On Free Software [ARCHIVE]

Sidharth Wagle
4 min readJul 9, 2021

This is another post from my old blog on the reason you should mistrust free software. Some parts may conjure images of tinfoil hat-wearers, but I nevertheless ask you to read it with an open mind.

We all love free software. What’s not there to like about it? It’s free, useful and often quite pretty. But free software has a dark side to it you may never have thought of before. Join me as I explore the hidden secrets of the world of free apps and provide a (shockingly free) solution.

Firstly, what’s wrong with free apps? The answer; a lot. To understand the mind of the companies that make free software, we must put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine you’re the CEO of a large software company, called Goggle. Goggle needs to make profit, and so you hire a team of developers, pay them $103,620 (roughly 76,22,545 INR) a year, hire a team of graphical designers and pay them an equivalent amount, hire testers and managers and accountants and so on. Voila! A few years later, you have a beautiful, well-designed app. And now you decide to get a return on your investment by…making the app free for everyone. Wait- what?

That’s right. Now that you’ve thought of it, doesn’t it seem suspicious that these companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing apps and then decide to make them completely free to use? The answer to that is a quote that is widespread in the privacy and security community- If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Let’s go back to our Goggle thought experiment.

You now own an app in which you can put almost any code, have it do almost anything, and no user will ever come to know. At first you decide, let’s serve them advertisements. That works, but only temporarily. Advertisers are not getting much success with your product, because they can’t specifically target the demographic they want, and so you aren’t earning much. You then think- “Okay, let’s collect some information about how our users behave and use that to create more targeted advertising.” It works. Really well. Suddenly, you’re making tens of dollars off each user downloading your app. You think- “Wow, that was amazing! Why don’t we start monitoring everything every user does in our app? We’ll make tons of money!” And you do. You’re now earning dozens of times your investment by selling every single little thing about your users to anybody that pays, regardless of their motives. And the best part is, nobody knows. You sell every email in your users’ account to advertisers. Nobody knows. You track your users’ facial expressions while using your app, and sell that to advertisers. Nobody but you knows. You sell every step your users make, and nobody knows.

In case you missed the extremely obvious signs, I was talking about Google. All those things above? They’ve been caught doing all of them. And it’s not just Google. For any free service, the only way to make money is the business model of stealing and selling their users’ intimate details and actions. But you might be thinking- “That is horrifying, but now that we know how these companies work, nobody will use them, and then their business model will go kaput, right?” Wrong. We’re headed towards a much, much more dystopian future. We are past the point of nobody knowing; companies like Google’s dirty secrets have been exposed for the past decade. We are now rapidly approaching the point where nobody cares. As a society, we have now just accepted that every time you are watching videos, talking to a loved one or just generally browsing the web; tens of companies are watching every single thing you do and making money off it. We cannot just sit back and let ourselves be abused to fatten Google, an already multi-billion dollar company.

In the beginning, I mentioned a free solution to this terrifying dystopian future. And it’s called Free and Open Source Software (FOSS apps). The problem with the free apps that are closed source is that the user does not know what’s going on in the background while they use the app, and what kind of data collection is happening. The only hint the user gets is a vaguely worded, confusing Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that most people just blindly accept. However, with FOSS apps, their source code is publicly available. Anybody can go through it and see exactly what is happening and why it is happening. These apps are almost always free to use, since anybody can just go to their website and replicate the code. And finally, since their source code is up for public scrutiny, developers of FOSS apps usually make them much more private and safer than their closed source alternatives.

It’s also super easy to find FOSS alternatives for your current apps and services.

alternativeto.net is a great resource for this purpose.

To conclude and to answer the question posed in the title, the question you should always ask before using free software is- what is their business model?

--

--