In my last blog post, I made a public stink about language in a so-called Declaration of Internet Freedom, which turned out to be some libertarians attempting to expand and develop the ideas in this Declaration of Internet Freedom. Mostly they did pretty well, except for one sentence they got completely wrong: “Open systems and networks aren’t always better for consumers. ”
That’s wrong. Open systems are better, always. Cisco has just provided us with a perfect lesson in why that sentence is completely backwards, and why we can never trust closed-source software vendors not to do evil under the cover of their code secrecy.
For those of you who have missed the news, last a few days Cisco pushed a firmware update to several of its most popular routers that bricked the device unless you signed up for Cisco’s “cloud” service. To sign up, you had to agree to the following restrictions:
When you use the Service, we may keep track of certain information related to your use of the Service, including but not limited to the status and health of your network and networked products; which apps relating to the Service you are using; which features you are using within the Service infrastructure; network traffic (e.g., megabytes per hour); internet history; how frequently you encounter errors on the Service system and other related information (“Other Information”).
So in order to continue using the hardware you bought and paid for and own, you have to agree to let Cisco snoop your browser history and monitor your traffic – a clickstream they would of course instantly turn around and sell to advertising agencies and other snoops. Those terms are so loose (“including but not limited to”) that they could legally read your email and sell that data too.
Disgusted enough yet? Wait, it gets better. The cloud terms of service also includes this gem:
You agree not to use or permit the use of the Service: (i) to invade another’s privacy; (ii) for obscene, pornographic, or offensive purposes; (iii) to infringe another’s rights, including but not limited to any intellectual property rights; (iv) to upload, email or otherwise transmit or make available any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, spam, junk mail or any other form of solicitation; (v) to transmit or otherwise make available any code or virus, or perform any activity, that could harm or interfere with any device, software, network or service (including this Service); or (vi) to violate, or encourage any conduct that would violate any applicable law or regulation or give rise to civil or criminal liability.
Translated out of lawyerese, this gives Cisco the right to brick your router if you use it to view anything Cisco considers pornography, or do anything that it might consider IP theft – like, say, bit-torrenting a movie. Or even if you send anything it considers unsolicited advertising – which doesn’t have to mean bulk spam, see “any other form of solicitation”?
The sum of these paragraphs is: “We control your digital life. We can spy on you, we can filter your traffic, we can cut off your net access unilaterally if you do anything we don’t like, and you have no recourse.”
And why can they do that? Because there’s a blob of closed-source software in that router that you can’t modify, that only Cisco can modify. You don’t own it, it owns you.
When I wrote yesterday of closed source trapping users at the wrong end of an asymmetrical power relationship, that was abstract. This is concrete – this is the shit getting real. This is why anyone who makes excuses for closed source in network-facing software is not just a fool deluded by shiny marketing but a malignant idiot whose complicity with what those vendors do will injure his neighbors as well as himself.
Now, if you have been following the news, maybe you’ve heard that Cisco backed off from the most egregious language in these terms of service under public pressure. Reassured? Don’t be – because Cisco keeps its control of the software and reserves the right to change the terms of service whenever it likes.
Cisco could change the terms of its service to give it even more sweeping and arbitrary privileges at any time. Or Apple could do that, or Microsoft could. The power relationship remains dangerously asymmetrical; the closed source remains their instrument of control over you.
This is why you should demand open source in your router, open source in your operating system, and open source in any application software that is important to your life. Because if you don’t own it, it will surely own you.
This is also why people who make excuses for or actively advocate closed-source OSs and network software (and yes, Apple/iOS fanboys, I’m looking at you) are not merely harmlessly misguided cultists. They are enemies of liberty – enablers and accomplices before the fact in vendor schemes to spy on you, control you, and imprison you. Treat them, and the vendors they worship, accordingly.