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When Free Software Isn’t Free

Wowie-zowie! How truly great is Windows, which offers up so much fun stuff we never get to see running Linux.

Yesterday while searching through tech sites looking for articles to use on our Facebook feed, I ran across a review of a free utility application for Windows. The program, Toolbar Cleaner, basically aids the user in removing unnecessary programs that might be slowing a Windows machine down, such as toolbars and browser plugins and extensions. Need I mention that most toolbars were probably installed by other free programs for Windows?


Reviewing the product for PCWorld was Mark O’Neill, who thought this program was as peachy keen as it gets. Not only would it remove toolbars and plugins for those who couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves, it would also let the user tick away anything unwanted that’s scheduled to run at start-up, even though it offered no hints about which apps might be necessary and which are not.

Golly gee, doesn’t that sound just great? Then he explained that the user would need to be careful when installing the program, as a click-through default install might make some changes in the system settings:

“During the installation process, the app will try to change your browser homepage as well as install something called an “anti-phishing domain advisor” (more on that later). You can easily bypass these by unchecking them before proceeding, but an unalert user with their eye on something else at the time may totally miss it. So concentrate on the installation; otherwise, you will have something else to uninstall later.”

As to the Domain Advisor, O’Neill later had this to say:

“You might think it ironic that a program dedicated to removing bloatware is trying to install some of its own. However, I checked with developer Visicom Media, and they told me that Anti-Phishing Domain Advisor is actually a security application that they develop for Lavasoft (makers of Ad-Aware) and Panda Security. The Anti-Phishing feed, which comes from Panda Security servers, is updated several times per hour. The developer was keen to point out that installation is not obligatory.”

Now let’s get serious for a moment.

This clearly illustrates why most of the free proprietary binary downloads for Windows, available on sites like ZDNet (one of my favorite sites–don’t blame them, they’re just supplying a service), are not free at all in the sense that FOSS is free. They’re not free as in speech. At best, they’re free beer–and almost always, not very good beer at that.

Last summer I wrote about some experiences I had with ZoneAlarm, a free firewall for Windows that attempted to install a toolbar during upgrade and which did install pieces of the toolbar that had to be removed manually, even when told that no toolbar was wanted. As well, every browser’s search setting was reset to send search queries to ZoneAlarm’s own search page.

My experience with “free” programs for Windows is that such shenanigans are business as usual, and justified by the fact there is no charge for the software and a buck has to be made somehow. The old saying, “there’s no such thing a free lunch,” is defined by such bad behavior.

It’s hard for me to understand how these software vendors survive. I also can’t fathom how people can trust a program that tries to trick its user into installing something not wanted and changing system settings without asking permission first.

Do you want free beer or free speech?

In the FOSS world, such behavior would not be tolerated. All FOSS software is free to use, will never try to trick users into installing something else and will not make changes to your system without seeking your permission first.

Like proprietary freeware, FOSS is downloaded and installed for free. [FOSS isn't always offered free of charge - see comments below the article.] FOSS applications are available for every platform, from Unix and Linux to OSX and Windows. The program running this website is FOSS, as is the operating system on the computer serving it.

With freeware, the software vendor decides what price the user pays for running the software, such as the arbitrary changing of settings so the vendor can generate revenue from the user’s Google search results. With FOSS, the user decides. Some users may write checks to help pay development costs for some of their favorite programs. Others with knowledge of coding, might get involved and help with the creation and maintenance of FOSS apps. Still others may write about FOSS or help people install and maintain Linux on their personal computers.

Free and open source software, FOSS, puts you in control. That’s a good thing.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

11 comments to When Free Software Isn’t Free

  • Brian

    And now even Ubuntu is going down this road with the whole Amazon search results thing…

  • Never have I thought the term “captive” was more appropriate to proprietary software than when it’s proprietary freeware. Never is that stuff made or released as a labor of love, but only ever as a loss leader.

  • [...] When Free Software Isn’t Free Reviewing the product for PCWorld was Mark O’Neill, who thought this program was as peachy keen as it gets. Not only would it remove toolbars and plugins for those who couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves, it would also let the user tick away anything unwanted that’s scheduled to run at start-up, even though it offered no hints about which apps might be necessary and which are not. [...]

  • Ive given up on the term free in the english years ago because of the limitation that it has that other languages dont.

    That why I prefer to use FLOSS instead of FOSS, the “libre’ part helps differentiate from the ‘gratis’ version especially if Im talking to a non-Linux crowd in english.

    And by the way as if this language foible didnt make things complicated enough, never forger that Free/Libre software does NOT have to be gratis. You can charge for GPLed if you want, even the FSF says so (as long as you respect the copyleft license).

    Which is why I think your last paragraph is misleading: voluntary contribution is NOT the only way you can pay. (yes, its the most common way)
    If someone created a FLOSS program and decided to charge 10 or 10,000 $ for it, they can put it on an online store and charge you exactly like if you bought Photoshop (something that the majority of those users havent done). you can have a physical copy of this software in your big box stores and charge exorbitant prices. All totally legal in FLOSS as long as you respect the conditions of the license.

  • i wanted to leave a second reply to Brian, I typed a nice post, filled the captcha and it says possible spambot.
    So I go back, thinking I can just change the contact info and it erased everything I wrote!!!

    Beyond annoying. Dont feel like redoing it.

  • @Hans Grubar – Yep. You can charge anything you want for FOSS/FLOSS. I realized that discrepancy just as we were getting ready to publish this. I thought about removing that line, but wanted to keep the point across that FOSS is just as free, expense wise, as so-called freeware. And even if someone’s offering a GPL application for a fee, you’ll be able to find it offered without cost soon after it’s released, due to the nature of the GPL, so in a roundabout way, I can still stand behind what I wrote. But your point is valid, and I’m glad you brought that up here.

    As to the FOSS/FLOSS thing – I’m pretty agnostic about that. We started by differentiating ourselves from “open source software” or OSS by adding the word “free” or FOSS. I figure if you want to continue defining that down by adding more letters, go for it. In my book FOSS and FLOSS are the same thing, free software as defined by RMS and the FSF. We both know what we’re talking about. Anybody who doesn’t, the redundant Free Libre isn’t going to be what brings and aha to him/her.

  • @ggg I’m sorry you had a problem. Comment spambots are something that have been particularly worrisome here recently, so we’ve had to tighten security to keep from being overwhelmed. We’re trying to make it as seemless as possible for our visitors, but sometimes things happen. Again, sorry. I, for one, would liked to have read your comment.

  • I don’t really understand what FLOSS software have to do with such tricks.

    “In the FOSS world, such behavior would not be tolerated.”

    Is there some kind of FOSS police? Who will not tolerate such behaviour? Will I get a letter from Stallman because he was not paying attention and some
    toolbar was installed?

    As a developer I’m free to do such tricks and put toolbars and what-not in my software to make a buck. That have nothing to do with FOSS. The only difference it makes is that with FOSS you are free to fork my software and remove the tricks and toolbars I put.

    Such mixing of terms does not really do any good for FOSS. Many companies still think that FOSS means no money. Now, using Linux for more then 2 years I understand what you are meaning. That FOSS software is usually high quality, free and without any tricks and toolbars.

    But there is nothing that is stopping Visicom Media to develop their Toolbar Cleaner under a FLOSS license, and still bring the Anti-Phishing Domain Advisor for the ride.

  • Erwin Muller: Well, it’s not a defined property of Free/Open Source software. But it’s an emergent property for practical purposes. Open source communities don’t make software like that, open source users don’t download it because they have available stuff that doesn’t do such annoying things and so they don’t have to. If such software were developed, distributions wouldn’t put it in their repositories–or, if some distro did that, users would shift away to other distros.
    No, it’s not in the GPL that people can’t do that–but it’s like a recipe for chocolate cake that includes liver in the ingredients. When people are free to share and improve recipes, they don’t include the liver in iterations 2+.

  • David Kastrup

    And yet another article confusing “free as in free beer” with “free as in free speech”:
    “Like proprietary freeware, FOSS is downloaded and installed for free.”

    Wrong. You can download a lot of FOSS for free, but that is not at all a defining property but merely something that is easy to make happen. For example, you can’t currently download RHEL for free IIRC (you _can_ download its clone CentOS, though).

  • [...] When Free Software Isn’t Free by Chris Hall, Fossforce.com, Jan. 10th, 2013. [...]