Computing Control & Privacy

Authors: Lloyd Hardy, Richard Stallman

Revision: 1.8 (2014/12/22)

8.0 – Computing Control & Privacy

Freedom is not just about the license the software you use is released under, but whether you are free to use it to do what you want it to do. If you are not in control of your software, it can be used by a third party to control you. You could be restricted in the file formats you are allowed to use in an application or even in the applications you are allowed to use. You may even be restricted in the version of the operating system you are allowed to use by your hardware.

If your software does something you don't want it to, it can compromise your privacy. For example, software could spy on you and send information to third parties about your activities. When we couple non-free software with spying, the spying becomes almost undetectable to the average user. If this were free software, a developer would have the opportunity to remove the code that performs the spying and release a corrected version.

We will see that computing control may be relinquished not only by proprietary software, but in some cases, but using software released under a free software license to do it, on hardware of which you have no control over.


8.1 – Computing 'Control'

Who really controls your computer? Most of us would like to think that we do. If we have a tool that is controlled in any part by a third party, then we are not fully in control and we are not free to make our own creations and enjoy our experience in the way that we want to.

Many users may not be aware of the lack of control they have over their computing. Non-free software can be made to do anything the vendor wishes it to do and we may never know or be free to study its true purposes. Any single piece of non-free software on a computer system takes control away from the user.

A common example is that of a video driver, although many chip-sets have free software drivers. A proprietary driver appears to enhance your experience at first glance, as it enables features such as 3D rendering which may not yet be available from a free software alternative.

Unfortunately, something much greater is at risk. When we accept a loss of control in exchange for functionality, then we have made a bargain in which we have agreed to follow the rules of the proprietary software vendor, whatever they may be. That may be to record your activity or system details and report them to the vendor. Whatever it is, a user should not have to relinquish control of their system to use software. It is much too high a price to pay. When we select hardware, we should be careful to select hardware which is made by vendors who care about freedom.

Once we have control over our personal computers, computing control can still be threatened by third parties via the Internet.

8.2 – Internet Computing

It is illogical to ensure we have free software on our own systems, only to use them to connect to software on a remote computer that does not offer us freedom. The Internet has many resources and as we have seen, the GPL and AGPL cannot protect our freedom once we decide to use a computer remotely, over which we have no control.

A computer being remote physically is not the issue. We may lease a server over which we have administrative and legal control, by contract. This does not harm our privacy, remove control or affect our freedom. If we can install our free software, modify it whenever we want to and are not restricted in it's use, then we retain our freedom. This is the type of solution that businesses can avail of to have web application functionality that they own.However, when you log onto a service where they do not own or lease the server or have legal or administrative control over, you are relinquishing computing control. This might not be a concern to you if the purpose of your interaction is trivial. However, if you depend on the service to run a business, such as an accounting package or office suite, then your business administration is owned by another company.

Regardless of license, your freedom is compromised if software resides on a server of which you have no legal and administrative control over.

The implementation of free software on a third-party server presents a potentially higher risk than proprietary software on local hardware. If you have no control over the hardware (server) running the Free Software, you may be unable to modify the source where it is running and you may not be able to determine whether or not the software is running in an environment which uses only free software.

8.3 – Effect On Business Dynamism

Losing control for a business is a very big risk. An export feature (on software which inevitably has a license which claims no liability for loss of data and no indemnity or warranty) does not provide it's users with freedom. Using software of any complexity requires training of some sort. Training on software over which the user has no control is knowledge with a level of relevance over which the user has no control. For example, the software can be made obsolete at any time, requiring additional learning. This is a method frequently used by proprietary software vendors.

Modification of software, the addition of users or requirement to freeze upgrading is hindered by a remote server over which the user has no control. In a multi tenanted environment, the user must accept the same level of service all users receive and is restricted by the vendor. The vendor will make decisions on the operation of the service which benefits its organisation, not the individual user.

The most important aspect of business – dynamism, the ability to roll with change and direct its own operations is threatened by non-free software and loss of computing control.

8.4 – Privacy

Non-free software removes our ability to control our privacy. When we use proprietary software or travel around the web using non-free software or use web applications on servers which we have no control over, then we provide data on our activities outside the realms of our control.
Users rarely read proprietary licenses and few realise what they are agreeing to by using the software.

Phrases such as “The software may transmit...” or “Data gathered may be used for...” are common place. Information such as the applications you use, the data you enter, the times you use your software and where you log in from are used and recorded by vendors. In many cases, you have agreed to this information being recorded without knowing it.

It is the freedom to choose whether your software spies on you or not that matters here. You have no choice in these circumstances. If you'd like sensitive information to be available to your vendor, then that is your choice. However, so often when using proprietary software and remote services, the choice is not consciously made by the user. Protecting the freedoms of the user includes protecting their privacy and their right to choose what information their software records and sends away to a third party.

As many members of the general public do not understand these issues it is the responsibility of experts to represent and inform them.

8.5 – Knowledge Restriction

Proprietary software not only restricts the freedom of the user. When it comes to education, software that cannot be studied, modified and distributed restricts the ability to learn.Knowledge of proprietary software interfaces is not free knowledge – it is owned by the vendor.

Learning how to use software that you do not own makes your knowledge vulnerable to changes the vendor wishes to make in the interface. As the vendor's economic goal is likely to be to sell more copies of later versions of their proprietary software, interface changes can be expected with every new release. The forced training cycle begins again and the dependency on the software is increased. We must be careful to make 'what we know' not something that is under the control of a third party. When children are taught how to use proprietary software, we create a knowledge dependency on a business, not knowledge useful to the student generally.

Knowledge itself becomes restricted to those who can afford the proprietary software, in particular where the software is used to create documents for learning, like university lectures. Proprietary file formats mean that the learning is locked inside a vendor-owned system. Would we allow our children to learn from books that had legal keys need to unlock them, owned by a large corporation that controlled access to knowledge? That is what we do when we wrap learning inside proprietary software and file formats.

When it comes to software development, the situation worsens. The books and lectures and interfaces to the software may be proprietary knowledge. But when tools of software development are proprietary, a programmer is not free to create source code. The knowledge and ability to learn is itself restricted in by a proprietary license.

8.6 – Sharks With Lasers

If we forget freedom and only think of 'open source', in the age of the web-server, we are vulnerable to many more threats than proprietary software alone. Open source philosophy is good for the evolution of software, but only a philosophy of Freedom can ensure that our work is not used to to create proprietary systems, whether embedded or remotely based.


[1] http://www.... (Accessed: 2010/00/00)


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