Ethics has been central to the F-Droid community from the beginning, with a focus on free software, privacy and user control. A key part of F-Droid’s design is the lack of user accounts. There are no user accounts used, ever, in the process of delivering apps to users. This is by design. F-Droid has never had a method to identify or track users in the Android client app, and getting information from f-droid.org has also never required any kind of identity information.
Having user accounts makes some problems much easier to solve: it makes it easy to include ratings and reviews and to manage editing of documentation. However, having user accounts makes other problems much more difficult to solve. User accounts inevitably mean that personally identifiable information (PII) will be collected and stored. User accounts also require passwords, and often phone numbers or email addresses. All that data needs to be defended. One of our core goals is to eliminate the possibility of tracking our users. Having user accounts would make that goal nearly impossible.
It turns out that user accounts are rarely a requirement for building a service, even though many services make it seem that way. User accounts are a great way to gather data and link it all together to create very detailed profiles. This is central to tracking users in order to commodify them and sell their attention to the highest bidder.
User accounts are also used to control access to information and data. They are used to “region lock” videos and selectively block access to apps. There are of course valuable use cases for restricting access, like ensuring small children can only access age appropriate content. But there are other ways of doing that, like curating repositories so that adult material is delivered via separate, opt-in repositories.
User accounts are central to tracking people
User accounts and IDs are a key part of tracking users and building long lasting profiles. If a service requires an account to access it, that service is likely tracking its users. When a user logs in, they are clearly telling the service who they are. And that service can then easily ascribe actions to that account to build up the profile. This is not to say that there are no valid reasons to track users. As mentioned earlier, Wikipedia editors are an example of an essential service built on user accounts. What we are saying is if privacy is important to you, then login requirements should make you stop and think.
What works without user accounts?
It turns out that F-Droid is not alone in delivering key services without user accounts or profiles. There are browsers, wikis, shared notepads, video conferencing, and even messaging and analytics. Many systems that use accounts also allow reading and even editing without logging in.
The first question to answer is: does this service need to know who the users are in order to function? Can that information remain only on the users device? For example, an email or messaging service needs to know enough about its users to be able to direct data from a user sending a message to the intended recipient. This has mostly meant that the server relies on each user having an account with the server. This is a common way to implement such a system, but it is not the only way. Tor Onion Services opens up a different approach. They are designed for routing data without any part of the system being able to see who is sending data to whom, and who is making the request. Briar builds upon this to make messaging work without anyone knowing who is sending messages to whom, outside of those involved in the conversation. With Briar, the user contact information is only ever on the users’ devices.
Video conferencing was built around user IDs like accounts and phone numbers. Services like Jitsi Meet pioneered a new way: each conference room is represented by a name in a URL, e.g. https://meet.jit.si/ThisIsAConferenceRoomName. Anyone who has that URL can open it in a browser and join the room. Jitsi Meet works very well, and demonstrated that online meetings actually work better without user accounts: they are much easier to setup and manage. Currently, no online meeting platform would be taken seriously if it does not support joining meetings with a URL only, in other words, with no user account at all.
Wikipedia is a great hybrid example. It is possible to edit most pages without an account at all, just by clicking edit and making the changes. User generated content inevitably needs controls to tame edit wars and abusive behavior. So user accounts are still a key part of how Wikipedia works. However, in this case, it stems from the Wikimedia editors’ need to deliver essential services to their users rather than manufactured reasons to track and hook ever more people.
Mozilla has taken this idea a step further with Firefox Klar (also known as Firefox Focus similar to Firefox Klar but with less private default settings). This web browser makes it easy to use the web without keeping any state at all. The browser version for mobiles follows the same basic idea: tracking people is not necessary to provide a good user experience. I personally prefer using Firefox Focus on my phone because I specifically want to avoid thinking about managing accounts, cookie preference screens, history, etc. I just use it to look up information, and when I’m done and click the notification, its all wiped clean. (Unfortunately, Focus and Klar both contain Google Play Services proprietary libraries, e.g. com.google.android.gms, so they are not currently distributed on f-droid.org. We welcome contributions to remove the proprietary bits so we can distribute them again).
Guardian Project is developing Clean Insights to promote the idea that usage analytics can provide useful insights that only benefit the end users. For this to happen, there must be absolutely no way to track users: no tracking IDs, no user accounts, no nothing. F-Droid has done some experiments with Clean Insights, and the approach looks quite promising. Any kind of analytics needs to go beyond concerns of privacy in order to serve users. We also need to consider that digital media has the power to manipulate and addict us.
Since the F-Droid ecosystem works on hashes of static files without access controls, it unlocks all sorts of flexibility. Mirrors of the f-droid.org/repo repository can be safely delivered via services around the world, local Raspberry Pis, or even a USB thumb drive. Any content can be archived by anyone without permission or centralized services using IPFS.
Accounts used when making F-Droid
With the right setup, it is possible to send contributions via git with only minimal
traces of the original author. This now also applies to our wiki. Where
appropriate, we also allow contributions to come in via the
account, which anyone can use by finding the password on the wiki.
Working on F-Droid itself does require user accounts. We know of no other proven method of access control for building trusted systems that millions can rely on. Core contributors are willing to give up some privacy in order to ensure that users can have real privacy.