negative zero

What I Hate About Discord

2019 July 19

[discord] [messaging] [opinion] [tech]

Discord is Proprietary

The Discord client is proprietary. I believe that proprietary software is necessarily harmful, and free software is necessary. Furthermore, Discord does not allow third-party clients, so even a third-party libre client is out of the question. (Some options do exist nonetheless, but these are suboptimal, and I haven't found one that supports voice chat.)

Discord is Spyware

Discord collects a lot of data on its users, including a list of all processes running on the user's computer. This is done (at least in part) for a purpose, but we don't know for sure what they do with that data, and I certainly don't trust Discord Inc./Hammer & Chisel not to abuse it.

Discord's privacy policy states vaguely, "We generally retain personal data for so long as it may be relevant to the purposes identified herein. To dispose of personal data, we may anonymize it, delete it or take other appropriate steps. Data may persist in copies made for backup and business continuity purposes for additional time."

I have no reservations calling something that records such information spyware, and I have no reservations calling spyware malware. Discord is malware. If Discord wants to prove it's not malware, they'll have to release the source code to prove it's not doing anything anything malicious.

Discord is Not Encrypted

On the note of data collected on users, include all (non-deleted) chat data, which by design is stored unencrypted on the server permanently so it can be re-downloaded when a user logs in (instead of, for instance, end-to-end encrypted messages deleted from the server once they've been delivered to all devices). VoIP (voice chat) data and deleted messages may or may not be stored indefinitely. I would hope Discord deletes the data once it's not needed, but we have no way of knowing for sure.

This data is encrypted with TLS from the client to the server and back, but Discord's servers can still read and process all the data that goes through them.

Discord is Centralized

Discord's network structure is centralized: all users rely upon the central servers owned by Discord Inc./Hammer & Chisel. You can't host your own server, and Discord doesn't interoperate with anything else. (Some interoperability can be hacked in with Discord bots, e.g., Half-Shot's Matrix-Discord bridge, but Discord isn't designed to work that way.)

I have previously written about why centralization is problematic, even if we trust the central entity (which I certainly don't in the case of Discord). Cory Doctorow wrote an excellent piece on adversarial interoperability, which is adjacent to this discussion.

Centralization enables abuse without recourse. If it's difficult to leave (due to refusal to interoperate creating lock-in), the company can slowly make things worse for users while those users feel trapped.

Discord is Built on Electron

The Discord desktop client is built on Electron, which basically means it's mostly the same as the web version of the app that runs in the user's browser, but it's packaged with its own browser: a full custom copy of Google Chromium.

Mostly this means Discord is inefficient. A lot of apps are built on Electron. Electron is bad.

Despite the desktop client not really offering much over the web app, Discord really pushes users to download it, especially recommending the desktop app as a fix for issues in the web app. I suspect that this is a scheme to subtly push users into leaving the app running more often and gather more information on users.

"Discord [hearts] Open Source!"

Despite being a proprietary program, Discord proudly proclaims that it [hearts] open source. It evidences this with... a list of free/open source projects that despite the existence of free alternatives choose to collaborate using Discord's proprietary chat app.

In fairness to Discord, it appears from this page that the company does contribute to some free software projects. "Discord is committed to the principles of open source development: that we all succeed when we work together as engineers and share our solutions." The cognitive dissonance here must be strong.

Discord also backs up this claim with a list of free software libraries it uses as if somehow a proprietary program being built using free software is supposed to make users feel better.

Also, despite this claim, I've had trouble getting Discord to work properly on GNU/Linux, where my friends on Windows had no trouble, which leads me to be cynical about how much Discord actually "[hearts] open source" and whether they actually prioritize users of free/open source software much lower than users of proprietary operating systems.

Discord Has a Sketchy (Unsustainable) Business Model

Discord is a business without a clear monetization plan. It's a gratis service that promises to never charge for the core product, (and a pay-to-use app probably can't compete in a pay-with-your-privacy market). They offer some auxiliary paid services, but if they don't charge to use the service, how will they make money? Discord claims to be "allergic to data selling and ads." So they say they won't do those things (at least for now...) So far they've raised money primarily by investments, having raised over $280,000,000 in late 2018.

Eventually, investors will demand a return on investment, and I suspect that at that time, Discord will either a) start selling ads, b) sell user data, and/or c) pivot. (See also, monetize and pivot in The Guardian's guide: "How to speak Silicon Valley".) The model of "scale now, figure out how to monetize later" doesn't tend to end well for the consumer.

Discord Has Problematic Security Practices

Discord doesn't like proxies. It's suspicious of log-ins from new locations and requires users to go through extra steps. Sure, in fairness, this is designed as a feature, not a bug, to protect the average user from account hijacking. But it's antagonistic to people who, for instance, care about privacy.

More problematic, Discord uses Google's reCAPTCHA service, which uses proprietary JavaScript, helps solidify the spread of Google's stranglehold on the web (as Google becomes the arbiter of who may use what service), and effects an adhesion contract where entry is granted only in exchange for free labor provided by users across the web to train Google's AI. Furthermore, Google is extra suspicious of users accessing sites via proxies like VPNs or Tor.

Update: 2019 October 21

It appears that Discord is now requiring users to provide phone numbers to "prove" that they are human. This is an increasingly common practice, which is very problematic because it does not allow users to create anonymous accounts, and it's just another piece of Discord collecting sensitive data on users that it doesn't need.

Discord's Deceptive Marketing

Discord's groups (officially called "guilds" in Discord's API) are called "servers" in the user interface, the only thing most users will ever see. To be clear, they are not servers by any meaningful use of the word.

Calling a Discord group a "server" is a little like calling a conference room a "treehouse": The word has no real meaning in this context; arguably, all meetings should be held in a member's own private treehouse, but that's not what's actually happening here; and the name deceptively suggests properties not carried by the actual thing. A "treehouse" suggests fun and whimsy and a little place to be alone with some friends. But simply calling a conference room a "treehouse" doesn't actually engender any of these qualities in said conference room.

Likewise, calling a group or guild a "server" suggests a quality of privacy. "You get your own server just for you and your friends!" But what you get is not in any meaningful sense a "server"; it's just one of many collections of users on Discord's server, and your chats are not private.

I Just Don't Like It

I've never been a big fan of how Discord looks or feels anyway. I like that it uses a dark theme by default, but I don't actually like how it looks much beyond that it is dark. I've never much liked how Discord works. This section is very personal to my own preferences, so I'll keep it brief, but in addition to all the substantive issues I have with Discord, it's also just not all that great at what it is, in my opinion.

Contrast this list with what I actually like about Discord.