This is a planscript, i.e., a "transcript" of a hypothetical "ideal" presentation (i.e., according to plan) of the speech with this title.

I suggest reading it while following the slides. In the PDF there are links on images and terms to read more.

Software Enshittification or Freedom? It's not a hard choice!

Hello, Free World! (It's LibrePlanet, after all)

I'm Alex, and I'm here to introduce you to CRAPPY. That's an acronym for Comically-Rendered Angry Pile of Poo, Yeah. Or Yuck. It's going to be the lead character in this presentation.

I thank you all for your interest, my colleagues at FSF Latin America for the endorsement, and the original FSF for the opportunity to be here.

The QR code in the first and last pages of the slides takes you to a digital copy of the slides, from which you can read the freedom-respecting licensing terms, and follow the links to the corresponding sources and to other references.


I'm going to talk about enshittification of software, of the world wide web, and of the devices you may think of as yours. Enshittification is becoming a problem everywhere (thanks to Diane for the meme!), and so I'm then going to speak about how to fight back.


The term was coined early last year by New York Times Bestselling Author Cory Doctorow (that's now his full name), in the context of online platforms, and it was so successful in describing a problem everyone can relate to that it got recognized as word of the year 2023.

The way it works is that an online service provider starts out by offering a service that is appealing to its prospective victims, whether gratis users or paying customers such as advertisers or retailers, and then, when they're locked in, the provider changes de deal, Darth Vader style, reconfiguring the service so that the value previously provided to users or customers could now be extracted for profit, turning honey into, well, poo[h].

To me, that's bait and switch, because they offer one service first, and then start offering a different one, but because it still holds the same name, and the transition is often in small steps, it's seldom identified as such.

Cory says, and I agree, that enshittification is an irresistible strategy for the providers. Every day, the CEO of such companies comes to work and pushes the enshittification lever to the maximum they reasonably can. Services will get enshittified unless we organize to keep those levers very low, to make pushing them further an unreasonable move.

Cory also suggests that enshittification is the process by which online platforms die. If that is so, there's not much for us to worry about, right? Just sit back and wait, and the problem will solve itself.

Software (industry) enshittification

Whether or not that is the case for online platforms, it's definitely not the case for software. The software industry has been undergoing enshittification at multiple layers for several decades, long before the term was even coined.

I'm told enough to remember the time when computers were made to be obedient to their users, taking their instructions and commands and just carrying them out.

But then came nonfree software, the original sin that enabled software enshittification. Machines with builtin malware would soon follow. These are very bad to begin with, but since it gets so much worse, I'm grading these practices with 2 crappies of enshittifiability, an assessment of the enshittification potential of a certain practice.

The next step in the history of enshittification of software that I wish to highlight was the introduction of mandatory updates. Some may worry that they could bring backdoors, but really, when someone out there can impose updates onto your computers, that's already a universal backdoor to take control over your computing. So this gets 3 crappies.

More recently, we've seen systems with exclusive app stores. Exclusive means that other possibilities are ruled out. You can only install and run on your computer software approved by a certain third party. You can't get it from friends, you can't even write your own programs. So, 4 crappies.

The last nail in the coffin of your computing freedom is when the supplier can remotely remove your ability to run a version of a program that you used to be able to run on your computer, very much like someone's sneaking into your digital library and taking away all copies of Orwell's 1984. That gets 5 crappies.

The potential for enshittification has greatly intensified over time.

Software (static) enshittification

Back in the time when most users could choose which version of a program they wanted to run, upgrading software was not something that happened automagically. Installing a program involved getting a copy of its installable media, and if you wanted to install a newer version, you had to get a copy of the installable media for the newer version.

You could install them side by side, and if you found that the newer version was lacking some feature important to you, or it didn't serve you well, you could roll back to the older version.

This created a scenario in which the old and the new versions competed for users, so in order for the newer version to gain adoption, it had to be more attractive to users than the older one. It had to offer more interesting features, and if it dropped features or engaged in enshittification, it would need even more interesting features to make up.

This limits how much enshittification can be imposed on users in newer versions. It was much harder to pull feature from under users in that static arrangement.

Software (dynamic) enshittification

But now most users are mistreated with imposed updates, and since they are required to be online all the time, they are vulnerable all the time, and they can't go back to an earlier version that served them well. The following are the most enshittifiable arrangements to offer computing facilities to users. Most enshittifiable so far, Homer Simpson would presumably point out.

Apps that run on remotely-controlled telephones (TRApps) and that are typically automatically updated from exclusive app stores, and their counterparts that run on increasingly enshittified computers (CRApps) are cases in which the programs are installed on your own computer, but are controlled by someone else. They've come to be called apps, so that you'll think of them as appliances rather than as something you can and should be able to tinker with.

Web sites that, every time you visit them, install and demand to run Javascrapped programs on your computer, are a case in which, even if the program is technically Free Software, in this setting, someone else controls which version you get to run, and what that version does.

And then, there are the situations in which, instead of getting a copy of a program, you're offered a service that will do your computing for you, under somebody else's control, substituting software that could have been respectful of your freedom.

Programmable Devices

Devices have also been enshittified. There are two classes of hardware that I will merge into one here: the so-called smart devices (I always wonder what kind of user it takes to consider such devices smart), and the Internet of Things, that together read as smartiot. They run typically nonfree software, under remote control of the mothership, that gets automatically updated at the mothership's command. They won't function offline, and the service they offer often depends on mediation by some third-party server, so the supplier can pull the plug at any time. This gets 5 crappies.

Some devices don't go that far, but nevertheless they require nonfree software, whether it's called blobs, nonfree firmware, microcode or any other term referring to software one could copy by duplicating bits of information, rather than hardware one can only copy by obtaining and rearranging matter.

When that nonfree software is automatically installed and updated by the operating system, you may very well be unaware of the blobs. The operating system provider can also be easily persuaded to push a newer, possibly enshittified version onto all of its users, even without knowing what it's imposing on its users. I suggest grading this with 4 crappies.

When you choose yourself to enable a repository or to install such a nonfree program, you're still giving up control over your computing to the parties that controls the repository and the program, and getting potentially enshittified every time you install updates, but you know it. Not much of a consolation, so 3 crappies.

When you get the program from a driver install media or download it from a web site, and install it without enabling any kind of automatic updates, you're only vulnerable to static enshittification: the software provider gets to control your device, but only through instructions chosen ahead of time, so 2 crappies.

These were all disrespectful of your freedom. Now let's talk a bit about devices that Respect Your Freedom, a certification program by the original FSF.

I'll first deal with the easiest but rarest case: when the device is purely hardware, a circuit without any software. It's a black box, that does whatever it is that it does, but that's hardly enshittifiable at all: a provider that set out to enshittify such a device would have to talk you into bringing the device to a repair shop to have part of the hardware replaced. That's not outright impossible to try, but it's not really a viable enshittification-based business model either, so it gets a teeny tiny crappie.

Whether or not you're willing to accept such a black box that is purely hardware, there are no technical or ethical grounds to not extend the same acceptance or rejection to another black box that replaces some of the hardware circuits by a piece of embedded software. It's still a black box, it still behaves like a circuit, and it's no easier or hardware for a vendor to control, statically or dynamically. It seems to me that the equivalence between the preloaded embedded firmware and the corresponding hardware circuit also extends to the enshittifiability grade it gets.

However, the moment CRAPPY, Clippy-style, minus the toilet paper (thanks Jason Self for the suggestion and the picture), comes up to offer you a newer version of the blob, if you decline, you've preserved the equivalence, but if you accept it, you've opened your hardware and your life up to software enshittification, and you've agreed to go along with installable nonfree software, and that's at least 2 extra crappies.

Enshittification cycle

So let's take a step back and look at how the enshittification cycle works: a supplier offers an attractive arrangement as bait for victims, makes them dependent and locks them in, and then changes the service to extract value.

Whether or not the platform dies, unhappiness ensues: most users dislike the lower part of the ferris wheel cycle, more so when that involves going through an angry pile of poo.

It is normally at this point that users seek out alternatives. But since they were dependent, and there's now aditional discomfort, they may very well jump onto another seemingly-attractive alternative that will also get enshittified sooner or later.

It seems to me that it would be more advantageous to break that cycle, by choosing something that is not enshittifiable. When it comes to software, that means software that serves you, instead of being controlled by a third party, statically or dynamically, or that could lock you in. It means Software Freedom. So how do you get to that?

Software Freedom: Attain

To get to software freedom, you will have to identify the pieces of enshittifiable software in your life and then increment your freedom by flushing the excrement. Flush CRApps, TRApps, WWWRApps, and SaaSS. Don't overlook programs that are nominally freedom-respecting, but that are deployed in settings in which someone else controls them, such as WWWRApps, SaaSS, and even Tivoized or remotely-controlled CRApps and TRApps.

Bear in mind that these programs are disrespectful of your freedom to begin with, so it would be naïve to expect them to be nice and not engage in enshittification. It's an irresistible strategy for profit- or power-seeking suppliers, so when you device what you're going to use to avoid enshittification, you have to think no so much of how attractive its honey looks like now, but how stinky it's going to get later if you don't stick to your freedom.

Software Freedom: Keep

After you flush and get rid of all the crap, deshittifying or disenshittifying your life, you may aim for the royal straight flush through eternal vigilance, to block future threats to your freedom.

Keeping control of your computing is a choice of pushing enshittification away, and embracing freedom, by avoiding enshittifiable crap. Interestingly enough, that's exactly what this man, shown in the picture modded by my daughter for a speech of her own when she was 13, has been recommending since some 4 decades before enshittification was coined. Maybe it's time people start listening. As usual, Stallman was right.

Now, even if all software we use is free, sometimes programs are abandoned and we can't find a way to maintain them ourselves, sometimes hardware dies and we can't find a replacement or port programs to run elsewhere. It's also good to have backup plans, so cultivating programs and communities that can offer alternatives for features we rely on can help avoid making regrettable choices and getting back in the enshittification cycle.

Unlike disenshittifying, that amounts to cleaning up after a (sewer) flooding, unshittifying to me is preventing the flood. If you succeed at that, and manage to live an upright ethical life, you can even become a saint like Saint IGNUcius.

Thank you!

Four freedoms a day keep enshittification away.

I'll be happy to take questions. Feel free to contact me on Jami or by email.