Brave New Skyping World Revisited

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.

Secondary Arguments

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.

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26 Responses to “Brave New Skyping World Revisited”

  1. Thomas Kahle Says:

    Torsten, thank you for this nice and friendly explanation. It is a very good resource to forward to friends and collegues, I particularly like that it has ‘read on’ links to main-stream media, supporting the arguments. It is always good to have these at hand since many people are skeptical against ‘independent media’.
    Keep it up and good luck for the GA election.

    Thomas

  2. Harry DeLong Says:

    I miss your point since you neither describe how Skype does what you claim, how it intrudes and how it missuses it’s “power”. You neither reference anything except in one case you obliquely mention a country. To me the article wasted my time after being attracted by your claim.

  3. joerg Says:

    You obviously put some thought into your second article. But not a lot
    of research.
    It appears to me, that you don’t want a well thougt out argument. You
    just look for anything that supports your bias against closed source
    software. You are so GNU/indoctrinated, that you see monopolies and
    lock-in everywhere.
    If you want to spread the idea of free software, at least try to be in
    touch with reality. Oh and when you talk about freedom, which you love
    to do, be a bit more specific which freedom you mean (beer, speech,
    religion …).

    Just imagine a world in which almost everybody uses Skype to
    communicate (…)

    Hold it right there. So your whole argument is based on an unlikely
    scenario you just made up. The rest of your argument falls with your
    poorly thought out assumptions.
    Let’s get some facts.
    Skype has a market
    share of about 8 %
    .
    You can make instant messenger to landline calls
    using Yahoo Messenger
    .
    You can use Skype
    withSIP
    .

    Before you talk about Skype having a monopoly define the market
    please. In my opinion it has plenty of competition as an instant
    messenging service, video and audio chat service, and telephone
    service. Feel free to prove it’s otherwise.

    It seems paranoid because it portrays a danger of something really
    bad happening that doesn’t seem likely.

    Selbsterkenntnis ist der erste Schritt zur Besserung. Thanks for
    proving my above point.

    you probably consider misuse in your personal case unlikely. For
    many Chinese Skype users …

    Look it’s the same argument from last time. Skype has to abide by
    Chinese law. It’s up to the Chinese to change these laws.
    This is about lawful interception of communication. This is legal in
    Germany too. The police has to get a warrant and then they can listen
    to your landline, mobile phone, and read your mail. This is nothing
    out of the ordinary.
    That the Austrian government can listen in to Skype communication is
    likely. But please provide some details. Do they have to present a
    warrant to Skype? Or do they install a trojan on the suspects computer
    themselves?

    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.

    There is absolutely no proof that foss is more secure than closed
    source. You just present a theory. The current scientific opinion is
    that it’s about equal.
    Just to get you started:
    http://www.swdsi.org/swdsi07/2007_proceedings/papers/236.pdf
    http://ig.cs.tu-berlin.de/oldstatic/w2003/ir1/uebref/SuhrEtAl-Referat-Handout-G4-012004.pdf
    Audio Interview
    with Greg Hoglund and Gary McGraw, Authors of “Exploiting Software:
    How to Break Code

    http://www.securityfocus.com/columnists/269
    http://techupdate.zdnet.com/techupdate/stories/main/0,14179,2871726,00.html

    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.

    Well can you produce some studies that say otherwise? Have you even
    read this one? The study was done by an independent security expert.
    Not in-house. It contains lots of interesting information regarding
    the encryption and the security model. The low level encryption part
    of the application is most relevant for security purposes. Not the way
    the audio codec or the buddy list works.
    “Skype uses only standard cryptographic primitives to meet its
    ends, which is a sound engineering approach. These primitives include
    the AES block cipher, the RSA public-key cryptosystem, the ISO 9796-2
    signature padding scheme, the SHA-1 hash function,
    and the RC4 stream cipher. I looked at the Skype implementation of
    each of these, and verified that each implementation conforms to its
    standard and interoperates with reference implementations.”

    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.

    Some form of trust is necessary in any form of communication. You
    have to trust your DNS-Server, the Certification Authority, you Jabber
    server (google for man in the middle attacks), your SIP server, you
    apt-get repository maintainers.
    Skype is no more or less trustworthy than other telecommunication companies.

    It is also still true that Skype prevents competition and locks us
    into its service (…)
    I already covered that in my last answer.
    Yes, there is a lock-in. But it’s not strong. The barrier to switch to
    a competitor is very low.

    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.

    Nice. So Skype open their network and other companies can offer calls
    to phones at their own rates. These competitors wouldn’t have to share
    any of the cost of developing the network and software. So they can
    offer rock-bottom prices and undercut Skype’s rates. Skype will go out
    of business pretty soon.

    Skype is denying us essential freedoms because it hopes to make
    more money.

    Skype is not denying you any freedoms at all. This is simply not true.
    What power does Skype have over you personally? There is no
    unalienable right to a working foss video chat software.
    Oh, I get it! Skype denies you access to their source code and
    network, which they built and paid for themselves. How can they?!

    The only way Skype is going to lose marketshare is by competition from
    a better product. Having available source is a feature. Why don’t you
    get a foss Skype-Killer started?

    Your link to http://www.softwareliberty.com/ made me laugh, when I read:
    “Free software is easy to use and technically often superior to
    proprietary (non-free) software.”

    I could write a lot just explaining how wrong this is. Free software
    has nothing to do with usability or quality.

  4. Torsten Says:

    @ Harry DeLong:

    The main point is not that Skype abuses the power it has all the time. The point is much more that it is always able to abuse it without us even knowing and that we should rather use technology that doesn’t give power to one single entity. What happened in China is just one example where we were lucky to find out that Skype did indeed abuse their power. What Microsoft did lately (this blog reported) shows that other companies tend to do the same. We can never be sure that technology isn’t used against us unless we start using and supporting technologies that are not controlled by undemocratic entities.

  5. Lena Says:

    I really like your main arguments. you summed up something really important in just a few sentences. they -of course- don’t only say why one should abstain from skype but from all unfree messaging systems. and i totally agree with you.
    it is really idealistic thinking of yours and it is obvious why people who are a bit closer to reality have difficulies in following. in the end it is a conjuncture of the philosophical question of “how should it be” and the question of how to get there (i mean down-to-earthwise).
    it is not possible to live morally in every single situation and proclaimed radicalism (as in asking people not to use a well working peace of technology) is usually counterproductive, even with good ideas, because it leads to exessive demands and people can be deterred from the subject. this is why it is important to learn how to guide less philosophical people to understand this mainly philosophical question without intimidating them. (and let’s face it: philosophy is just not in everyones highest interest)
    it is a tightrope walk between exemplifications (which make explanations easier but also vulnerable) and the aim to explain the whole issue (which is hard to do in only general terms).
    remember that you are questioning habits which lots of people have come to love. it is important to acquire some sensibility when criticising ;) understanding their point of view is part of this.
    being a philosopher myself i really appreciate your effort.

  6. somebody Says:

    Frankly I would be more interested in technical details than in a general discussion à la open vs. closed source or market monopoly.

    You use the analogy to land lines and anything I say over a land line is not secure and I have no idea who might be listening in, so what is so much worse about Skype?

    Which basically leaves just one argument: that you don’t like Skype – fine with me, there are a lot of companies I don’t like either – but it does provide _one_ way to make free calls, even internationally so why should I stop using it?

  7. Randombernd Says:

    > why should I stop using it?
    You are a freedom hating fascist M$ astroturfer! Open your mind a bit! You are being oppressed by the software you use and depend upon. Don’t you see?
    Thanks for these great articles Torsten! Keep it up!

  8. Hugo Says:

    Thanks Torsten for this article :)
    I would also like to answer jeorg argument (hope you’re reading)

    “ Oh, I get it! Skype denies you access to their source code and
    network, which they built and paid for themselves. How can they?! ”

    Basically, this is where you and we disagree. You think there is nothing to worry about when a company has the capacity to build a wide communication network and have complete control over it. The justification for such a control on people’s communication is: they have the money.

    I think on the contrary that any company should not have control over a wide communication network. Otherwise their would not be any *network neutrality*; which is very important to make sure that freedom of communication is granted to any citizen.

    As far as I’m concerned, this is not about proprietary or free software. The issue is about network neutrality, which is reached by more transparency… and in this matter, Free Software is more likely to achieve transparency than Proprietary Software.

  9. Odin Omdal Hørthe / Velmont Says:

    Thank you for a well written and thorough article.

    All infrastructure should be open, and decentralized and we should strive to not make _anyone_ have too much power. Sadly, it’s like this today – and it’s also sad that so few people seem to understand why freedom is important.

  10. Somebody else Says:

    Granted, Skype is a great piece of software and I prefer it over Windows Live in an instant, but – how would an open standard be inferior to a closed one? How is it that SIP as THE standard be less successful then Skype’s closed standard, while web language specifications/interpreters*/whatever and E-mail are all open standards?

    I think that’s the single nag to me for proprietary connection standards like Skype’s/Windows Live’s/whatever: if the web is going to be open, at least make the whole damn thing open. Otherwise, I don’t really care too much. Well, except Windows Live Messenger is ugly as sin, but I can use an alternative to connect to it anyway…

  11. Somebody else Says:

    *Yes, I know some PHP/SQL/other web language interpreters are proprietary, like Microsoft’s Windows Server….

  12. Ciprian Mustiata Says:

    This arguments anti-skype are just silly. I write those lines from OS X and skype works here. But also in real life, I work on a CAD system, opensource but works only on .NET/Windows. Arguing that FOSS bring the best quality is really dependent of real value that you count on.

    If you argue of your complete freedom, think that most software have a very patented past, and a lot of things can be property to one degree. Do you use an opensourced CPU? Or an opensource GPU? Is much much easier to get the idea of freedom and where to drop the line. For now I use .NET just because Mono cannot replace in that point the other platforms in my expected project costs. Some may argue: use Qt, use Java, use … but all are just talking and talking. And when is it about to fix a bug, for their FOSS software, no one drops a line more than to comment this or that bug. Based on this, I really don’t believe that the CAD I work on will break the AutoCAD world, or CATIA one. The reason is that in many cases (to not say most of them), freedom is as we get all for free without headaches, but rarely we fight for real value that the free software have. Who can work for a real solution to work the Ekiga on OS X? Who can work to make it work the software we blame today as being with low usability.

    Skype is broken as OS X is: is closed source, no more no less.

  13. Sebin Abraham Jacob (sebinaj) 's status on Monday, 05-Oct-09 17:29:10 UTC - Identi.ca Says:

    [...] New Skyping http://freedom-blog.net/2009/05/19/brave-new-skyping-world-revisited/ [...]

  14. Freedom Blog » Blog Archive » Ten Reasons Why You Should Boycott Skype Says:

    [...] Update: In response to some criticism in the comments, I wrote the follow-up article Brave New Skyping World Revisited. [...]

  15. Michael A. Kesper (mkesper) 's status on Wednesday, 04-Nov-09 15:54:18 UTC - Identi.ca Says:

    [...] Still very good reasons why you should not use skype: http://freedom-blog.net/2009/05/19/brave-new-skyping-world-revisited/ [...]

  16. Björn Schießle (schiessle) 's status on Wednesday, 04-Nov-09 17:18:16 UTC - Identi.ca Says:

    [...] RD @mkesper Still very good reasons why you should not use #skype: http://freedom-blog.net/2009/05/19/brave-new-skyping-world-revisited/ [...]

  17. hugo’s blog » Bye bye Skype, here comes XMPP! Says:

    [...] far, we already had excellent reasons to refuse using Skype. Indeed, this protocol is closed, but most of all it doesn’t allow any interoperability, [...]

  18. Die verwirrende Masche der Mubilfunkverträge - oder - Wie man die Vorteile des Kapitalismus nutzen kann, ohne sich mit den dummen Nachteilen, wie Wettbewerb und so, rumärgern zu müssen. « lena’s blog Says:

    [...] bereits darauf, sie darüber aufzuklären, dass Skype nur eine Variante von Voice over IP und noch nicht mal die beste ist) auch mit diesem Tarif verboten sei. Nach meiner Frage nach Deep Packet Inspection musste ich [...]

  19. John Smith Says:

    Here is a link for every one who wants to know the technical details about skype:
    http://www.secdev.org/conf/skype_BHEU06.pdf

  20. Andrew Says:

    Skype kills my laptop, it eats the battery, slows it down and causes it to over heat. Its like the Windows ME debacle all over again.

  21. Cloud Computing « Torsten’s FSFE blog Says:

    [...] Internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype became popular, I began to think about their political implications, especially about how they [...]

  22. sigmundo Says:

    “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.”

    that’s it! i don’t use skype, google or facebook. why should i? what scares me even more then the accumulating power of these monopolists is how the masses of thoughtless people use them and get in the hype about it…

  23. sigmundo Says:

    i now was encouraged to skype with a friend who is abroad. after informing myself and bringing out my critics i was called a negative anti-social complicated paranoid, who doesn’t really want to contact with good people. that’s really scaring. besides the hurt…

  24. Torsten Says:

    Yes sigmundo, unfortunately standing up for freedom is most of the time very hard. Especially when deciding against services that use social lock-in to take away your freedom, you’ll find it hard to resist the temptation to not put your social relations at risk.

  25. weird magiskee-session and some featherweight magic stones « Says:

    [...] often celebrates simultanious exhibitions all over the planet, and as we all don’t like this skype-hype we were lucky to have a talented guy here to manage a kinda magic open-source-alternative [...]

  26. Steve Says:

    I was forced to use Skype by Microsoft. I used to use Instant Messenger and strictly used it to send and receive short messages to collegues. I don’t need or want to use Skype to call or see anybody. Using Skype is a nightmare. There is nothing instant about it. Nobody ever sees the tiny bouncing icon in their tray as soon as it arrives and sometimes I don’t get responses for hours. With IM, I would get responses back in minutes. Now I have to search for another instant messenger service. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to constantly research and relearn the ever changing and expanding monster we call the internet. I wish I could walk away from it and say “you can have it”. But unfortunately, it is now a necessary evil.