We Need Organic Software29 November 2020
Much of the technology we use everyday has been shown to not serve their users best interest. Apple has been shown to snoop on how you use your computer, Facebook has broken every expectation of privacy of its users and your information is being collected without your knowledge and consent, only to be leaked, as shown by the Equifax scandal.
Most people don’t want to pay for the software they use, so companies have to resort to alternative methods of monetizing their applications. They monetize your data, capture your attention with ads to get you to buy more stuff you don’t need. They use every trick in the book to spy on you, to sell you more of their products.
One of the purposes of the EU cookie laws, was to have businesses notify their customers that they are tracking them. They probably expected companies to choose not to track people, and in exchange, they would not have to show cookie banners. This is not what happened. Everywhere you go, you are faced with cookie pop-ups.
Once you’ve dismissed that cookie banner, they popup a dialog asking you for your email address, so that they can send you ads. Next, they ask you for permission to send you notifications, to capture your future attention. Some use dark patterns to get users to inadvertently do things they would not intentionally do. The thing is, there isn’t money in just getting the job done, and then simply getting out of the way. You don’t win arguments in product design meetings by saying it’s right for the user. You win by arguing how it’s going to help the company make more money.
Some people opt to only use free open-source software. Open-source software is fully transparent. Anyone can go in to check what the software actually does below the surface. The problem with that ecosystem is that there is little money in it. It’s very hard to build a competitive edge if the recipe for your product is out in plain sight. Fewer investments are made, less people end up contributing and you are left with inferior products. You end up paying a significant cost for the idealism.
What we need is a pragmatic middle ground. In agriculture, there is organic farming. Farmers choose to restrict what they do, in order to do what’s good long term for the environment and their customers. The practices include, for example, not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, not processing the food with additives and higher standards for livestock among others. People are willing to pay a premium for produce that is made in this way.
Imagine if there was a standard for organic software. Software that is free of all the bad stuff. Examples of the bad stuff include:
- Collecting and storing data that does not serve the user. E.g. to target ads or build user profiles
- Sending data to a server to do something that could have been done client-side
- Not using encryption where it would help preserve privacy and would not make things harder for the user
- Sharing data with third parties for non-essential purposes
- Monetizing data by sharing it with third parties – anonymized or not
- Not clearly communicating what the software is doing
- Using tricks to capture your attention: unnecessary notifications, emails and pop-ups
These are just some examples.
Imagine if a company could opt to have their products audited. If they passed the test, they would be allowed to sell their product as organic or clean software.
Simply banning certain practices, won’t solve the problem. Companies will just do the bare minimum and work their way around the rules. For sustainable change, the incentives of users, the environment, companies and society have to align. There should be transparency into what a piece of software is doing. Consumers should have a choice. To get there, we need to slightly morph the incentive landscape to help companies afford to do the right thing.
Would you pay a premium for software that uniquely serves you? Would you pay more for an email client that doesn’t call home and has been audited for being clean? I know I would.