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"I Love Free Software Day": Swipe (copy)left on dating apps

by Dana Morgenstein Contributions Published on Feb 11, 2020 10:58 AM

Every year, Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) encourages supporters to celebrate Valentine’s Day as “I Love Free Software Day,” a day for supporters to show their gratitude to the people who enable them to enjoy software freedom, including maintainers, contributors, and other activists. It seems appropriate on this holiday to once again address how seeking love on the Internet is, unfortunately, laden with landmines for your freedom and privacy. But today, I’m also going to make the argument that our community should think seriously about developing a freedom-respecting alternative.

Before we get started, though: make sure to show your love and gratitude for free software on February 14 and beyond! Share the graphic below with the hashtag #ilovefs:

fsfe free i love free software day banner

With that said: as you probably heard earlier this year, the hydra-headed Match Group, which divides its customers among Tinder, OKCupid, Match.com, Hinge, and others, as well as several other dating companies, was revealed to be sharing user information in flagrant violation of privacy laws. OKCupid was caught sharing what was described as “highly personal data about sexuality, drug use, political views, and more,” and Grindr has been caught multiple times sharing users' HIV status. All of these apps also tell Facebook everything, whether a user has a profile or not (remember, even if you're not a user, you probably have a shadow Facebook profile!). This is typical behavior for modern technology companies, but the fact that it’s so ordinary makes it neither less ugly nor less flagrant.

Why do people put up with this? It isn’t that they don’t know that their personal information is being treated like candy tossed from a parade float: in 2014, Pew Research Center found that 91% of poll participants “agree or strongly agree that people have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by all kinds of entities.” A 2017 survey found that only 9% of social media users felt sure that Facebook and their ilk were protecting their data. And a 2017 Pew study led researchers to conclude that “a higher percentage of online participation certainly does not indicate a higher level of trust.” One anonymous commenter quipped, “People will expect data breaches, but will use online services anyway because of their convenience. It’s like when people accepted being mugged as the price of living in New York.”

It turns out that even if they're aware of how these companies are mistreating us, many people are making a cost-benefit analysis, and perceiving the benefits they get from these downright skeevy programs as valuable enough to be worth the ever-increasing exposure to the advertisers’ panopticon. As one anonymous Web and mobile developer from the Pew study said, “Being able to buy groceries when you’re commuting, talking with colleagues when doing a transatlantic flight, or simply ordering food for your goldfish right before skydiving will allow people to take more advantage of the scarcest good of our modern times: time itself.”

Here at the Free Software Foundation (FSF), we disagree strongly that the tradeoff is worth it, and it’s central to our mission to convince software users that letting developers pull their strings is destructive to their lives and dangerous to our society. When you use proprietary software, the program controls you, and the people who develop that program can use it as a tool to manipulate you in many absolutely terrifying ways. The same can also be true of services where the software is not distributed at all and is therefore neither free nor nonfree; but step one is to ditch all of the proprietary apps and JavaScript these companies try to get people to use.

Nevertheless, our battle is going to be an uphill one when a majority of people perceive conveniences to be worth the cost. In the case of dating Web sites, by 2015, 59% of people polled by Pew agreed that “online dating is a good way to meet people.” And it’s perceived, at least to some degree, as being effective: according to Pew, “nearly half of the public knows someone who uses online dating or who has met a spouse or partner via online dating.” eHarmony claimed, according to this 2019 article, that four percent of US marriages begin on their site, while a poll by The Knot found that twenty two percent of spouses polled met online. (The eHarmony stats may be questionable, but as part of a sales pitch, it definitely works to draw people in.)

Conversely, the alternative to online dating doesn’t feel very rosy to an increasing number of people. The same poll on The Knot found that one in five couples polled were introduced in a more traditional way, through their personal network, which sounds terrific, except for one small problem: our IRL social networks are shrinking. In 2009, Psychology Today reported that 25% of Americans have not a single friend or family member they can count on, and half of all Americans had nobody outside of their immediate family. So, how do you meet the elusive love of your life? It’s unsurprising that many people reluctantly choose the less obvious potential harms of OKCupid over the more tangible harms of isolation and loneliness. (After all, they’re not exactly trumpeting on their front page, “We’ll help you find a date, but in the meantime, we have information about what you’re into in bed, and we’ll give it to whoever we like!”)

This quandary sets up an extraordinarily unfair proposition: nobody should be forced to sacrifice their freedom in the name of a perceived shot at happiness. At the end of the day, we maintain that it’s not worth it, and you should keep Mark Zuckerberg as far away from your love life as possible, but I don’t think we should stop there, either. I believe that ethical, freedom-respecting online services that facilitate people’s social lives, from finding someone to date to staying in touch with friends far away, are an important social good, and that the free software movement has something unique and important to contribute.

Just as we have encouraged free software enthusiasts to move their social media presence from the walled gardens of Facebook to decentralized, federated services like Mastodon, GNU social, Pixelfed, and Diaspora, we would love to be able to point lovelorn free software supporters to an online dating site that will treat them like a human being rather than a commodity to be dissected into chunks of profitable data. So while we can’t endorse a project that’s barely gotten started at all, much less one that’s being built on Kickstarter, we were pleased to see a Redditor introduce the idea of Alovoa, which “aims to be the first widespread free software dating Web application on the Web.” Alovoa is licensed under AGPLv3, which is an excellent signpost for ethical behavior in the future.

Is Alovoa the solution? It’s far too early to say -- but we do know that the only acceptable solution will be a dating site that is 100% free software. And we also know that the free software community possesses the talent and conviction to make that alternative happen. When you’re freely permitted to use, share, study, modify, and share the modifications of the software you own, there are no shackles on your creativity: you can build the programs that you need, and make them available to everyone else who needs them. Perhaps we can solve the problem of how to find love online without sacrificing your privacy, and that’s only the beginning of the many problems we can solve. If we can build free software that offers ordinary people the conveniences they crave without the ethical tradeoffs, then someday, we will have a future where all software is free.

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