Why Your Browser Needs a Freedom Upgrade

Tue, 9 Jul 2024

The web, a platform for sharing and connecting, has a hidden truth. JavaScript and WebAssembly have enabled developers to distribute programs to your browser, turning it into a platform for running software you have little control over. This lack of power is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed.

The web has become an app store, but not the kind you might think. It's not filled with neatly packaged programs you consciously choose to download. Instead, it's a chaotic landscape of JavaScript and WebAssembly code that websites push to your browser, often without your explicit consent or knowledge.

Alexandre Oliva aptly calls this the " WWWorst App Store." Why? Because, unlike traditional app stores, this one operates with minimal user control. Websites silently deliver executable code to your browser without any oversight or transparency, and in doing so, they dictate what software runs on your machine, when it updates, and how it uses your data.

Some might argue that tools like LibreJS can filter out the non-free software. But that's like saying you're safe from junk food as long as you stay away from the refrigerator. The problem runs deeper. The problem is more than just about the software or the licensing; it's the lack of control. Should random websites be able to send code to be executed on your device without your informed decision? Some call remote code execution a security hole, but it's touted as a feature in this context. And when a website sends you code to execute, shouldn't you have the right to inspect, modify, or even replace it with your version? Of course, you should - the free software movement's four freedoms tell us that we should have this level of control over the software running on our computers.

A fundamental shift in how web browsers handle this issue is needed. Imagine if all software using JavaScript or WebAssembly were free. Then, imagine if your browser had a built-in feature that allowed you to:

  • Download the source code for those programs.
  • Run your versions of these JavaScript and WebAssembly programs. Users should have all four freedoms to modify and execute their customized versions.
  • Choose when and how to update: Automatic updates can be convenient but shouldn't be mandatory. Users should have the final say on when and if their software changes.

Some web developers might be surprised to learn that users want control over the software running on their computers, but it's a fundamental right for users, and this shift is necessary to restore user control over the software being used. We should be free to control the software we use, whether from our distro's package manager or being delivered through a web browser. This change is essential for restoring user autonomy and aligning with the principles of software freedom. By giving users the tools to run their versions, we can break free from the WWWorst App Store and create a web that truly serves its users.

While we wait for browsers to catch up and deliver these freedom upgrades, there are other steps you can take:

Speak up: Demand that browser developers prioritize user control and implement features that enable users to run their versions. The web is for everyone, not just those who want to control people's digital lives by having them run whatever random software they decide to serve out. Demand that browsers give us the tools we need to take back control of the software on our computers.

Spread the word: Raise awareness about the WWWorst App Store and the importance of software freedom on the web.

Demand better treatment from websites: Let websites know you want alternative access options or delivery methods for the apps they're sending you.

As users, we must reject the current abusive practices and demand better. Browser developers, it's time to step up and give users the control they deserve. Let's create a web that empowers, not exploits.

The future of the web is in our hands, and it's time for a freedom upgrade. Let's build a web that respects our freedom and gives us the web that we deserve, not the one we ended up with.