No, You Won't See Me on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google Plus, Google Hangouts, nor Skype

Thursday 24 November 2011 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Most folks outside of technology fields and the software freedom movement can't grok why I'm not on Facebook. Facebook's marketing has reached most of the USA's non-technical Internet users. On the upside, Facebook gave the masses access to something akin to blogging. But, as with most technology controlled by for-profit companies, Facebook is proprietary software. Facebook, as a software application, is written in a mix of server-side software that no one besides Facebook employees can study, modify and share. On the client-side, Facebook is an obfuscated, proprietary software Javascript application, which is distributed to the user's browser when they access facebook.com. Thus, in my view, using Facebook is no different than installing a proprietary binary program on my GNU/Linux desktop.

Most of the press critical of Facebook has focused on privacy, data mining of users' data on behalf of advertisers, and other types of data autonomy concerns. Such concerns remain incredibly important too. Nevertheless, since the advent of the software freedom community's concerns about network services a few years ago, I've maintained this simple principle, that I still find correct: While I can agree that merely liberating all software for an online application is not a sufficient condition to treat the online users well, the liberation of the software is certainly a necessary condition for the freedom of the users. Releasing freely all code for the online application the first step for freedom, autonomy, and privacy of the users. Therefore, I certainly don't give in myself to running proprietary software on my FaiF desktops. I simply refuse to use Facebook.

Meanwhile, when Google Plus was announced, I didn't see any fundamental difference from Facebook. Of course, there are differences on the subtle edges: for example, I do expect that Google will respect data portability more than Facebook. However, I expect data mining for advertisers' behalf will be roughly the same, although Google will likely be more subtle with advertising tie-in than Facebook, and thus users will not notice it as much.

But, since I'm firstly a software freedom activist, on the primary issue of my concern, there is absolutely no difference between Facebook and Google Plus. Google Plus' software is a mix of server-side trade-secret software that only Google employees can study, share, and modify, and a client-side proprietary Javascript application downloaded into the users' browsers when they access the website.

Yet, in a matter of just a few months, much of the online conversation in the software freedom community has moved to Google Plus, and I've heard very few people lament this situation. It's not that I believe we'll succeed against proprietary software tomorrow, and I understand fully that (unlike me) most people in the software freedom community have important reasons to interact regularly with those outside of our community. It's not that I chastise software freedom developers and activist for maintaining a minimal presence on these services to interact with those who aren't committed to our cause.

My actual complaint here is that Google Plus is becoming the default location for discussion of software freedom issues. I've noticed because I've recently discovered that I've missed a lot of community conversations that are only occurring on Google Plus. (I've similarly noticed that many of my Free Software contacts spam me to join Linkedin, so I assume something similar is occurring there as well.)

What's more, I've received more pressure than ever before to sign up for not only Google Plus, but for Twitter, Linkedin, Google Hangout, Skype and other socially-oriented online communication services. Indeed, just in the last ten days, I've had three different software freedom development projects and/or organizations request that I sign up for a proprietary online communication service merely to attend a meeting or conference call. (Update on 2013-02-16: I still get such requests on a monthly basis.) Of course, I refused, but I've not felt peer pressure this strong since I was a teenager.

Indeed, the advent of proprietary social networking software adds a new challenge to those of us who want to stand firm and resist proprietary software. As adoption of services like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Skype, Linkedin and Google Hangouts increases, those of us who resist using proprietary software will come under ever-increasing peer pressure. Disturbingly, I've found that peer pressure comes not only from folks outside our community, but also from those who have, for years, otherwise been supporters of the software freedom movement.

When I point out that I use only Free Software, some respond that Skype, Facebook, and Google Plus are convenient and do things that can't be done easily with Free Software currently. I don't argue that point. It's easy to resist Microsoft Windows, or Internet Explorer, or any other proprietary software that is substandard and works poorly. But proprietary software developers aren't necessarily stupid, nor untalented. In fact, proprietary software developers are highly paid to write easy-to-use, beautiful and enticing software (cross-reference Apple, BTW). The challenge the software freedom community faces is not merely to provide alternatives to the worst proprietary software, but to also replace the most enticing proprietary software available. Yet, if FaiF Software developers settle into being users of that enticing proprietary software, the key inspiration for development disappears.

The best motivator to write great new software is to solve a problem that's not yet solved. To inspire ourselves as FaiF Software developers, we can't complacently settle into use of proprietary software applications as part of our daily workflow. That's why you won't find me on Google Plus, Google Hangout, Facebook, Skype, Linkedin, Twitter or any other proprietary software network service. You can phone with me with SIP, you can read my blog and identi.ca feed, and chat with me on IRC and XMPP, and those are the only places that I'll be until there's Free Software replacements for those other services. I sometimes kid myself into believing that I'm leading by example, but sadly few in the software freedom community seem to be following.

Posted on Thursday 24 November 2011 at 12:15 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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#include <std/disclaimer.h>
use Standard::Disclaimer;
from standard import disclaimer
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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

— bkuhn


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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>