Software Freedom and Power Dynamics

Rosenzweiig Blog Post:

A restrictive end-user license agreement is one way a company can exert power over the user. When the free software movement was founded thirty years ago, these restrictive licenses were the primary user-hostile power dynamic, so permissive and copyleft licenses emerged as synonyms to software freedom. Licensing does matter; user autonomy is lost with subscription models, revocable licenses, binary-only software, and onerous legal clauses. Yet these issues pertinent to desktop software do not scratch the surface of today’s digital power dynamics.
Today, companies exert power over their users by: tracking, selling data, psychological manipulation, intrusive advertising, planned obsolescence, and hostile Digital “Rights” Management (DRM) software. These issues affect every digital user, technically inclined or otherwise, on desktops and smartphones alike.

The author makes pertinent points around the software freedoms/power dynamics and the tendency of the corporations to push out control. Software has become increasingly commoditised- look at apps, browsers, algorithms that we interact with through an abstraction layer without being aware of it.

The implications for licenses are huge- companies will eventually push you through hardware and software upgrades. The camera battles for the next selfies and food pictures being posted on Instagram are all part of the same continuum. Software increasingly governs the daily interaction and pushes you to engage with the “clicks” by fomenting outrage.

I see a lot of “Twitter academicians” actually working and toiling for the advertisement network to generate “likes”. The pseudo gratification has a fly wheel effect.

Why is this issue critical? Algorithms are getting more opaque and abstract and hiding behind the legal clauses with proprietary locks. Business calls this as “business-intelligence”. Can they force someone like Amazon to open up the algorithm on how it suggests “recommendations”? Yet, you do see the advertisements tracking you through the internet.

Here’s some more:

We are not alone. Software freedom is intertwined with contemporary social issues, including copyright reform, privacy, sustainability, and Internet addiction. Each issue arises as a hostile power dynamic between a corporate software author and the user, with complicated interactions with software licensing. Disentangling each issue from licensing provides a framework to address nuanced questions of political reform in the digital era.

These are coherent issues, but the author mixes up a lot of intertwined issues without making it clear towards the end. Yet, it is a recommended read because it forces us to think about how these issues will affect us in the long term. Ideally, the entire algorithm should be put out in the open for scrutiny. We can keep its deployment under lock. This is a blanket generalization but a starting point for debate.