Moving to More Ethical Software

Nate Berkopec

Lately, I've been thinking about being a more ethical consumer of software. Much in the same way that I've been thinking about becoming a more ethical consumer of food, especially meat, I'm starting to believe I have a responsibility to use my small market power as a consumer to support the production of ethical software.

More ethical software use generally means that:

  • I should be using more free and open source equivalents to existing services I use.
  • I should not support companies that produce software through abusive working conditions.
  • I should not support companies that support odious political regimes or goals.
  • I should support companies that allow me to see the data they're keeping on my behalf.
  • Where simple and easy, I should host my own services (as Stallman would say, to "do my own computing").

I think these principles generally line up with how I try to live my life otherwise: I try to minimize my harm to others, maximize how much I am helping others, and to live a life where I'm not being exploited for someone else's gain. Software now plays such a massive role in our lives that while in the past we may have felt that the choice of software we use wasn't an ethically meaningful decision, it now surely is. When you choose to use Google in spite of their obvious lack of respect for your personal privacy, you are implicitly supporting the creation of more software that destroys attention, privacy, and creates a corporate surveillance state. I would like to instead support software that moves us away from that direction.

I'm not striving for a Platonic ideal of perfect free software-dom, where even my bootloader and every piece of software running on my machine is FSF-approved. I just want to be moving in the right direction, with each passing month meaning I'm using a more ethical software stack than I was the month before.

I prefer this "marginal gains" approach, because it's simply more realistic, and it also allows me to progress slowly while making tradeoffs against convenience and feature set. We all know the reason why unethical software is often widely used - it's usually quite good. I want to lose as little of this software's utility as possible when switching to a more ethical alternative. Doing this incrementally makes it much easier to manage this tradeoff.

This blog post serves as something of an inventory and a log of my current "software stack", and includes my personal ethical evaluation of each service or piece of software and a list of alternatives I'm considering, if any.

My Personal Software Stack

  • Email

    Current: Gmail

    Really not happy with this one. Google reads all your mail and sends what you're reading to advertisers.

    Alternatives: YunoHost

    I'm running my own mailserver through yunohost and will probably sync my old emails over.

  • Email client

    Current: Superhuman

    Superhuman's tracking policy is pretty abhorrent.

    Alternatives: Thunderbird

    Really, Superhuman is just an email client with good shortcuts. I can reproduce these shortcuts in another client. On my phone I'll probably just use Mail.

  • Social

    Current: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit
    Alternative: Mastodon

    There are some options for federating ones content from Twitter to Mastodon that I should be trying. Alternatives to Reddit are mostly filled with racists. Deleting my Facebook account seems plausible.

  • GTD

    Current: Todoist

    Great but closed-source.

    Alternatives:

    Perhaps something custom? I have a weird idea for a todo app that uses plaintext files as the database. The only hard problem about todo apps is syncing. Everything else isn't hard at all.

  • RSS

    Current: The Old Reader
    Alternatives: FreshRSS, Tiny Tiny RSS

    Self-hosted via Yunohost. Could even build my own w/Ruby?

  • Calendar

    Current: Google
    Alternatives: Nextcloud

    Seems the obvious solution here via Nextcloud Hub.

  • Browser

    Current: Firefox
    Alternatives:

    I don't find Brave's pitch very compelling, so I'll probably stick with Mozilla for now.

  • Browser (Mobile)

    Current: Safari
    Alternatives: Firefox

    I tried this a while ago and it wasn't great. I'll have to try again.

  • Password Manager

    Current: Bitwarden

    I'm happy with Bitwarden. Next step will be to host my own Bitwarden server on Yunohost.

  • E-Reader

    Current: Kindle
    Alternatives: Remarkable 2, ?

    Anything that's not Amazon is probably better, even if it isn't Free

  • Podcasts

    Current: Podcast.app
    Alternatives:

    Tough. All iOS podcatchers are proprietary.

  • Operating System (Desktop)

    Current: Mac
    Alternatives:

    I'm investigating dual-booting Linux

  • Operating System (Mobile)

    Current: iOS
    Alternatives

    Tough again. Android not exactly "free" and a big downgrade in UX IMO.

  • Music

    Current: Apple Music
    Alternatives: Airsonic, Funkwhale

    There seem to be a few host-your-own collectors nowadays. Buying music seems harder.

  • Document Management

    Current: Google Suite
    Alternatives: Nextcloud/Onlyoffice
  • Filesharing

    Current: S3 Bucket
    Alternatives: Jirafeau, Lutim
  • Personal Finance

    Current: Google Docs
    Alternatives: Kresus
  • Backups

    Current: Backblaze
    Alternatives:
  • Search

    Current: DuckDuckGo
    Alternatives: searx