Is proprietary software a necessary evil?

Richard Stallman is, in essence, one of the most influential founders of Linux. In 1983, he developed the GNU operating system, now commonly referred to as Linux. This development spawned numerous free operating systems, such as Mark Shuttleworth’s uBuntu, but has never quite matched the general popularity of Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s Mac OS operating systems. Stallman is far from impressed with how software is handled in this day and age.

In a piece written on The Guardian, Stallman slams modern day operating systems, companies and software in general. He mentions Digital Rights Management (DRM), software backdoors and End User License Agreements (EULAs) that border on anti-consumer. In today’s society, these are the things we take as normal and generally conform when using proprietary services and software, but does that mean he’s right? While the question may sound like something from a conspiracy theorist, we do have to ask: Are we putty in corporate hands?

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As Stallman puts it, “Developers today shamelessly mistreat users; when caught, they claim that fine print in EULAs (end user license agreements) makes it ethical. (That might, at most, make it lawful, which is different.)”

As we become more of a tech-driven society, we are more dependent on new software and hardware. Scrap that. We embrace new technology and barely question it. And companies know it. Just look at Google’s latest announcement about Brillo — its OS for the internet of things. We devour articles and news about the latest version of Windows/Mac/PlayStation/iWatch/etc. We spend hours on the couch streaming movies and TV shows, and all of our personal information is sitting on our PC. That last point can be rewritten as, “all of our personal information is sitting on a server somewhere.” As a society we question the colour of a product, it’s performance, and pricing, if it’s now fashionable, and why new feature XYZ hasn’t been implemented, but we do not question the motives of the organisation selling these items to us. Why is Google Photos geared towards images and video?

The Alan Moore-esque Stallman brings up some very valid points about software, companies, and the things we take for granted. I’m going to take a look at a few instances where DRM, anti-consumer, and privacy have really stood out in recent years.

No more class-action lawsuits for big companies

When the PlayStation 3 originally launched, users were able to install Linux on the system. Sony touted this Other OS feature as a selling point for the PS3 over its competition. In a 2010 firmware update, Sony removed this feature over “security concerns,” which may be a legitimate reason as exploits could have been used by hackers. A class-action lawsuit was brought against Sony to compensate those affected by the update. Class-action lawsuits allow an individual to act on behalf of a group. The suit was later dismissed by a federal judge. Sony slipped a “no sue” agreement into their Terms and Conditions to stop such suits from taking place, and in part due to the PlayStation 2011 DDoS attack.

The specific clause read:

Any dispute resolution proceedings, whether in arbitration or court will be conducted on an individual basis and not in a class or representative action or as a named or unnamed member in a class, consolidated, representative or private attorney general legal action, unless both you and the Sony entity with which you have a dispute specifically agree to do so in writing following initiation of the arbitration.

This in turn brought about a class action lawsuit against these new terms, with those actioning the suit stating users are forced to give up their legal rights. As of writing, information on the outcome of this specific suit was not readily available. These forced arbitration clauses have become a trend, with the likes of  Microsoft, EA, and Netflix adopting them.

Forced and unsolicited removals of features and purchases

The second issue here (and as a gamer this may concern me more than “no-sue”) is that of forced firmware alterations. Anyone not accepting the firmware update would not be able to play online, play media files kept on the server, install any future firmware updates, or consume any media — games or movies — requiring a future update. In essence, you were locked out of future functionality if you did not conform and accept Sony’s forced changes. I fully understand the need to fix bugs and add new features, but the forced removal of a feature is anti-consumer behaviour.

Ecommece giant, Amazon, is no stranger to anti-consumer practices when it concerns their best selling device, the Kindle. In 2009, the giant began deleting select books from customer’s devices and accounts due to a violation in US copyright law. Those who had purchased the eBooks were given no prior warning to the removal though they were later compensated with a US$30 gift card for Amazon. Ironically one of the removed books was George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Apple, on the other hand, did the complete opposite with content last year by adding the latest U2 album, Songs of Innocence, to all iTunes libraries. It couldn’t be removed. Apple and U2 later issued an apology, but the message was clear: Apple can and will force content onto its users. The company went from cool to creepy.

DRM practices punish the consumer

Piracy has run rampant throughout the history of gaming. Developers and publishers are often looking for new ways to curb this and one of the ways resulted in SecuROM. The software is a DRM product developed by Sony. A famous example — there are so many — is the failed Maxis/EA game, Spore. The title launched to much hype, but users soon cried out over the inclusion of SecuROM. The software required the product to be authenticated every 10 days, limited the key to three PCs, and was picked up by numerous security suites as malware, and became difficult to scrub from PCs. In retaliation, the game became one of the most downloaded titles of 2008 and still holds an average score of 1.6 (out of 5) due to the DRM practices.

To quote one Amazon reviewer:

First of all, the game incorporates a draconian DRM system that requires you to activate over the internet, and limits you to a grand total of 3 activations[sic]. If you reach that limit, then you’ll have to call EA in order to add one extra activation. That’s not as simple as it sounds, since when you reach that point EA will assume that you, the paying customer, are a filthy pirating thief.

A less intrusive version of DRM exists on current gaming platforms. Both Valve’s Steam and EA’s Origin sell digital titles, but the user has to be logged into one of these platforms in order to run the selected game. In general there is no problem when a company wants to curb piracy of their product, but treating the consumer as if he/she is a thief is not something that should be happening.

Prism and software backdoors

The United States of America has been under scrutiny due to surveillance on their own soil and other countries. Edward Snowden released documents detailing a US program named Prism. Prism gave the US government access to private user data from companies, such as Skype and Google. The NSA had access to everything you may have sent while on those platforms, which includes nude pictures on Skype. This has been going on for years and dates back to Windows NT when a researcher named Dr. Nicko van Someren disassembled a file named ADVAPI.DLL. This file contained two sets of encryption keys. One used for cryptographic functions used in the operating system, KEY, and the second, named NSAKEY, remained a mystery.

On June the 1st, the Patriot Act is up for renewal. It will be interesting to see if any changes will be made to the act if it continues. The likelihood is it will continue due to one of congresses favourite words, “terrorism”.

In an interview with John Oliver, Edward Snowden said, “Prism is how they [USA] pull your junk [referring to genitalia pictures] out of Google with Google’s involvement. All of the different Prism partners, people like Yahoo, Facebook, Google, the government deputizes them to be sort of their little surveillance sheriff.”

On a positive note, Snowden has said the NSA no longer knows how to handle big data and all of this information.

What is the cost of a digital revolution?

Stallman suggests we revolt, in a way, against these corporations and their software. While his cause is noble it is also idealistic at best. Are companies, such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple too ingrained into our digital world? Microsoft not only runs on most PCs, but servers as well; Google is used for most of our search engine needs and email; Apple sleeps soundly in the consumer’s eye.

Of course we can switch to free, alternative, and open source variants on almost all of the software we use, but it’s not realistic feasible. Not necessarily for us, but the very corporates these companies service. The best programmers are paid, and while some may say this is a case of perspective, I’d like to ask you: don’t you want to get paid for your work? Corporations pay. Free work doesn’t. This in turn means proprietary paid software contains the best features. Again this is, of course, all about perspective.

My local FNB ATM still runs on Windows NT, well it did a few months ago when I saw a system reboot. Digital shopping centre directories and advertisement panels run on Windows as well. If you’ve ever peeked over a Home Affairs PC or been in an insurance centre you’ll see the same thing. It would cost these companies far more to write all of this software of Linux than it would to upgrade the next version of Windows and train people to use it.

I can replace my Microsoft Office suite with OpenOffice; I can replace Windows 8.1 with uBuntu; I can replace iTunes with Foobar. I can do all of these things, but I won’t, and that is the sad reality of the situation. Not because I’m stubborn, or have anything against alternatives, but I am comfortable. Like most I am comfortable in the programs I use and the systems I grew up with. Yes, I know Microsoft is slowly gripping me tighter by giving me oodles of free items with Microsoft Office 365 subscriptions in order to keep me on board, but that won’t stop me. Perhaps I’m wearing the proverbial tin-foil hat, but even now — even so — I’ve composed this article on a Windows 8 PC, while checking my GMail for any new messages, and listening to music on iTunes. I can admit I drink the Microsoft, Apple, and Google Kool-Aid.

Apart from the cost of upgrading, downgrading, or changing, there is a question of what happens to all of our data. As mentioned earlier, Google has announced an unlimited storage solution for users called Google Photos. The new service allows you to upload video and photo images, for free, to their servers to store for you. Couple those image and video with their location metadata and you have a wealth of potentially dangerous information at your fingertips.

Perhaps a digital revolution will come, one day, but that day is not today.

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