Is privacy Free software’s next milestone?

I am concerned. In the past years, it has become clear that real privacy has become harder to come by. Our society is quickly heading into a situation where an unknown number of entities and people can follow my every single step, and it’s not possible to keep to myself what I don’t want others to know. With every step into that direction, there’s less and less things about my life of which I don’t control who knows about it.

Privacy as product or weapon

Realistically, I won’t be able to do that, however, since in this modern age, tools that need to share data are rather the norm, than the exception. Most of the time, this sharing of data (even if only between my own devices) goes through the hand of a third party. On top of that, there’s a whole lot of spying going on, and of course malicious hackers which are keen to acquire large personal sets of identity data. My personal data can make me a product, and worse, it can be used as a weapon against myself. It is really in my best interest to share only the absolute minimal amount of data with as little others as possible.

Traditionally, this urgency for privacy has been closely connected to the goals of Free software. This is not a coincidence. Free software and was intended as a way to give control to the users, and copyleft is an effective tool to achieve “software democracy”, in the best interest of the user. In reverse, someone who is not in control of his data cannot truly be free. Privacy and freedom are in fact closely related concepts.

Software Freedom: economics and ideology

I prefer Free software over proprietary solutions. It puts me in control what my machine does, it allows me to fulfill my needs and influence the tools I use for communication, work and entertainment into a direction that is driven by value to the user, rather than return-on-investment measured in money.

When I started using computers, Free software was sub-par to proprietary solutions, that is largely not the case anymore. In many cases, Free software surpasses what proprietary alternatives offer. In a lot of areas, Free software has come to dominate the market.
This is not surprising, given the economic model behind Free software. In the long run, building on the shoulder of giants, sharing the work across more stakeholders, open code and processes are more economical, scale better and tend to be more sustainable.
The ideological point of view benefits from that, I can lead a fully functional digital life using almost exclusively Free software and I certain guarantees of continuity often unmet in the proprietary world.

Shifting purpose

To me, the purpose of Free software has shifted a bit, or rather expands to enabling privacy. A good measurement whether the Free software movement has achieved its goal is the degree of privacy it allows me to have, while enabling all the modern amendments that our digital age makes possible, or even just to have a private conversation with a friend.

Effective privacy

Effective privacy needs network effects, so it doesn’t work very well for niche products. Of what use is a secure and private communication tool if I can’t use it to talk with my friends? Luckily the initial successes of Free software still play in our advantage: being able to collaboratively develop and share the work across many shoulders, we should be able to not just build all the pieces, but put together a complete set of solutions that make better privacy achievable for more people. In terms of achieving network effects, we’re not starting at zero, but our adversaries are strong, and often ahead of our game, some tend to play unfair.

Purpose means responsibility

Is it not our responsibility as Free software community (or even just as citizens) to provide the tools that maximize privacy for the users? If the answer is yes, then I suppose the measurement for success is how much can we make possible while maximizing privacy? How attractive can we make the tools in terms of functionality, effectiveness and availability?

A happy user is one who finds that a useful and fun-to-use tool also protects him from threats that he often may not fully appreciate until it’s too late.

One Response to “Is privacy Free software’s next milestone?”

  1. I would add to your measurement of success that you need to actually reach users. Perhaps that is a function of his second point (“How attractive can we make the tools in terms of functionality, effectiveness and availability?”) but I feel the importance of factors like pragmatic focus on ‘good enough’ and usability are often overlooked. Building the perfect solution from a privacy, security and features point of view is irrelevant if nobody uses it.

    That is one reason why improving an existing, possibly less than perfect but popular solution often has more impact than building a new but incompatible-with-everything tool.