Let’s get the abbreviation out of the way first: FOSS stands for Free Open-Source Software.
And yes, it’s actually free. Free downloads, free updates, free services.
But it is also free to audit the code. That’s because it’s open source.
As citizens, we pay a price for the goods and services we use in our day-to-day lives, even if that price isn’t monetary. The very bones of how we organize our lives revolves around someone profiting off of a product or service they create. At its very core, that is the definition of capitalism. Let’s take a look at some examples of this in the tech world.
Spotify has a subscription if you don’t want ads; you can’t even use Netflix without creating an account and if you want to use it beyond the week’s grace period, you need to pay.
Facebook and other social media platforms are free to use, but the cost of its use is more insidious than just a few dollars per month.
What’s more, you will not find the source code for these apps on GitHub or on any other platform that allows you to peruse repos.
Sure, some of them (e.g., Facebook) create products like React, which they then use to build their apps. But the apps themselves are shielded from view.
Unless a whistleblower comes forward, you have no idea how the company is using the data you provide it.
So, where does that put FOSS and where does that put us, the consumers?
FOSS breeds a community of like-minded individuals who often build apps out in the open, and if you don’t like something about the app, nothing is stopping you from forking it and building on it yourself.
It also allows you to contribute to software that you use on a daily basis just as you would any other repo someone might have public on GitHub or similar site.
The exciting part of this is that you know exactly how the app is working whether it is on your phone or from the comfort of your laptop’s browser. You know where your data is being used, how it’s stored, and if the way it’s stored sends up red flags for you.
While all of this is well and good, because these apps are free, the developers of these apps pour thousands of hours into their codebase and don’t get paid for it. Unfortunately, money is what everyone needs to pay for rent, get food, among other necessities in their day-to-day lives.
As a result, some of these repos get put onto maintenance mode - or worse, are stopped entirely, because the developer cannot afford to maintain it, no matter how much help they may receive.
This is where donations come in. If you can spare a few dollars a month, you can often find a service (e.g., Patreon or GitHub Sponsors) on the developer’s page where you can put it towards their livelihood and wellbeing. It might get them a coffee; it might also go towards paying for their child’s dental care.
The point being that it shouldn’t matter where the money goes, just that they’re able to continue to have access to a sustainable life while also providing this service to you and countless others.
And plus side for you is you get a service you like, you know where your data is going, and it is free for you to use! Also consider that your donation is going directly to the developer instead of to a company that will suck up most of the profit before even considering one developer after it’s lined the pockets of its millonaire (or even billionare) CEOs and their investors.
If you are not able to contribute monetarily, donating time to improve the app is also an option. You don’t even need to be a developer yourself to do this.
Some FOSS creators are looking for researchers or people to report on their experiences using the app. It not only helps them not to have to pay for user testing, but it also means you get to have a direct influence on how the app’s experience grows.
As you can see, working with FOSS can be a win-win: you get the app that you want and the developers get to work on something that they are passionate about.
On a larger level, it cuts out the middle layer of larger corporations that thrive off of selling your private data to the highest bidder, which puts you at risk.
The FOSS community needs you as much as you need them! Together we can fight against the negative, profit-driven turn of the services we have come to rely on - and have fun in the process. 🥳