Proprietary software is untrustworthy and harms society

No matter how glib and sarcastic the proprietor, proprietary software denies users the freedoms to inspect, share, and modify the program.

Users of Adobe’s proprietary Creative Suite software recently discovered that the programs communicate over the network with a machine apparently owned by Omniture, a company that tracks web usage. The Adobe software sends some data to a machine with a hostname of “192.168.112.2O7.net”. Users of Adobe’s CS3 software wondered why they were being spied on and what data was sent. Some users also complained about the hostname of the Omniture machine which, at first glance, looks like the network address of a machine on one’s own network; a machine which is likely already under the user’s control.

If these users were running free software instead of proprietary alternatives (such as The GNU Image Manipulation Program and Inkscape for editing graphics) they’d be free to consult the program’s source code and learn precisely what the program did. They could cite lines of source code instead of speculating about the inclinations of a proprietor. If any curious user wasn’t technical enough to know how to properly interpret the source code to aid their own understanding, they could get help from people they trust to work on their behalf.

But there’s more going on here than any proprietor will explain.

In a blog entry hosted on adobe.com, John Nack sarcastically responded to a few users who had the tenacity to question Adobe’s network usage, first by downplaying the significance of the discovery and then trying to subtly blame people for speaking out when it’s inconvenient for the American corporation to respond: (all spelling in context)

Every year around this time, the online community latches onto some story (CS3 icons last year; “Microsoft to buy Macromedia” before that; etc.) and goes nuts with speculation. The specualtion is all the more thrilling given that the affected companies are only lightly staffed right now, making it hard to provide a meaningful response.

then Nack follows up by explaining what he’s learned from Adobe—nothing nefarious, Nack assures us (which we can reasonably interpret as what Adobe is willing to divulge, corporate blogs are public relations). Finally Nack concludes that Adobe’s users should use “common sense” and “give Adobe the benefit of the doubt”.

Uncommon sense

When you use a proprietary computer program you are not allowed to know what it does. Proprietors claim that they must prevent users from sharing and modifying the program in order to make their business function (some proprietors also claim this is a security mechanism despite that real security doesn’t come from keeping algorithms secret). However plenty of businesses make money writing free software and selling support for free software. But no matter the reason, proprietary software inherently makes that program untrustworthy. It doesn’t matter what the program’s ostensible purpose is. The proprietor is doing you a disservice by denying you software freedom. In fact, proprietary software is anti-social because it undermines the social solidarity people need to lead independent free lives. You deserve to be able to completely control your computer. Even if you’re non-technical, you ought to be able to get someone you trust to inspect and improve programs on your behalf. Proprietary software denies you these freedoms, makes you dependent on the proprietor, and separates you from your fellows.

So when the proprietor tells you that there’s nothing to fear, you are not any more in-the-know than you were before. There’s no way to know if the proprietor is telling you the whole truth. The only way to use a program in freedom is to have the freedoms of free software so that you may inspect the program’s source code, alter the program to suit your needs, run the program any time you like for any reason, and share the program with anyone at any time (or have someone you trust inspect and modify the free program on your behalf).

Proprietors won’t directly address these freedoms because they know they cannot compete with them. This is one of the reasons proprietary software distributors prefer to talk about “open source”. The open source movement talks about developmental efficiency and how well a program works, not software freedom (regardless of what effect it has on the users). These are issues a proprietor can discuss without risk to their business. Proprietors depend on secrecy and they are thus compelled to make excuses for denying you software freedom (they often say these excuses as though it’s for your own good).

There is no reason to give any person or organization that has mistreated you the benefit of reasonable doubt. There are plenty of reasons to insist on an ethical society of equals where people enjoy freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify computer software so they can organize into a mutually beneficial society.

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