Monday, January 16, 2012

What's Wrong With Proprietary Software?

In the 1960's, Richard Stallman witnessed the rise of proprietary software when he was denied the source code for the firmware of a printer he was in charge of administrating.  Now, because of his work over the course of nearly 50 years, we have the option of running an entirely Free Software system without lacking the tools we need.

Why did he go to the trouble?

Proprietary software arose as a tool which large corporations could use to control and manipulate their users.  They used this control to obtain more money and in the process violated some of our basic rights as citizens of the digital age.

This post is about a few examples of how these violations affect users today.

How Does It Work?

Proprietary software, first and foremost, prevents users from knowing how it goes about accomplishing what it claims to accomplish.  Proprietary tax software cannot be examined to be certain it truly conforms to the tax laws it purports to help users with.  Proprietary antivirus software can't be examined for correctness.

For those users who are more concerned that their software works the way it advertises than they are about having someone to point the finger at when it breaks, not being able to look under the hood is not acceptable.  It should concern everybody that their electrical grids and cable signals may not be run by provably reliable software.

This opaqueness also prevents those wishing to learn about software from learning through example.  Children should have the benefit of knowing how their world works, including how their computer works.  Don't you think?

Can I Improve It?

Traditionally, when you purchase something, you obtain the right to do with it as you will.  This includes modifying it to function more effectively or more in line with the owners needs.  Car owners frequently modify their vehicles for appearance, gas mileage, horsepower, or any number of other purposes.  There are entire communities dedicated to modifying their game consoles.

However, proprietary software does not offer this basic right.  A user who wishes that the proprietary music player he uses included a "loop" feature cannot feasibly add such a feature.  A gamer who can't progress past a particular point in his favorite proprietary game cannot add new cheats to the game.

This places the users at the mercy of the software publishers and forces them to settle for software which doesn't fit their needs as well as it could.

How Do I Know it's Not Misbehaving?

Software which prevents users from scrutinizing it can get away with all kinds of dastardly behavior in secret.  One of the earlier examples was the sheer amount of identifying personal information the media player RealPlayer collected from the user's computer and sent back to the company which published RealPlayer.

Today, Google Chrome, one of the most popular web browsers, collects similar information from its users for advertising and tracking purposes.  Some software comes with advertising and spying software from third parties.

With the right tools, some of this misbehavior may be detected.  It's not easy unless you know where to look, however.  More alarming still is the fact that most users don't seem to so much as care what their programs are doing when they're not looking.

This is a small sample of the problems with proprietary software.  However, it's fairly easy to come up with numerous ways in which proprietary software violates a user's liberties.

More information on the topic of proprietary software and its negative effects on our liberties may be found at the website of the Free Software Foundation.


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