Politics of the Internet – The hidden costs of free software

“The best things in life are free”, says the wisdom of the elders – as they have discovered the bliss of health, friendship,  love, and all the other things that (at least in theory) money can’t buy. But in the year of 2014, the average person spends an unprecedented time utilizing technological devices that (at least in theory) ease communication, work, and other everyday activities. These devices are definitely not free, but some of the software that facilitates their use is advertised as such. Granted the evolution of the mobile devices (and the association of apps that certain operating system make), the current article will tackle the issue of software and apps in relation to political/economic theory and human rights law, by unifying the platforms (as in this case, the technological distinction is of no relevance).


For instance, pretty much every tech device with contemporary hardware specifications has the processing power, access memory and necessary storage in order to run a version/variation of Linux. And why shouldn’t users download a free operating system and enjoy all of its functions, in spite of (for example) the pricey Microsoft Windows products? Moreover, why should the paid alternatives ever be taken into consideration by the average user, as in terms of functionality and features, the “free” software seems to be just as good? Why aren’t the users settling for Google’s all-encompassing services that contain both desktop and mobile operating systems (Chrome and Android respectively), social networking (Google+), e-mail services (Gmail), maps (Google Maps), pictures (Google Images) and even multilingual translation features (Google Translate)? Or if one may say that Google has turned into an evil Big Brother-esque corporation, why not use Yahoo’s slightly narrower palette of services? In terms of physical monetary units, these services cost nothing. Is there a price? Well, these companies might just use your data in order to improve their personalized targeted advertisement services, or might just sell your personal information to other actors.


That is why, rightfully so, one of the concerns that seems to increasingly capture the public opinion’s attention these days is that of the privacy. According to Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

At this point, many would argue that the internet and the virtual world should not be treated as the real world: if Google builds data bases according to their users’ searches, it isn’t the same thing as a person starring at you by the window, or a burglar invading your house. If somebody attacks you on social networks, then you cannot pursue legal actions, as the attack came through virtual means.. It’s not like a police report can be filed out of someone threatening to kill you via Twitter, right? Oh well, all of these arguments and assumptions are WRONG!

The United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution L13 from 2012:

“1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; [and]

2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms; … . (20/L13… The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, supra.)”


That is why in many instances one can legitimately put an equal sign between the virtual avatar and the flesh-and-blood individual. However, the next question to arise is: Do all the free software and/or internet services infringe the right to privacy? Definitely not!

At this point, a distinction has to be made between the most frequent “free” types of licenses:

a. Freeware – the service is offered without any monetary costs, but the license does not allow any modifications to the source code. Thus the user can take full advantage of the features, yet has no guarantee on the extent in which his or her privacy is respected. Popular examples include Opera Browser, Winamp, Adobe Reader, Skype and uTorrent.

b. Open Source – the service is provided without any monetary costs, the license allows any modifications and customizations to the source code, the security is high, and the privacy is respected to higher extent. In this category can be included the above-mentioned Linux operating system (and its variations), Mozilla Firefox/Chrome browsers, Open Office, VLC Media Player, Calibre, Blender, and even the platform this website uses – WordPress!

c. Shareware – the service is provided without any monetary costs, but with limited functionality (this includes the so-called “Trial” and “Demo” versions). No modifications are allowed to be made to the source code, and usually pop-up messages or advertisements are sent to the user in order to promote the  full-version of the product (or various other products that might be of interest for the user). Usually, the shareware programs or apps come with adware/spyware – separate programs that display advertisements and collect data about the user’s activity, respectively. Most of the applications that can be downloaded for free from Google Play, iTunes, and Windows Phone Store retain such characteristics – thus infringing the fundamental right to privacy and pointing out patterns in human behavior that might be useful for the advertisers. Utilities such as WinRAR, WinZIP and popular security suites like Avira, AVG, and Avast! prove that financial success can also be achieved through targeted advertisement. The end user gets a product for which no monetary unit is paid, yet he or she has to live with the idea that privacy is a mere illusion, and he or she will have to surf through the waves of internet with an all-seeing, always-surveilling companion whom we, the George Orwell fans, like to call Big Brother.


The two clashing ideas are usually referred to as the Microsoft approach to business (as Microsoft has been known to sell its software for high prices, while undertaking no surveillance measures towards the user; the individual practically pays for his or her own privacy) and the Google approach (everything if free to use, but your data will be processed by various advertising services in order to provide you “tailored” ads). The latter may be more convenient for the average user who feels that there is nothing secret about his or her activity, but companies that treasure their data should be aware of these practices and think twice when making certain decisions on cutting expenses. Another thing that has to be mentioned is the fact that social networks (and especially Facebook) have managed to perfect the so-called Google approach: if Google collects data only according to the various searches and tries to build a profile of the user, then the social networks know exactly who you are, what you do, and what you like: the simple fact that the social norm imposes us to have a virtual identity can be capitalized by the companies just to provide the ultimate advertisement experience, in which the sidebar ads match the profile of the individual perfectly.

Big Brother

But before reaching a conclusion, one might look into the theories of social contract: Thomas Hobbes spoke about the polity which bonds together all of the human beings of a community through a social contract. Once a human being is born within the borders of a certain state, he or she has already agreed with the laws, norms and customs of the state. Therefore, can a theory of social contract be formulated on the internet, about the exchange between the provider of “free” services and the end user? One might say that the “License Agreement” that no user seems to read throughly truly is an example of such a contract. Moreover, when the end user “Agrees with the Terms and Conditions” of a certain website or software, the document upon which the agreement is made is usually vague when it comes to the provision/infringement of privacy. Most of the times, the end user will simply agree with all the future policies of the company – and the only quick and convenient way to rebel against such an ambiguous legal document is to stop using the software product once and for all.

Nowadays there are many debates regarding the future of the internet, the extent in which privacy is and will be respected, and the legal framework that defends the user. What nation states should do in order to counter abuses is to draft national legislation that protects their citizens from global corporate interests that might just turn them into cattle: just like the cattle in the more modern farms have microchips planted inside their bodies in order to determine their behavior, certain companies are in possession of fully detailed reports on the internet and software activity of users. If in most of the European Union countries it was possible to implement a “Big Brother Law” that allows surveillance of the internet and mobile phones, then the states should take into account the protection of their citizens in the face of large economic interests – as the purpose of governmental surveillance was protection, wasn’t it? But until the virtual world is taken more seriously at the governmental level, there will always be gifts that come under the form of a Trojan horse. Are the best things in (virtual) life free? Well, the answer depends on the amount of privacy and user expects and demands. But for as long as privacy is a fundamental human right, yours truly will always stand for its protection against both economic and political interests.

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