by Greg Farough
Reprint from Free Software Foundation
Under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 license
October 5 marks the official release of Windows 11, a new version of the operating system that doesn't do anything at all to counteract Windows' long history of depriving users of freedom and digital autonomy. While we might have been encouraged by Microsoft's vague, aspirational slogans about community and togetherness, Windows 11 takes important steps in the wrong direction when it comes to user freedom.
Microsoft claims that "life's better together" in their advertising for this latest Windows version, but when it comes to technology, there is no surer way of keeping users divided and powerless than nonfree software. Developing non-free software is an inherently antisocial act, for it is intentionally choosing to create an unjust power structure, in which a developer knowingly keeps users powerless and dependent by withholding information. Increasingly, this involves not only withholding the source code itself, but even basic information on how the software works: what it's really doing, what it's collecting, and how often it's snitching on users. "Snitching" may sound dramatic, but Windows 11 will now require a Microsoft account to be connected to every user account, granting them the ability to correlate user behavior with one's personal identity. Even those who think they have nothing to hide should be wary of sharing potentially all of their computing activity with any company, much less one with a track record of abuse like Microsoft.
You may have heard that thousands of machines currently running Windows will not be allowed to upgrade to Windows 11 due to a hardware incompatibility. At first glance this seems like plain old forced obsolescence, but the reality is much more sinister. Windows 11 now requires the use of a small dedicated chip attached to a computer motherboard called a TPM, something which their advertising copy and the mainstream press call a "Trusted Platform Module." This is slightly misleading, as when it's deployed by a proprietary software company, its relationship to the user isn't one based on trust, but based on treachery. When fully controlled by the user, TPM can be a useful way to strengthen encryption and user privacy, but when it's in the hands of Microsoft, we're not optimistic.
We expect Microsoft to use its tighter control on cryptography that happens in Windows as a way to impose more severe Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) onto media and applications, and as a way to ensure that no application can run in Windows without Microsoft's approval. In cases like these, it's no longer appropriate to call a machine running Windows a "personal" computer, as it obeys Microsoft more than it does its user. Indeed, it's bitterly ironic that Microsoft is calling the program that verifies a system's compatibility with Windows 11 a "PC Health Check." We counter that a healthy PC is one that respects its user's wishes, runs free software, and doesn't purposefully restrict them through treacherous computing. It would also never send the user's encryption keys back to its corporate overlords. Intrepid users will likely find a way around this requirement, yet it doesn't change the fact that the majority of Windows users will be forced into a treacherous computing scheme.
Microsoft knows that its "Teams" videoconferencing program isn't the most beloved app in the world, as even users on Windows typically opt for a more popular (though deeply problematic) alternative like Zoom. Now it seems that no Windows user can avoid it any longer, as it's been given an irritatingly central place in the user interface, and is more closely integrated into how Windows manages one's personal contacts. Many video conferencing programs of this type have gained popularity due to the pandemic, yet we hope Teams' unpopularity and its newfound, unwanted place in Windows will encourage users to seek out conferencing programs that they themselves can control.
No program that you're forbidden to copy, modify, or share can truly bring people "together" in the way that Microsoft claims. Thankfully, and right outside the window, there's a true community of users you and your loved ones can join:
What you can do
- Sign (or renew!) your pledge not to use Windows and help a friend install GNU/Linux, sending Microsoft the strong message that software that subjugates its users has no place in Windows.
- You can choose to replace Windows with an operating system made up of free software, such as Trisquel or other distributions of the GNU/Linux operating system.
- If you don't feel ready to take the plunge and switch entirely, you can use our resources like the Free Software Directory to find programs you can use as starting points for your free software journey.
- If you're having difficulties switching to free software, or have advice for how to help others do the same, we hope that you'll take the time to provide us with feedback on the public draft of our freedom ladder campaign.
We hope that you'll take the opportunity to make a major change yourself, by choosing to use and advocate for software that fosters community and cooperation rather than restriction. Let's stop falling for the trap of chasing short-term, superficial improvements in proprietary software that may seem to make life better, and instead opt for free software, the only software that can support the best versions of ourselves.