Modified Linux Mascot. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Giving the Finger to Technology Companies by Yann Bourdeau

Mar 21, 2024

Sometimes I wonder what I could do to take better control of my technological devices. I use a computer, a smartphone, a tablet, and a smart watch from one of the big four manufacturers (Samsung, Apple, Google, Microsoft). These companies collect detailed profiles of their users so that they can sell information about them to the advertisers. Have you ever wondered how Google can make all these software products and still give them away for free? In this case, the software isn’t the product. You are. You’re the product thanks to the profiling enabled by the company’s free (not as in freedom) software. This profiling is very valuable for advertisers because they can target ads at you based on your interests.

Google is one of the worst tracking companies. On Android everything is monitored. But if you’re willing to put in an extra effort, you can install GrapheneOS. It’s an Android version without any Google components. Android is open source, so anyone can modify it and build it according to their own needs. It is better than the Apple iPhone, which is a closed-source device.

For those who are wondering: An open-source application has its application code (instructions to tell the computer what to do) in the public domain. Licensing clauses vary for the code; for usage of the open-source code then the derivative code may be open source also, while at other times it may not.

Big technology companies usually keep their code proprietary. A closed-source application has its source code unavailable to the public. The only version available is a compiled program. This practice, knows as compiling, takes the source code and turns it into an executable application. The executable application is distributed to the public.

The open-source movement started in 1983 thanks to Richard Stallman. The Free Software Foundation exists to promote free—as in freedom—software. It funds open-source projects, primarily the GNU one.

The obscene level of monetization of the users by these companies makes me wonder if there’s a way out of it. I could install Linux instead of Windows or MacOS. Linux is an open-source operating system. For anyone who doesn’t know what that means: it’s the main program that allows other programs to run on it. The common consumer operating systems for personal computers are Windows and MacOS. They start as soon as you turn on your computer.

Linux is available in many distributions. A distribution of Linux consists of a company, a group of people, or even one person, who takes the Linux source code, compiles it and packages it with other applications so that it can be used by regular users. Linux can be a bit trickier to troubleshoot than Windows or MacOS, but it’s come a long way to be more user-friendly over the last three decades. Linux can replace the non-free operating system that is currently installed on my computer.

I don’t use my tablet for anything other than writing text. I could replace it with a Linux laptop. For my phone, I could get a Graphene OS Android-compatible device and install Graphene OS on it. There is also a Linux-based mobile phone, but it’s not great and not for the faint of heart. It’s the PinePhone, and from what I’ve read about it, it’s still in beta testing (not ready for prime time). The reviewers said that you must be well versed with Linux to use this thing. It’s not suited for beginners.

In the spirit of punk, where DIY is a big thing, I was wondering if I should make the switch to these alternatives. Will they be more in phase with my values and the DIY spirit? I write for Razorcake, which sums up all the DIY ethics. I know it’s hard to switch to a more difficult operating system or phone.

The name of the 1987 Dead Kennedys compilation album, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death summarizes properly how many citizens think about using something not as convenient as the mainstream one. I know that it’s more convenient for software developers to use open source. As someone who writes code, I can report that recent Linux releases are becoming more usable. Not all Linux distributions are easy to use, however. If something goes wrong, you will probably have to figure it out on your own. This may be difficult for some people, who would rather just use their devices without having to worry about them. A Linux PC would come naturally to me. In the past, I had a work-issued laptop that ran Linux and I didn’t have an issue with it.

I currently can’t find an alternative for my smartwatch. I’d lose all my health and fitness tracking information provided by my phone and smartwatch if I switched to any currently available Linux-powered smartwatch. I have a smart glucose monitor (I have diabetes type 2) that sends the information to my smartphone. I also have many other smart devices that send information to my phone, such as a smart scale. I know I don’t need this data on my health and fitness to stay healthy or get active, but it still motivates me to see how much I’ve accomplished since I started taking steps toward becoming healthier. However, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to use free (as in freedom) software and to not be profiled by advertisers.

I started using Mastodon, a free (as in freedom) social network, and I really enjoy it. There are no algorithms that choose which content we see; instead, we can only see the posts from the people we follow. This makes me reflect on using free (as in freedom) software. For now, it’s just a dream, but one day I’m sure I’ll make the switch.

Open-source software has many advantages: if a company packages malicious code into their software, another entity can take the available source code, remove the problematic component, repackage it, and distribute it. This is what happened with GrapheneOS. I know that open-source projects can be more difficult to use and harder to troubleshoot than mainstream ones. However, some people don’t want to learn how they work in order to use them. In my opinion, taking the time to understand how they function is worth it, given the direction the software industry is moving. Everything is becoming subscription-based, and there’s a great deal of software telemetry used to spy on users. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the software industry seems to care less about user privacy and more about maximizing profits.

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