Leaving out software freedom means missing the point

Geoffrey A. Fowler, tech columnist for The Washington Post has written an article (archive copy) discussing why tracking cookies make Google Chrome a bad choice of web browser and Mozilla Firefox a better choice.

The real choice is between software freedom and non-freedom

But the main reason people should prefer Firefox over Chrome has nothing to do with tracking cookies, the best reason to switch to a free software browser (such as Firefox) has to do with software freedom—the freedom to run, inspect, modify, and share published software.

After all, tracking cookies are one means for third parties to track where people browse, and they are a privacy threat which affect everyone regardless of the browser they’re using. They’re also easily defeated with free software add-ons that let one delete such cookies soon after they’re no longer needed (such as Cookie AutoDelete and uMatrix for more powerful controls). Chrome users might have a difficult time using some add-ons to do the same job because Google has a history of disabling add-ons not found in Google’s app store. Also, Google is modifying their browser so that extensions won’t be able to alter or block whatever the page contains. This is part of the power software proprietors have over users.

But Chrome and other non-free (or proprietary) programs can spy on the user in a more insidious way that cannot be fixed other than changing how the program works. As the GNU Project tells us:

Proprietary software, also called nonfree software, means software that doesn’t respect users’ freedom and community. A proprietary program puts its developer or owner in a position of power over its users. This power is in itself an injustice.


Power corrupts; the proprietary program’s developer is tempted to design the program to mistreat its users. (Software whose functioning mistreats the user is called malware.) Of course, the developer usually does not do this out of malice, but rather to profit more at the users’ expense. That does not make it any less nasty or more legitimate.

Yielding to that temptation has become ever more frequent; nowadays it is standard practice. Modern proprietary software is typically a way to be had.

The GNU Project has collected and listed around 400 instances of proprietary malware as of April 2019, grouped by product brand and the type of injustice committed against the user.

Google’s malware is extensive and there’s no way to work around what Google chooses to put into Chrome, a proprietary web browser. Chrome (like every other proprietary program) lets users choose amongst options that Google implements (much like William M. Tweed, political boss of Tammany Hall, is famous for saying, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”). Software proprietors remain in charge because their users work fully within the narrowed choices the proprietor have selected first, and users are never given the freedom to modify the software (to help themselves) or to share the modified software (to help their community).

Firefox, by comparison, is free software; users are free to run, inspect, edit, and share Firefox if they choose. Some (more technical) users have already done this—for example, Firefox is the basis of TorBrowser, a browser that makes it easy for non-technical users to get on the tor network and browse without censorship, tracking, or surveillance.

Even if you’re like most computer users—you’re not technical enough to know what to do with source code—you still directly benefit from everyone having the freedoms of free software. Other people can make the modifications you want and pass along the improved software to you. You can learn to make modifications and help yourself (nobody is born a programmer, everyone who currently knows how had to learn at some point). And when we share programs and improve them we build social solidarity which helps us improve our community.

The Washington Post apparently did not introduce the reader to software freedom. Nor did the Washington Post explain that without software freedom computer users have no hope of getting the privacy they need and deserve. Let’s hope they change their mind and take an ethics-based approach to understanding how computers work and publish articles to convey that ethics-based explanation to their audience.

Software freedom is a prerequisite for computer security, reading privately, and fully controlling one’s own computer to the extent one wishes. This is also why proprietary operating systems (MacOS, Windows, iOS, and virtually every other portable device operating system) are impossible to secure against the proprietor. The proprietor can put in backdoors (allowing remote access to one’s computer without one’s authorization or knowledge), keyloggers (software that records one’s keystrokes and sends the keystroke data to the proprietor also without user consent), covertly control the camera and mic, and bundle other kinds of malware. The user can’t escape this spying and control until the user chooses to switch to an entirely free operating system and hardware the user can use in freedom.