01.24.22

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Proprietary Software is Pollution

Posted in Apple, Hardware, Microsoft at 1:00 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Authored by Dr. Andy Farnell

The global pollution
The global pollution crisis has contributing factors

Summary: “My daughter asked me about why are we throwing away some bits of technology,” Dr. Andy Farnell says. “This is my attempt to put into words for “ordinary” people what I tried to explain to a 6 year old.”

Proprietary waste

It remains mostly unnoticed that proprietary (non-free) technology is an indirect but enormous contributor to planetary pollution through e-waste and inefficiency. If you value the environment, stop buying it.

“Most likely you bought a phone, tablet or other gadget that uses proprietary software. Proprietary software cannot be reused.”Electronic waste is wrecking planet Earth. 50 million tons of phones, household appliances, computers and gadgets are disposed of annually. Most of it is illegally shipped to India, China and Africa where it’s shredded and burned by child workers who are poisoned. Large amounts of toxic “forever chemicals”, dioxins, micro-plastics and heavy metals are released into the environment poisoning life all around the planet. (See Dannoritzer 2014 Dannoritzer14)

But we need technology, so what can you do? Well, one cause is that software goes out of date long before physical devices grow old. Most of what we throw away works perfectly. It would last another 10 years. So, this waste and pollution is quite preventable.

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are the three ways we can eliminate waste and protect our environment” according to official US and European policies. Yet when it comes to electronic waste, governments do almost nothing to give force to these common sense ideas. Instead they support, by laws and propaganda, active opposition to ecologically sound practices by corporations.

A massive contributor to e-waste is avoidable obsolescence through non-replaceable software. So called “digital rights management” (DRM) has a direct impact on e-waste because region locking means all kinds of goods from DVDs to phone handsets are rendered useless. DRM chips embedded into everything from game consoles to printer ink cartridges are designed to make sure perfectly usable goods must be destroyed. There are even laws, lobbied for by corporations, which make it illegal to try reusing or recycling electronic devices. This has to stop.

Most likely you bought a phone, tablet or other gadget that uses proprietary software. Proprietary software cannot be reused. It cannot be repaired, shared, or modified. Electronic devices often come locked so that you cannot update obsolete software. Would you buy a disposable car that could not be refuelled? Or imagine buying a flashlight for which you cannot replace the battery. That is literally how Apple iPhones are designed. It is how Microsoft makes computers so that its awful “Windows” operating system cannot be replaced with something better.

Yet cheap new batteries and fuel are metaphorically available to everyone as Free Software. If you have freedom to install fresh software on your own devices we call that Software Freedom. You have “Food Freedom”, because you are allowed to buy food from any shop. Just as you may fill your car from any gas station, people have an inalienable right to put fresh software of their own choosing on their own devices. I call the alternative “Consumer Communism”.

Don’t feed the landfill

To avoid contributing to toxic pollution when purchasing new electronic goods an environmentally conscious buyer will look out for these major problems:

  1. Locked boot-loaders
  2. Digital rights management
  3. “Software as a service” contracts
  4. “Smart” connected devices

Locked boot-loaders mean that you cannot install your own choice of operating system or applications on your gadget. When the supplied software fails due to age or security faults you won’t be able to extend its life. Even if you personally wouldn’t want to service the device it still means that engineers at a recycling centre or thrift shops who refurbish devices cannot salvage them.

Digital rights management (which are really digital restrictions) make it illegal for people to fix broken devices. Like boot-loader locking they can also be used to enforce other kinds of crippling and ‘regioning’. This is what makes your perfectly good devices stop working when you move to another city.

Everyone has heard of the scam where you buy something online, and receive only a picture of it. Increasingly we are sold gadgets that don’t actually come with the necessary software to work, but just a ‘link’. Instead the software resides “in the cloud”. The company then charges you to access it. At a whim they can change the price, or even what the software does. Or they can discontinue that software. You are left with a useless gadget, ‘a brick’ that must be thrown away.

“Software as a service” is increasingly pushed by big corporations like Adobe, Microsoft and Google. You should avoid products whose business model rests on constant internet connection, because this is precarious, wasteful and disruptive.

Software should be secure for its user. However, it is expensive to test and remove bugs. Because that cuts into profit weakly-tested code is shipped prematurely. Increasingly, vendors use false “security updates” to sneak in disabling updates or malware, which is corrosive to trust. We have normalised code as “work in progress” and got people used to unmonitored updates as “fixes”. In fact this is a clever excuse for “always connected” applications that are not under the user’s control.

Secure software can also protect its owner from the vendor. There is an unspoken conflict of interests in all discussions around cyber-security. Big companies ship insecure software not because they are stupid, but because they intend to. They are lazy, tight and dishonest.

So-called “smart” connected devices are very often like this. They are also completely unnecessary. Do you need to have a camera or microphone in your “Smart TV”. No. Is there any advantage for you to do so? No. Do you want your kids exposed to inappropriate advertising forced through these devices? No.

Yet companies subsidise the prices of “Spy TVs” because they can make lots of money selling your personal data. When people learn of this they want to get rid of their Spy TV, especially if they have children who they do not want perverts watching. These rogue products could be fixed by replacing the software to permanently change how they work. But they are designed to be very hard to repair using Free Software. Manufacturers may even have the law in their side to stop you neutralising threats to your own family.

When thinking about computer security it is no longer sufficient to presume a shared value that makes life safer for everyone. We must ask “Security for who?”, “Security from whom or what?”, and “Security to what end?”. The needs of end users, vendors and governments are increasingly at odds. There is no longer any such thing as ‘bare security’.

In particular, vendors and publishers want security from the end user. That’s you! You are not a “trusted” party on your own property. If that sounds insane, that’s because it is. It’s a colossal abuse and bastardisation of every facet of property, agency and freedom established by rule of law in liberal democracies in the last century – and it needs stamping on like the sticky creepy-crawly of cloaked fascism that it is.

By buying proprietary digital products you contribute to this and to literal toxic pollution. Other than childish bragging rights and shallow vanity, what use is an internet connected toaster? Companies have run out of ways to add value to electronic products, so they foist pointless features on buyers. Not only are “smart” features used to spy on you, but also to break products by remote actions. This way you have to buy new ones.

Let’s talk about the priority of sane ecological policy. Reduction is better than reuse, and repair/reuse is better than recycling. We have the options to:

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Politely refuse

These are choices you need to assert to avoid technological tyranny not unlike that of the petroleum and tobacco industries of the last century. Modern digital technologies have a bullying aspect to them. So I have long argued that there is a fourth R we miss, to refuse.

Most of the companies making phones and computers have lost sight of what is good for all our futures. They only want to make and sell more. But we already have enough, and what we have is good enough.

We have departed from rational, informed and voluntary market choices. Technologies are increasingly forced upon us. The benefits are diminishing returns on increasing social and environmental costs. Not buying new digital goods is a rational move for preserving the environment, our mental wellbeing and personal safety.

Breathless language is all around us in the media telling us how overuse of “ubiquitous” technology is “necessary”, “required”,
“essential”, “inevitable”, and a “new normal”. Recognise it as propaganda and marketing from trillion dollar mega-corporations who make their fortunes from technological waste. False rationales like “efficiency” and “security” increasingly proffered are dishonest.

Technology overuse is making us all less efficient and more insecure. More of it won’t help. We need to build better, simpler, less wasteful and more humane technology. Much of that can be achieved by reprogramming hardware that already exists. For example, the circuits from an iPhone3 can make an amazing solar powered web-server, eliminating the carbon footprint of an energy guzzling data-centre rack. Yet most older iPhones are destroyed because they are not easy to reprogram.

So always remember, the first option you have is to refuse. Don’t be suckered into upgrading to new devices, services or software updates designed to exploit your uncertainty about “being left behind”. Does what you have work well enough? If so it should continue to work well enough. If that changes, it means somebody broke it. If that happens, they ought to pay you compensation and fix what they broke, so that it works as you purchased it. As it is, tech companies act like they sold you a house, then come around a month later and smash all your windows. “Oh sorry” they say, “your house isn’t ‘supported’ any longer, you’ll need to buy a new one”.

A massive difference you can make is to only buy electronic goods that will run Free Software. Free Software enables you to have a police force that will stop these hoodlums trespassing on your property and doing criminal damage. When GNU/Linux software such as Debian or PineOS replaces the wasteful proprietary software on your device it also means old computers and phones can be refurbished for use in schools, or simply kept working longer in businesses. That’s great for the environment. So, for the sake of our planet, please stop contributing to e-waste by buying devices that only run bullying proprietary software.

Life on this planet is dying because of things we do. One of those things involves simple choices about what electronic gadgets we buy. E-waste and its relation to proprietary software is a big factor not just in pollution but energy use. Wrongly calling wanton consumption “growth” or “progress” is dishonest. Does your latest iThing really do anything your last one didn’t?

Many countries are implementing legislation to enforce our “Right to repair”. Support this. Insist on more and stronger rights. This is also a right not to forced to waste energy or create pollution. We urgently need to recognise the role of proprietary software, DRM, so called “trusted computing” not just as choice/freedom issues but as direct attacks on the environment. It is a form of pollution.

License

This work is licensed under version 4.0 of the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license. Please share amongst your friends or include on your website.

Bibliography

  • [Dannoritzer14] Cosima Dannoritzer, The E-Waste Tragedy, ARTE, Media 3.14 (2014).
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