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You are here: Home Bulletins 2019 Spring It's not just about privacy

It's not just about privacy

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Jun 13, 2019 02:34 PM

Privacy violations by large technology companies continue to be big news in 2019. In April, we learned that Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to review and transcribe conversations overheard by its Alexa-enabled Echo devices. In May, we read that Snapchat employees used their access to spy repeatedly on users. And Facebook is facing a potential five billion dollar fine for its privacy failures.

The FSF and other free software activists have highlighted these tragic stories to illustrate the urgent importance of free software to the general public. The ever-expanding collection of mistakes and abuses committed by proprietary software and unethical network services should make a strong case for changing software culture from one that inherently mistreats and exploits users to one that respects us.

Richard Stallman says part of his inspiration for starting the free software movement was the frustration he encountered when he was refused the source code necessary to fix a bug in a printer. Over the years, this story has been persuasive to others as well. Similarly, stories about privacy leaks and other bad behavior by proprietary software and unethical network services can be signposts that lead new people to join the movement. But right now, those signs are pointing in the wrong direction.

The mainstream response to stories of major privacy violations has not been to demand user control over the software. Instead, the calls have been almost exclusively for policy measures like fines and antitrust actions. In a recent New York Times special section on Privacy and Technology, neither free software nor open source were even mentioned.

We've also seen the narrative around privacy actually boost proprietary companies. Apple this year launched an advertising campaign focused entirely on claims that it protects user privacy. Other companies, especially Facebook, have attempted to flip the script by offering more user-configurable privacy settings.

Policy measures might be good, but we know that free software is a precondition for true privacy. Without the source code, claims like Apple's can never be fully verifiable. Without a switch to decentralized free software, Facebook's settings can just be "placebo buttons" -- like phony office thermostats that let you think you're controlling the temperature. And without control over the software, users will never have privacy from the company that claims to own it.

Because free software is a prerequisite, this movement's work advocating and developing it is clearly helping to protect user privacy. The New York Times and regulators need to hear us on that. But we also must be careful about what we promise, and what we emphasize.

All software has bugs; even free software can fail at privacy. Like any other practical benefit of free software -- better stability, speed, compatibility with older hardware -- privacy claims are also vulnerable to exploitation by proprietary software pushers -- as we see Apple doing now. The most important benefit of free software, and the only justification it needs, is freedom.

We should keep pointing to abuses committed by the Facebooks, Amazons, Snapchats, and Apples of the world. We should then point at free software, not as a suite of perfect software solutions, but as a set of cultural values where we can empower ourselves to solve these and other problems instead of being kept helpless.

The FSF has shared many of the inspiring stories we've heard from people energized to help their communities, refusing to be pushed around by unethical software. We published several in a video at We need to do more of that, in order to seize these opportunities to make free software a salient issue for everyone. I encourage you to share your story publicly, and let us know about it at!

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