The Anti-Freedom Side Of The Internet

The Internet is great for freedom of choice, freedom of use, freedom of expression, freedom of speech. I really like that I'm able to post things on my blog that can be read anywhere in the world where the open Internet is available. I equally like that there are search engines that let me find documents and information no matter where they are stored and I like small companies that are offering videos, podcasts and other content on niche topics that would never make it to the mainstream media.

So all of these things are great and do not match the title of this post at all. However, the Internet is now more and more also used to restrict the freedom we used to have. Here are some examples: Companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have great products that are used and enjoyed by people around the world including the author of this post. But more and more these companies are trying to build silos by offering software and hardware that is tightly controlled by them. Third parties offering services and content independently are unwanted. A few examples: Apps can only be downloaded to the iPhone from the Apple store, Amazon's kindle only accept apps from Amazon's store and also Microsoft wants to go down that road with Windows 8, as metro apps can only be installed from Microsoft's web store.

Why such limitations and why now? The second part is answered easily, it's because it's possible to do it now. 10 years ago, restricting devices to a particular web store was not feasible as many PCs were not yet connected to the Internet and hence, installation of new programs from disks and CDs was the norm rather than the exception. Nobody would have accepted to only be able to install programs that had a Microsoft certificate. This has significantly changed as most devices are now connected to the Internet and the ease of use of exclusive web stores make many people blind to the fact that they are giving up a freedom they used to have. Giving up this freedom means that those who do are subjecting themselves to the values that a company thinks are the right ones rather than your own.

The first question of why this limit is imposed is often answered by saying that this protects users from badly designed or even malicious programs and that it's in the user's own good. To a certain extent that is of course true as programs go through a centralized audit. But I am a grown up and responsible person and I want to decide for my own. Someone else deciding what is good for me or not, no, thanks, I like my freedom. Google is using a somewhat different approach for Android. By default, downloading and installing apps from third party sources, e.g. from this web site or via sideloading from an SD card is blocked. However, the user is informed that if he really wishes to do that, it can be enabled in the settings. From my point of view that is a fair middle ground. It protects users from accidental installs of malware but still allows to open the door to freedom for those who want it. Also it is an incentive for users to buy software and content from the company that built the device or the operating system which is, by the way, the main reason for companies going down that road. Company interets and freedom do not have to be at odds with each other if done the right way.

One should also keep in mind that malicious programs are not the only way for a device to get infected by malware. Zero day exploits in web browsers that can inject malicous code that downloads keyloggers, scareware and other nasty programs are still frequently found. Web browser plugins such as Flash and Java leave the barn door wide open as well. Also, documents in email attachments that exploit weaknesses in office programs and files looking like documents but being executables are also able to infect systems and are very common today. A centralized and exclusive app store does not help against any of that. So the security argument might even backfire as it creates a false sense of safety.

Unfortunately, the anti-freedom effect the Internet has these days doesn't stop here. More and more, ubiquitous Internet access is also used for location and usage tracking, and only media pressure has so far prevented some excessive forms from becoming the norm. Anyone remember the "Carrier IQ" row from only last year? Yes, people forget quickly… Oblivion is the enemy of freedom.

Let also think about cloud services, freedom and privacy for a moment. Have a look at the terms and conditions of your favorite cloud service company. Is the data you store there, be it emails, documents, pictures, etc. really still yours or have you, by uploading them to that cloud service given the owner of the cloud service usage and redistribution rights to your data? You don't know? Well better check it out and ask yourself if this is acceptable to you or not. Note that I am not saying that all cloud services are bad. I use cloud storage for example but only with encrypted containers and the key is under my control and never ends up in the cloud. I also use email, obviously, one of the first cloud services and I am quite aware that I have no control over who sees what on the way from me to the recipient. And I act accordingly.

No, not everything is bad and if one is aware of these things one can act accordingly. My desktop is free, I am using a Linux distribution and I can install whatever software I like. Yes, it's not the only choice for a free desktop today, but companies are working hard to make it the only choice in the future. I use a VPN solution to protect my Internet connectivity when I travel and to prevent unwanted interference with the data I exchange such as unwanted network side compression or VoIP blocking. On the mobile side I use an operating system that lets me install any third party software I want and I only use cloud services to store unencrypted data I don't consider private, personal or my own. All of that takes effort, another enemy of freedom.

Freedom is not given it has to be struggled for.

3 thoughts on “The Anti-Freedom Side Of The Internet”

  1. Hi Martin,
    Agreed, tablets are not for everybody. I recently bought a Mac Air 11″ and unfortunately later learned it it restricted as to what apps you can run on it. For example iphone and ipad apps are generally not supported. I guess Apple wants one to buy more devices. So… i downloaded and Android emulator for my news readers and Kindle reader for ebooks. Life is good again.

  2. The almost free-for-all approach to writing software for PC/MSDOS/Windows is surely one of the many reasons why PCs dominate so many offices around the globe, and I’ve always thought that freedom was a good thing. It’s apparent that it’s also a weakness with the proliferation of viruses etc.

    Apple’s walled garden approach I never liked, but there are benefits as Apple has more control over the quality of a product giving some stability, uniformity and relative confidence in the software – but I still don’t like it.

    Linux was a curious beast that you would think would end in anarchy, but it works thanks to its open nature. But its geeky origins seem to be difficult to shrug off.

    With Android roots in Linux I had high hopes, but after buying a cheap Android 4.0 tablet and finding that it’s not compatible with the Google Store I’m beginning to think a bit more control is needed. Too much choice can be just as bad as not enough – yes, there are alternative software sources, but I’m not happy with their offerings so far.

    So, horror of horrors I’m on the verge of buying my first Apple device – even if it is for my techno-illiterate mother!

    On the 3GSM front, I’ve been happily walled within RIM’s data efficient garden for many years, and ironically, it allowed me to blog using banned Facebook from within China!

  3. And I thought this was all about the money. Not bad to earn 30% of other people’s work by restricting the market to my own shop …

Comments are closed.