When is proprietary software bad?

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riftyful
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Joined: 09/02/2014

Hello!

I talked to some people recently, about how Skype is bad because it's spyware. But they said that the people who use Skype agree to being tracked, so it's okay. I do not think this case must be exactly true, but it was still interesting to think about.

As R. M. Stallman said many times, proprietary software is bad because the user does not control it; instead, the software controls the user. But is that always true? What if being in control of the software is not important to the user? What if the user is okay with spying and does not mind sharing data with someone? While many people would surely see free software as superior, many also don't really care about their freedom or privacy. If it does not do harm to the user, is it okay? Or is proprietary software always wrong? What is your opinion on this, and why?

I have been reading this Forum for some time now, and it's great to find a community of people who care about free software, talk about freedom related things and are always willing to help others. Therefore I thought you might help me get more insight and make a fine opinion on this.

Thank you for your time.

onpon4
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riftyful said:
> What if being in control of the software is not important to the user?

The problem with proprietary software is that you don't have that choice. With libre software, you do. If you don't feel the need to control it, you can just run it as is.

Personally, I don't very often exercise my right to control libre software on my computer. The only time I can recall when I did this was with Gish, because it had far too great of a punishment for dying a lot. (Side note: I don't recommend Gish, because the author only published one version of the source code, so the current Gish engine is proprietary; and some data filenames have changed, so manual work is needed to actually play Gish with the libre version of the engine. Besides, it's not that good of a game.)

riftyful said:
> If it does not do harm to the user, is it okay?

No. Simple explanation why: it's perfectly plausible that some slaves may have been treated very well and in general had better lives than an average free person. It wouldn't have made the fact that they were slaves okay.

riftyful
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I am pretty sure slavery is worse than proprietary software, seeing as slaves could not stop being slaves and move to freedom. But I don't mean to martinet, just making sure this is a loose comparison. Now then, if someone makes the choice to be a slave and they happy with the way they are treated, is that wrong? If a person enslaves someone who wishes to be enslaved and is completely okay with it, and they do not force that upon other people, what is wrong with that? (Now I am talking in general; things like Skype kind of do force themselves upon other people, in a way)

onpon4
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riftyful said:
> But I don't mean to martinet, just making sure this is a loose comparison.

It is.

But regarding being able to move to freedom, oftentimes slaves could ostensibly move to freedom, e.g. by paying their owners. It just didn't work like that in practice.

Though not quite to the same level, while you could move away from proprietary software you depend on, in practice it's not always possible. More specifically, you're forced to make sacrifices to make yourself free. In 1983, it was literally impossible without using obsolete systems or developing a whole system by yourself, because there wasn't any libre software at all. Today, the problem still remains in the sense that a lot of hardware won't work without proprietary software, and a lot of websites won't work without proprietary JavaScript. Further, schools are often requiring the use of proprietary software one way or another. I think you'll agree that dropping out of college to be free is a huge, unreasonable sacrifice! So is having to personally replace every proprietary program the university might require you to use, and make it 100% compatible.

onpon4
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riftyful said:
> Now then, if someone makes the choice to be a slave and they happy with the
> way they are treated, is that wrong? If a person enslaves someone who wishes
> to be enslaved and is completely okay with it, and they do not force that upon
> other people, what is wrong with that?

That sounds to me like D/s rather than slavery:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominance_and_submission

I don't think D/s is wrong. The key point to note is that D/s doesn't actually involve slavery, because slavery is illegal. It's just someone choosing to submit to someone else and taking on the title "slave". Because it's not actual slavery, you can back out and otherwise assert your right to freedom. For example, if you're a real slave, your owner might whip you, and there's nothing you can do about it. If you're just practicing D/s, and you don't like to be whipped, you can refuse to be whipped.

If we compare proprietary software to slavery, D/s is more like choosing not to assert control over a libre program than choosing to use a proprietary program. If you have a problem with something a proprietary program is doing, such as spyware, you can't do anything about it, unless you can both get away from using the program and learn to live without it, which isn't always possible. If it's a libre program that you're simply choosing not to assert control over, though, you can, at any time, choose to start asserting control over it by e.g. removing the feature you have a problem with.

quantumgravity
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Joined: 04/22/2013

"If we compare proprietary software to slavery, D/s is more like choosing not to assert control over a libre program than choosing to use a proprietary program. "

Well, according to your statement about D/s

" It's just someone choosing to submit to someone else and taking on the title "slave". Because it's not actual slavery, you can back out and otherwise assert your right to freedom."

proprietary software fits perfectly to this description.
You _can_ back out of the "slavery" of a proprietary program anytime, without being whipped.
Once I install microsoft office on my computer, that doesn't mean I will get punished if I decide to get rid of it - I can just delete it.

onpon4
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quantumgravity said:
> Once I install microsoft office on my computer, that doesn't mean I will
> get punished if I decide to get rid of it - I can just delete it.

But what if you need Microsoft Office, and LibreOffice can't suit your needs? This has been the case for people in the past, and not just for Microsoft Office.

As I mentioned, slaves could sometimes do things to set themselves free, ostensibly. They could sometimes ostensibly pay their owners with money they could ostensibly get by working extra-hard, or perhaps they technically had the ability to find an opportune moment and run off to the desert or wilderness, risking death by starvation or being eaten by a predator. None of this ever made slavery acceptable. It wouldn't have done so even if people had willingly chosen to be slaves, rather than forced into slavery due to things like economic circumstances and conquest.

I argue that the ability to choose not to use proprietary software is also, often, ostensible. Sometimes it's really a choice you can make, sometimes it isn't; I suppose the success rate is much greater than the success rate of slaves trying to get out of slavery, mostly because of the work of the free/libre software movement and the fact that it doesn't require breaking any laws. But I think focusing on this detail is pedantic, given the point of the analogy.

onpon4
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Joined: 05/30/2012

To clarify, I don't think slavery is in general similar to proprietary software. I just think some aspects of it are comparable.

quantumgravity
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Joined: 04/22/2013

"But what if you need Microsoft Office, and LibreOffice can't suit your needs? "

You're mixing up things. Offering choices is not the same as using the whip, i.e. actively holding somebody back.
You describe a slave owner, telling his slave:
"you are free to go, but then I won't give you food anymore."
I don't think we can actually talk about slavery anymore, even though the "slave" will have a hard time getting his food elsewhere.
If you disagree, almost every job in an economically bad environment would be considered to be slavery then.
Do you see where I'm coming from?

onpon4
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I think you misunderstood my mention of whipping. I didn't say that it was in any way connected to leaving, and I didn't mean to imply that either. Whipping is sometimes a BDSM activity that people choose to partake in. Slaves don't have a choice in the matter; if their owner decides to whip them, for whatever reason, they get whipped.

quantumgravity said:
> Offering choices

I'm not sure what you mean here. LibreOffice wasn't offered by Microsoft as an alternative. Microsoft only developed Microsoft Office. The choice is only there because someone else decided to develop OpenOffice and people continue to develop it. That someone else worked hard to make it possible for you to do the job without having your freedom attacked doesn't make the program that does attack your freedom any better.

quantumgravity said:
> You describe a slave owner, telling his slave:
> "you are free to go, but then I won't give you food anymore."
> I don't think we can actually talk about slavery anymore, even though the
> "slave" will have a hard time getting his food elsewhere.
> If you disagree, almost every job in an economically bad environment would
> be considered to be slavery then.
> Do you see where I'm coming from?

You misunderstand. That would be the slave owner setting the slave free. I was talking about a slave fleeing from his owner and becoming an outlaw. If he's caught by the authorities, he will be sent right back to his owner. Sometimes a slave can escape, perhaps by seeking asylum somewhere else (as many slaves in the United States did when they fled to the north), or perhaps by hiding from the law. But if such an option isn't available, you have to flee from society altogether, and you're not likely to be able to survive that.

Like I said, I think people wishing to move away from proprietary software have more success than slaves did escaping from their masters, probably. But I don't think the comparison is flawed at an abstract level: sometimes you can escape from proprietary software by using a libre replacement or doing without it, and sometimes you realistically can't.

quantumgravity
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Joined: 04/22/2013

"I'm not sure what you mean here. LibreOffice wasn't offered by Microsoft as an alternative. Microsoft only developed Microsoft Office."

No, you got me wrong. I argued that proprietary software resembles D/s more than slavery because - instead of real slavery - it doesn't prevent people from breaking out by force.
You replied that people may be hold back since they need certain features of proprietary software. With "offering choices" I meant features offered by proprietary software which a user might desperately need and aren't available elsewhere.
If a user needs ms office because of some specific feature, it's comparable to a slave who needs his slave owner in order to get food, but in principle is free to end this relationship - not real slavery, in my view.

onpon4
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That's not slavery at all. It sounds to me like dependence on a commune. The problem with that comparison, though, is proprietary software creates dependence; dependence on a commune for food is caused by nature, not people, so a question of ethics isn't raised. The difficulties of escaping from slavery are caused by laws and efforts against slaves by slave owners, not simple nature.

It's true that the comparisons between slavery and proprietary software are only valid within a limited scope. This is what I've said from the beginning (riftyful asked if it's a "loose comparison", and I said yes). That limited scope is the fact that both are exploitative by their very nature. It doesn't matter if someone "agrees" to be exploited; they're still being exploited, and that's unethical.

My point is, slavery is always exploitative and therefore never ethical. In modern society (or at least most of it), it's illegal. Voluntary "slavery" is D/s, and that is perfectly fine because it's not exploitative, for the reasons I mentioned. Similarly, proprietary software is always exploitative and therefore never ethical. It should probably eventually be illegal. But choosing not to have the source code to libre programs you use* (you could call it "voluntarily non-libre", in the sense that you the user are deciding not to have control over your computing) is perfectly fine because it's not exploitative, again for the reasons I mentioned.

* I was previously talking about choosing not to modify libre programs, but I think choosing to make it so you don't have a copy of the source code at all is a more appropriate comparison, since it simulates what proprietary software is like better.

andrew
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Joined: 04/19/2012

> " It's just someone choosing to submit to someone else and taking on
> the title "slave". Because it's not actual slavery, you can back out
> and otherwise assert your right to freedom."
>
> proprietary software fits perfectly to this description. You _can_
> back out of the "slavery" of a proprietary program anytime, without
> being whipped. Once I install microsoft office on my computer, that
> doesn't mean I will get punished if I decide to get rid of it - I can
> just delete it.

For some proprietary programs it might be true that a free replacement
will allow you to stop using the proprietary program. For many others,
this is not true.

If you are use Cisco Packet Tracer to simulate a network, for example,
there are probably aren't any free replacements for that program
available that can read the proprietary format. Sure, you can just
delete the program, but your files effectively become useless. You are
essentially a slave to the program for as long as you need that
particular function using those particular files. At least that is until
you find a free replacement and manually recreate the network
simulation, or someone spends the time to build a free replacement that
will read your files, both which could take a long time.

Andrew.

bitbit
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Joined: 10/29/2012

it's ok because they don't understand what's all about, if they see the postman snoop in their envelope, read the content and then put in the mailbox for sure they will be mad of him, it a matter of perception.

lloydsmart

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^ This. So much this.

I've spoken to people who've read all about the Snowden NSA stuff, and don't really care. It infuriates me actually. They would be livid if someone read their snail mail, yet in the digital realm, suddenly it's a-ok? Bizzare.

salparadise
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Joined: 09/08/2013

If it does not do harm to the user, is it okay?

Depends on your definition of harm.

The libre argument would possibly be along the lines that it's not harm that registers with the user, but is still harm none the less.

Those who live by the market can be manipulated by the market. In other words, it's only when sales of proprietary solutions fall dramatically in favour of libre solutions that 'proprietary' will fall from favour, so consumer awareness is vital and that can only happen through people finding out from others that there's a better alternative.

a_slacker_here
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Proprietary software is always bad, there is no context which can show us the contrary.

>As R. M. Stallman said many times, proprietary software is bad because the user does not control it; instead, the software controls the user. But is that always true? What if being in control of the software is not important to the user? What if the user is okay with spying and does not mind sharing data with someone? While many people would surely see free software as superior, many also don't really care about their freedom or privacy. If it does not do harm to the user, is it okay? Or is proprietary software always wrong? What is your opinion on this, and why?

Regarding to what you said about how if some people don't care about freedom and privacy then proprietary software is not bad, I have to say that it's like saying that if people don't care about a their health then tabacco is good. Proprietary software is bad, the fact that someone refuse to see how bad it is doesn't make it good, tabacco is bad for you and for the people around you that is a fact and non-free software is worse because with tabacco the only thing whereby someone else can excert his/her power over you is by your addiction, something you can potentially control by the power of will and you can even do that without the help of other individuals. With proprietary software is diferent: the developer have a wider range of things they can do, and doesn't matter how strong your will is because you cannot evade their control on your own. Do you want to have an idea of the reach of their authority? Try looking for Karen Sandler on your favourite search engine or youtube (free my heart).

I think this is a matter conciousness: we know it doesn't feel good to be hunted by a panther but we are not fully aware of what it implies, we don't usually know how it truely feels to be eaten alive...among other things.

>Thank you for your time.

It's a pleasure to share my time with you. :-)

PD: Could someone tell me if the use of "whereby" is correct in this context?

Thank you.

onpon4
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Joined: 05/30/2012

"Whereby" usage is fine. Not a word I personally tend to use, though; I had to look it up in a dictionary to be sure of what it meant.

a_slacker_here
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Thank you a lot, onpon4, for checking. :-)

Perhaps "by which" would have been better suited but I had to try it.

riftyful
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Joined: 09/02/2014

Well, what if someone does smoke, but they do not mind their health being endangered at all? Sure, that does not make smoking good - I suppose that over the time people set a common standard that damaging one's health is bad, so this can apply here. But is it incorrect or unethical?

Let's take PhotoShop as example; unlike Skype, it's a tool a person uses by themselves. It does not involve other people and the product created using it can still be free. So in this case, it's only the one person limiting their own freedom when using the software. Can we call this activity unethical? If a person is okay with limiting their own freedom (We assume the person is familiar with proprietary software and it's limitations), is it still wrong of them to use the software?

Now, I did not really mean "bad" as in "worse". I meant bad as in "evil" or "ethically wrong".

Thank you for reply.

salparadise
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But they're not just limiting their own freedom, they're limiting everyone elses too. They are saying, effectively, "it's OK to publish proprietary software and it's OK to limit people's use and freedom through it".

Magic Banana

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I do not think that using proprietary software (with no interaction with other user) is unethical. Developing such software definitely is. It however is sad that users of proprietary software do not seem to value their own freedoms.

andrew
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Modification of another quote I know:

"Software freedom doesn't matter until it does"

With regards to Skype, for many years it continued to be a useful, P2P
VoIP network, despite being proprietary software. At the start its
encrypted connections attracted use by people who couldn't use phone
networks for political reasons, among others.

Before Microsoft bought Skype there were rumours of backdoors for
so-called "lawful interception" purposes. When Microsoft bought Skype
the network was restructured to route calls and messages through
supernodes, which was believed to be for lawful interception purposes.

In May 2013, German newspaper Heise wrote an article on an experiment
they did where they posted a unique URL into Skype pointing to a server
they controlled, which was probed by Microsoft's servers shortly after
posting it into the Skype messenger. In other words, one or both of the
Skype clients was sending the URLs to Microsoft, or Microsoft is using a
MITM attack, or Skype is using keys created on the server-side by Microsoft.

If Skype were free software, the community would be able to control its
functions and remove surveillance features. Back in 2005 before we knew
these surveillance features existed, it would be easy to ignore the
speculative possibility that surveillance features could be introduced
some time in the future.

From a free software perspective, if the software is not free then this
possibility always exists and it is outside of our control. We want to
be in control of our computing.

Keep in mind that privacy is only one of the many reasons for advocating
software freedom.

Andrew.

boaz
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Joined: 08/09/2013

I'd like to point out that Skype users did *NOT* "agree to being tracked".

Let's explicitly state a fact that in our hearts pretty much all of us already know:

Having clicked "I agree" or whatever to 50 pages or however much dense legalese in order to use a "free" program does not validly qualify as agreement from a moral perspective.

I'm sure I'm being highly conservative in saying that way, way less than 1% of Skype users have so much as skimmed any of the legal language that Microsoft unilaterally rammed down their throats.

I have never, ever heard a Skype user say:

"I fully understand that the details of who I'm talking to and when at all times, by text voice and video, as well as the full content of all my text, voice, and video communications, are viewable and browseable by thousands of perfect strangers employed by dozens of government agencies and government contractors.

I also understand that all of this information is likely viewable and browseable by employees of Microsoft.

I also understand that Skype is likely keeping track of details of how I use other parts of my computer, not just Skype, and uploading this information to Microsoft, to be shared with who knows who and used for who knows what purpose.

I fully agree to all of this."

I'd also like to point out that a proprietary program could well be doing, or capable of being told to do, any arbitrary terrible thing, and no one has any way of knowing.

I'm sure buried in the volumes of verbose and opaque language written by lawyers working for Skype Technologies and/or Microsoft, there appear statements that Skype does lots of terrible spying on the user. But, I'll bet there are limits to what it says.

For example, does it say that Skype will access all private files unrelated to Skype that are stored on the computer (e.g. all your personal documents), and upload these to Microsoft or the NSA, to be shared with anyone whosoever and used for any purpose whatsoever? I'll bet not.

And yet, There's no way to verify that Skype is not capable of being remotely commanded to do this.

In conclusion:

1. No, Skype users did not agree to being spied on.

2. Proprietary software is always bad because it's impossible to verify what it does and doesn't do, and effectively no one would ever agree:

"I agree to this program taking any action whatsoever without my knowledge"

Effectively no one would ever agree to this, and yet that's the result of using proprietary software.

Magic Banana

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Many good points were made. However, in my opinion, one important point is missing. Skype is a communication software, communication involves at least two users, and Skype can only talk to Skype. Forcing the interlocutor to give up her freedoms so that she can talk with you is being a bad member of your community.

The whole community is harmed: users of Skype reinforce Microsft's monopoly and impede the rest of the group from switching to free software. And the problem propagates down to the operating system because, as far as I understood, Skype for GNU/Linux is technically much worse than Skype for Windows (ethically, both versions are equally abject).

J.B. Nicholson-Owens
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name at domain wrote:
> The whole community is harmed: users of Skype reinforce Microsft's
> monopoly and impede the rest of the group from switching to free
> software. And the problem propagates down to the operating system
> because, as far as I understood, Skype for GNU/Linux is technically much
> worse than Skype for Windows (ethically, both versions are equally abject).

I was about to bring up this very point, thanks for raising it. Eben
Moglen raised a similar point with regard to email in part 3 of his
"Snowden and the Future" series of talks regarding email (see
http://snowdenandthefuture.info/PartIII.html for a transcript starting
with "Those who wish to earn off you want to define privacy as a thing
you transact about with them, just the two of you.").

I concur, and I don't think Skype users are doing this maliciously. I
think they're inviting others to be harmed out of the ignorance and
naivete that got them into using nonfree software such as Skype --
they're making decisions along the lines they've been taught to favor.
They've been taught to value convenience and price, so they do.

Convenience is repeatedly reinforced but freedom talk is pushed aside
(perhaps as inconvenient, not 'good for business', circularly dismissed
as unimportant due to being unpopular), outright ignored, or called silly.

bitbit
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BBC Horizon 2014-2015 Episode 4: Inside the Dark Web
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTjNkbLBEqg

Terms and Conditions May Apply (pre snowden)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2084953/

GNUser
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Joined: 07/17/2013

Just watched it, not bad. Nothing totally new and amazing, but interesting.

shokin
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Just a question :

Are there ethical arguments that justify to use proprietary softwares rather than free softwares ?

Jabjabs
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Joined: 07/05/2014

About the closest I can think of is the use of LGPL in software, where as Free software can be distributed simply as a binary in a proprietary program.
Even then this is merely a compromise because the additional software isn't Free.

The big issue is that the only distinction between proprietary and Free software is the licence and the rules of distribution, beyond that there is nothing else it can gain in terms of functionality.

Some have argued that 'closed/proprietary' software is needed in high risk situations like banks, utilities services and security to keep it obscure from attacks but that is a straw man argument. Security through obscurity is not security at all.

About 30 years back I guess if I was to be kind about it, then yes a closed development team could produce a big product quicker (more focused development with no forks) but even then that is more an apologist point of view than anything I could quantify. I personally have yet to find a situation where proprietory has any benefits in the current age.