much better if you only had Chrome. I prophesized this sort of thing and I guess it will still get worse.

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Artist’s impression of the browser wars. Microsoft has meanwhile quit its glue habit and produced a usable browser with Edge

This is bad for consumers because they’re becoming a plaything for large corporations. Before this they had more choice among competing solutions, some of them open, and there was less bullying. Superficially these companies claim to create a better browsing experience, and in some respects this is even true, but what they actually care about is having total dominance over the single most important piece of software for Internet users.

The browser is people’s key to the web, controlling it puts a company in a tremendous position of power. It can for example prevent adblockers from being used, or enforce exceptions for its own ad network (both Google and Microsoft run an advertising business). It can at any time modify the browser so that the competition’s web products don’t run well anymore, polarizing consumers (both Google and Microsoft offer an online office suite and communications platform with email, calendaring, chat, video calls, etc.).

And these are just the less nefarious things, companies could potentially track what everyone is reading, what kind of porn they prefer, which extreme political views they have and whether they are a closet homosexual and cheat on their spouse with a stripper from downtown who they pay in Bitcoin (both Google and Microsoft collect and aggregate extensive data about individual humans).

This could be hidden as “necessary telemetry” and be enabled by default, with savvy users managing to opt out. But since both browsers are closed source or have significant closed source portions, users can’t be sure that the browser actually does as instructed. Microsoft has demonstrated that they are willing to set defaults of both their operating system and their browser to collect as much information as possible about a user and send it all to Microsoft’s servers.

The only noteworthy independent player, Mozilla, is struggling to compete and had to implement some freedom restrictions themselves. Behold:

Digital restrictions are on the rise

Digital restrictions (DRM) have now become a part of web standards, endorsed even by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. At least the tech press is calling this a very stupid idea. But the consumers probably won’t care until it’s too late.

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Defective By Design is a campaign that opposes DRM, arguing that anything that ships with DRM restrictions can only be called defective

Streaming services like Spotify and Netflix are popular. Not actually having any physical, DRM-free copies of your films and music has become acceptable, sometimes even preferable. Consumers only cry out when Spotify removes their favorite music because they don’t realize that, oops, I guess it wasn’t their music to begin with. No one reads that part of the terms of service. It’s such a common occurrence that Spotify had to write a FAQ entry about it.

Remember the video recorder? You can’t use one anymore. There is no analog TV signal. Remember the digital video recorder? Oh, guess what, you can’t use that anymore either.

The digital TV signal is handed to you only with digital restrictions. If you want to record a TV show, you now have to pay your TV provider a monthly ransom for the privilege to do so, and the things you record are not stored in your humble abode but on the TV provider’s servers. Even if the recordings themselves are stored on your TV settop box’s hard drive, they are encrypted and useless 1.

Open ecosystems are closing down

Formerly open ecosystems are beginning to be more and more closed. Android used to be reasonably open, but now Google ties most of the interesting functionality to their own, proprietary Google Play Services, requiring consumers to submit to Google’s rules.

Android also pesters users about revealing more and more personal information and submitting that to Google, such as when using high-accuracy assisted GPS information. So not only do they prevent developers from developing full-fledged apps unless they submit to Google’s overlordship, they also abuse their position to gather ever more data as soon as they get to the consumer’s device.

There have been efforts to create an alternative to Google’s services. Yandex’s Yandex.Kit promised this and the free and open source NOGAPPs project did as well. I believe both projects are dead.

So as a phone manufacturer, you have the choice of giving your customers a phone that they perceive as incomplete and malfunctioning or to comply with Google’s terms and preinstall Google Play Services. Even the noble Fairphone, while not shipping phones with Google Play Services preinstalled, had to introduce a very prominent button prompting users to install them.

Convenience is more important to people than independence

All your friends are in jail, they just don’t know it.

There used to be free and open standards for communication, such as IRC, XMPP or plain old email. But today the majority of people communicate inside closed, proprietary silos offered by Facebook (Facebook chat, WhatsApp), Google (Hangouts), Microsoft (Skype) or Twitter. These systems all keep their users in jail, you cannot migrate from Skype to Hangouts and keep your address, but your friends can come and visit you inside Skype if they travel to the same jail you’re in.

Conditioned through these jails, consumers have come to accept them even at work. Team chat has existed for more than 30 years in the form of IRC. Several large open source projects with thousands of team members have been using this for decades to coordinate and communicate. But knowing how to connect to an IRC server is too much for most consumers, and thereby most employees, to learn.

They don’t want to know about bouncers and IRC clients, they just want to remember one single address: the one they type into their browser’s address bar. They want to type https://disruptive-aardvark.slack.com and immediately talk to their team. Never mind that a browser running Slack chews up 1 GB of memory just to talk to ten people sitting in the same building whereas an IRC client uses 500 KB for talking to 1500 nerds spread through 20 countries.

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What most people imagine an average IRC user to look like

So now we have an explosion of communication jails like these. Microsoft and Cisco announced their own team chat offerings; it seems every company with a developer who knows where to find a React tutorial is creating closed team chat services. And will these services be able to talk to each other, will there be an open standard? Can I take my address with me if I leave such a service? If everything I’ve written so far is any indication, probably not.

With IRC I can pick and choose. I can use one of dozens of clients, one for mobile, one for the desktop and one for the console. I can connect to any server that provides a certain network. I don’t even need to know which server to connect to, it will automatically route me to one that is close and available. IRC is decentralized and standardized, not centralized and proprietary like communication jails are. People don’t want this choice. Choice scares them.

Instead, wanting to enter only one single address in a browser is a pattern that keeps repeating. People want to search for an app on their mobile devices or they want to remember and enter exactly one address. Everything needs to be in the browser. If it’s not in the browser, like IRC, XMPP and email, it does not exist 3.

Do you understand why I’m so paranoid about two companies controlling the whole browser market now?

One step forward, a half-step back

“But Psy-Q, you old noodle, didn’t you see that so many things are now becoming free and open?”, you might ask. The terms are being used imprecisely by consumers. “Free” often just means free of charge, “open” often just means absolutely nothing at all.

Let me illustrate with .NET. Microsoft’s .NET used to be a closed, proprietary platform. It was arguably nicer to develop for than Java, at least if you were stuck in a Microsoft environment anyway. Microsoft created an extremely large standard library, something that would put a tremendous strain on any sane person’s brain to navigate, but they also sold you development tools that made the burden easier by autocompleting code or integrating documentation right at your fingertips.

You can argue that a system should never be so large and complex that it requires tool assistance to get anything done. But there is no arguing that many developers welcomed this assistance and enjoyed working with .NET and Visual Studio.

Recently Microsoft put .NET Core (not the whole .NET Framework) under a bona fide open source license. No cheating by using their own, made-up wishy-washy shared source crap. This is in the past. So there was much rejoicing: Microsoft is finally becoming a decent free and open source software community member!

Of course Microsoft only achieved this so quickly because they simply absorbed existing open source .NET outfit Xamarin and the Mono project, things that had been existing for over a decade at that point. They bought their only competitor in this market, reducing competition to zero. But I digress; no matter what tactics they used, we now appear to have an open source .NET, the potential for more cross-platform development and a more egalitarian ecosystem is here. But there are already dark clouds on the horizon.

Up until this week it wasn’t clear how Microsoft could kill the buzz, but now I think I found an angle: Visual Studio 2017 is a Windows-only product, and Microsoft is making damn sure that it’s the best tool to use for .NET development, and only when paired with .NET Framework. If you just use .NET Core, you won’t get the advanced features of Visual Studio 2017 (like Live Unit Testing).

That probably means that if one were to write a competing IDE using the open source .NET Core, one would not be able to ever match what Microsoft is doing. I predict that they’ll keep the juciest bits for themselves in the proprietary world while dumping just enough scraps on .NET Core to remain credible and avoid antitrust litigation.

They created an uneven playing field while at the same time being praised for being a better open source citizen. They created a world of first-class developers, those that buy into the proprietary and enterprise-y versions of everything, and second-class developers, those who work with the open source version. This is not egalitarian.

So what can you do?

As a consumer, start caring about freedom and independence in technology choices, before what’s left of those freedoms is taken away. Refuse DRM. Refuse to pay for a crippled TV signal. Pick the free and open system even if it is less convenient. You can directly help make the open system more convenient for everyone, even if it’s just through your feedback. Most projects have ample positions that don’t require deep tech knowledge, such as writing documentation, proofreading, translating or just being part of a community forum.

As an employee, question your team’s technology choices just like you’d question your own. It’s not worth getting fired over, but do raise your voice and show your opinion. Who knows, maybe it’s a majority opinion and your raising the flag is what makes things turn around.

As a developer, prefer truly free, open and standardized things. Even when it seems like closed and proprietary is the only option, keep searching just to be sure. Keep every door open, have an exit strategy for when the proprietary solution eventually screws you over. And if you’re truly bold, create a free and open alternative where none existed.

As a politician, demand that departments and offices in your influence make informed, far-sighted technology choices that benefit everyone and not just two large tech companies in the USA. I know long-term planning is a bit much to ask of most politicians, but be the exception, please.

As a lawmaker, fight for the rights of citizens to battle DRM. Make it impossible for TV networks to flag a broadcast as “unrecordable”. Cement laws that allow the circumvention of any protection measures in the name of repairing things or interoperating with open systems.

As a person with money, donate to open technology projects that you find worthy, don’t just buy whatever closed service seems the most convenient.

As a visionary, work on making the free and open choice the more obvious one. Create companies that make these things easy. Replace open systems that are perceived as old-fashioned with new ones that are more modern than even the flashy proprietary jails.

As a parent, talk to your kids about the consequences of their technology choices. Everyone was on WhatsApp, then everyone was on Insta, now everyone is on Snap. Some kids are in none of these jails, and even that puts them in weird situations. Talk about the group pressure these closed systems create. Suggest not being in any of them and talk about what that would mean. If your kids must cave in to group pressure, create a world where at least your grandchildren have a real choice again.

Footnotes

  1. I realize that in some countries, you can still have your own DVR. But at least in Switzerland and Germany, this is no longer the case. [go back up]
  2. The header image is “Prison Bound”, (CC) Thomas Hawk
  3. I know there are web-based IRC clients and even services such as IRCCloud and I applaud both efforts. I’d even welcome if companies afraid of installing IRC clients on employees’ machines would provide a web-based client for them instead.[go back up]
  4. IRC nerd image (CC) skulldog06
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6 thoughts on “Your freedoms are eroding as technology becomes more closed”

  1. The danger is how easy it all is. I have been perfectly content to give up where I am going on the internet and what I am looking at in exchange for not having to pay for the services. I see dumb ads that don’t shape my purchase decisions based on what I type in, but that doesn’t bother me. Because where I go and what I do is so, boring, so, basic that it can’t be used against me in any sort of fashion I am concerned about.

    I suspect I should be more worried about it all, but love that my phone and PC are linked through chrome so I can resume reading or go to a website in history across both platforms.

    I think in fairness, this is how we pay for our internet, by using our privacy as currency. And right now many people would rather do that than have to pay a monthly fee for that access. Isn’t that the other option? Wouldn’t full privacy come at a monetary price, since they can’t monetize the services they offer in any other way? Would you pay more money for for privacy?

    This is a great article and thought starter. I need to be more paranoid.

    Like

    1. Thanks 🙂 For me paying works indeed. I pay for my email account (at mailbox.org, a privacy-conscious e-mail hosting company that has been at it since 1989 and is an open source contributor as well). I pay for BluRay discs of my favorite shows, the rest I just download (not illegal yet in Switzerland, thankfully). I pay for all my music in DRM-free FLAC from Bandcamp and other sites, and I back that shit up on a local NAS. I can stream to all my clients anyway, because solutions for this exist (mpd in my case). So it does work if you put up some money, but you also need some tech knowledge, which the average consumer doesn’t care about.

      Corporate team chat can be made private by paying to run your own as well. If you absolutely must have a web-based team chat silo, you can try Mattermost. It is important that such solutions exist. This is still short of my perfect vision, to be able to move your identity from server to server without losing your address, but it’s a step.

      We must never stop creating open alternatives to these jails, but I fear that consumers will often choose the silo anyway, and that’s a problem we have to work on. As long as no way to migrate between these systems exists, as long as the proprietary versions are not really interoperable or just seem more attractive, the problem cannot be fully solved.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well thought out article and agree 100% with your thinking on all points. Just wanted to add that a solutions-based approach is almost always better. It’s counterproductive for me to tell a non-savvy user, do not use browserX or browserY. It’s a lot simpler to have them use Firefox or ungoogled-chromium or other option while making my case.

    I can tell a user, do not use Windows 10 because of it’s weaponized spyware or I can suggest and help him/her install a viable Linux Distro after explaining the dangers of the “jail” they live in. Options for rooting/flashing Android and installing a layer of protection exist. Hopefully Ubuntu or other can step forward and fill the gaping hole on mobile.

    In the end, there are a number of viable alternative software options out there and it’s the message that users need to hear, in addition to the self-imposed dangers they have placed themselves in.

    Like

    1. Thanks, and I completely agree, that’s an excellent point. This is also what’s frustrating. What do you say when someone asks you “But what should I use instead of WhatsApp? All my friends are on WhatsApp!” There is nothing we can offer because the proprietary systems are jails, they don’t interoperate with anything open.

      The Matrix.org project is doing good work in that department and at least at some point we can probably offer something that is as nice to use as WhatsApp/Facebook while being FOSS and decentralized, but people still won’t be able to talk to their friends through it unless they convince them to switch over as well.

      I don’t go proselytizing but I do talk about some disadvantages sometimes, or say things like “I don’t know how you’d do that on macOS, but on Linux I’d use kdenlive and ffmpeg”. Sometimes people then become genuinely interested in Linux, but as soon as they mention all the proprietary services they are locked into that don’t exist on GNU/Linux, I won’t even suggest that they install it.

      They might be able to get along fine with the OS, but then they want to use their hundreds of OneNote notebooks and sync them live to OneDrive — boom, the idea is dead. There might be OneNote alternatives, but none can read the OneNote format, and nothing syncs to OneDrive, none of this is an open standard, so bye bye migration to Linux.

      That’s the kind of stuff I mean. In order for users to pick the free and open system/service/software, it has to be better, more convenient and more well-known than these proprietary services. Or we need to let people know that the open choice is still the better one even if it’s less convenient. So it’s a tough mission for us, and it has become tougher in the last few years as things have closed down more and more.

      I’m just waiting for the day when Google drops XMPP support from Google Talk, because I suddenly won’t be able to chat with some of my friends unless I can convince them to create an account on syndicated XMPP server. Or they group pressure me into using Google’s web chat client. So much of this is psychology, not technology.

      Like

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