Many of the application programs and online services we use are designed to maximize profit at the expense of the user. Online services collect and share large amounts of user data with advertisers, data brokers and government entities. Developers of software applications use restrictive license agreements to prevent the user from modifying them and to limit the user's legal recourse in the case of wrongdoing on the part of the developer. Centralized services and their users are vulnerable to censorship.
Many applications and online services collect large amounts of data on the user and their device, such as IP addresses, unique identifiers, browser and operating system information and browsing history. This data can be used to build detailed profiles on users and is used by companies such as Google for targeted advertising. There is often no way for the user to opt out of or limit this tracking. Domestic and foreign government entities can obtain user data without a court order through laws such as the PATRIOT Act, or purchase bulk user data from data brokers. Similar tracking data is also used by social media algorithms to select content to be displayed to the user. These algorithms can be manipulated in order to spread disinformation and other objectionable or harmful content.
Restrictive license agreements are used to prevent the user from modifying the software to remove unwanted functionality or otherwise suit their needs. These license agreements often include provisions such as requiring the user to waive their right to litigation or class action suits, or to indemnify the developer even in cases where the developer is at fault. Some applications use proprietary formats which cannot easily be used by alternative programs or are encumbered by software patents, reducing interoperability. This leads to self-perpetuating market dominance, such as in the case of Windows or Photoshop, creating monopolies within their areas of use. Some companies such as Apple use this non-interoperability to facilitate 'walled garden' systems of software and hardware designed to be compatible with other products from the same vendor, but not from other vendors. Proprietary software is often used to prevent piracy of digital media such as TV shows and games in the form of DRM. These DRM schemes are not 100% failsafe and often do not stop the dissemination of pirated copies. DRM can be burdensome for the user, requiring them to always be connected to the internet or preventing fair use of the media. Ironically some users resort to piracy in order to avoid these issues.
Many online services rely on centralized servers controlled by one entity. User content can be subject to censorship either by the service provider or by a third party such as a government or ISP. User accounts can be disabled at any time or for any reason, often causing loss of uploaded user data.
Some people argue that these restrictions are necessary in order to incentivize the development of software and operation of online services, but this is not always true. Many software projects exist which are published under licenses intended to give the user the freedom to use the software as they please, called Free Software. The user has the freedom to modify the software using the provided source code, and share it without restriction provided they do so under the same or an equivalent license. The 'free' in Free Software refers to this freedom, and not all Free Software is distributed free-of-charge.
Notable free software projects include the Linux kernel, GNU and the many operating systems built around them; web browsers such as Firefox and Chromium; specialized software such as LibreOffice and Blender; and many others which aim to replicate the functionality of their proprietary counterparts, or serve an entirely new purpose. Some Free Software enables the user to host internet services on their own devices or participate in decentralized social media and communication networks such as Matrix and the Fediverse. These decentralized networks are significantly more immune to censorship or failure due to technical problems.
Because Free Software is open-source and therefore anyone can audit the code for bugs and contribute fixes, Free Software is often more secure than proprietary software. Unwanted functionality such as tracking is rarely found in Free Software for this same reason, and can be removed when it is. Many people use Free Software without even realizing it. OBS is Free Software used by content creators to record and stream things from their screens and webcams. The majority of web servers run some form of Linux and other Free Software such as the Apache web server.
One can reclaim their digital freedom by trying Free Software alternatives to the programs they use on a daily basis. Most Free Software is offered free-of-charge and there is no risk to trying it out. It is even possible to try entire Free Software operating systems without any commitment using a virtual machine, and many can be installed alongside existing operating systems such as Windows in a configuration called a dual boot. Decentralized communication and social media such as Mastodon and Matrix are easy to join and there are already large communities ready to help out new users. By using Free Software and telling others about it you can strengthen the communities around it and help user-first computing grow!