A vigilant reader of my blog challenged my earlier criticism of Skype thoroughly and even though I felt his remarks could have been tempered a bit, here is my thoughtful response. I am very thankful for all of the comments I receive and encourage more people to express their opinions here. It is only when our opinions are constantly challenged, are we forced to rethink them and are less likely to believe in aged and false dogmas. Below I intend to counter the main points of his argument, but only after I have refashioned and strengthened my main argument.
The Main Argument Against Skype
Skype’s software and service are already used by an increasing number of internet users, evidenced by the existence of the verb “to skype”. If it is not yet the de-facto standard for internet based communication, it is very close to become it. This assumption is very important to understand when you are talking about Skype. The closed nature of it’s service and the fact that more and more people are using it exclusively forces other people to use it. Social pressure is created to make them join. Most people will join eventually and those that don’t join could end up as outcasts, cut off from the mainstream. Just imagine a world in which almost everybody uses Skype to communicate and only a small elite is able communicate freely because it has set up their own communication infrastructure. I don’t want to live in such a world. That’s why I wrote the previous text. It was intended as a warning. It was intended to be a small counter balance against Skype’s power. My goal is to get people thinking and eventually to stop Skype from taking over the (internet) world.
In this light, the analogy of Skype as an almighty telephone and mail company might make more sense. It was chosen to give non-technical readers an idea of what Skype is or might become. Like telephone and mail companies, it delivers text and voice based communications. It is almighty in the sense that it owns the entire infrastructure and has total control over all communications and their contents. It owns the mailboxes, decides who is allowed to mail letters, whose letters are delivered and whose letters are opened, copied and archived. Free communication is essential for a democracy to function successfully. Skype is about to endanger free communication.
The argument that was sketched so far might appear to be very abstract and even paranoid. It is indeed abstract, but nonetheless important to point out and discuss. It seems paranoid because it portrays a danger of something really bad happening that doesn’t seem likely. To see why the argument can not simply be dismissed as paranoid, consider the following explanation.
Many nations have set up their political structure in a way that makes it very hard for somebody to misuse the power of the state. It may or may not be likely that misuse happens, but some nation’s systems had structural weaknesses and people were able to gain and misuse power that they were not supposed to have. Everybody will certainly agree that it is important to have a stable governmental system where there are checks and balances to make abuse of political power as difficult as possible. I argue that it is also important to set up our technical infrastructure in a similar way that does not allow abuse. This becomes even more important as technology plays a vital role in more and more parts of our lives.
Maybe the technology will never be misused (in such a way that it would cause severe problems for society). But why should we take the risk? If we have the possibility to create and use a technology that no single entity can control and misuse, why not do it? If we allow companies to control our technical infrastructure and grant them the ability to use it against us whenever they like, then we take an unnecessary risk for the sake of convenience. Nobody knows how the world will change in a few years, how some governments evolve and who will be in control of Skype then. Freedom isn’t something that magically exists forever. Freedom has to be constantly fought for. If you stop fighting for it, you might lose it sooner than you think.
Why Not Just Using Skype Anyway
It is true that most free alternatives to Skype lack behind in terms of functionality and simplicity. Using Skype is just easier, convenient. If you use it, you just surrender control over all your communication you make with it. This is something you might be able to live with, because you probably consider misuse in your personal case unlikely. For many Chinese Skype users this is not unlikely anymore and shows that Skype is already misusing its power leading to the imprisonment of people whose only crime is to think differently.
But by using Skype you not only give up your freedom, you also become personally responsible for weakening democratic structures in technology and more important in society. You stay in this system, implicitly signaling your friends that it is ok to stay in. You are giving them no incentive to switch to a free system. If everybody just uses Skype, nobody will improve and work on free alternatives. The more people don’t use Skype, the more people will support free alternatives and help making them as convenient as Skype. If you don’t stop using Skype, why should anybody else? If everybody is just waiting for others to prevent Skype from locking us all in, nobody is going to rescue us.
Another thing you could do is not to use the term “(to) skype”. I generally dislike that company or product names go over in ordinary language, but in this case you are not just helping people to buy certain products. By using skype as a verb you support a specific technology that is dangerous to society and that should not be used by anyone.
Some of my other arguments said that Skype is insecure, gets around our firewall and is unreliable. Getting around our firewall is actually a feature and I was wrong using it as an argument against Skype. It is also true that other programs might be insecure and unreliable, too. But that doesn’t make Skype more secure or more reliable. With free alternatives to Skype we have at least the option to make them more secure and reliable ourselves. Be it by kindly asking programmers to make improvements or by directly paying some programmers for it or by organizing a fund-raising for this purpose.
We as a society also have the possibility to check what free software alternatives to Skype actually do on our computers. We can also let independent security specialists analyze free software. We can not do this with Skype. And one single in-house study that didn’t even look at higher level code from the year 2005 can not replace this. In fact, Skype’s security still relies on the principle security by obscurity that was proven wrong so many times already. It might even be possible that third parties already can eavesdrop on Skype conversations as the Austrian government claims. Of course nothing is a 100% secure, but at least we would have the ability to make things as secure as we want instead of relying on Skype to make their program as secure and reliable as they chose to.
It is also still true that Skype prevents competition and locks us into its service by allowing no competitors on their closed network and by using locked down non-free software. One counter argument was that there would be no business model for Skype if they would set their software free and open up their network. This is not true. If Skype were to make profit it would solely make it through paid calls to landlines and cell phones. Freeing their software and opening up their network wouldn’t prevent them from doing the same. All it would do is allowing competitors to enter their market. Maybe Skype would even make less money then. But this is not our problem. Skype is denying us essential freedoms because it hopes to make more money. I don’t see any reason why we should tolerate this. If they can not do business without giving their customers freedom, they should reconsider their business plan.
A similar argument applies to the justification of Skype’s censorship and eavesdropping. It was claimed that Skype has to respect Chinese law, if they want to do business there. This might be true. But why should we trust a company that is obviously willing to spy on their customers just to stay in business in a certain market. If they do it in China, what should prevent them from doing it in your country as well?
Most of these arguments were all secondary, but they might be easier to understand, so I was focusing on them in my earlier article. This was maybe a mistake and I hope that this article clears things up a bit and might convince some people to stop using Skype.