This is a personal post and does not neccessarily represent the views of Canonical or the Ubuntu community.
Today Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and Free Software Foundation wrote a critical post accusing Ubuntu of shipping spyware (which is referring to the online search capabilities of the Ubuntu dash).
He goes on to suggest “in your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL events, don’t install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.“.
This is FUD.
When controvosies such as this kick off from time to time about Canonical and/or Ubuntu, my approach has never been to try and convince our critics that they are wrong. My goal is not to turn the unbelievers into worshippers at the church of Ubuntu. My only goal has been to ensure that everyone who participates in the debate trades in facts and not in misinformation and FUD; there is enough misinformation and FUD on the Internet without us all adding to it.
If someone has an accurate set of facts and accurately respresents the topic but is critical about the position…no problem. We can then engage in respectful, accurate debate that will likely enrich all perspectives and ultimately result in better software.
The goal of the dash in Ubuntu has always been to provide a central place in which you can search and find things that are interesting and relavent to you; it is designed to be at the center of your computing experience. Now, this is a big goal, and we are only part-way along the way to achieving it.
Today it is not perfect – we need to improve the accuracy of the results, present the data more effectively, and continue to expand the coverage and capabilities of the data in dash searches. With each new release of Ubuntu we get awesome feedback from our community and users and we strive to refine and iterate on all of these areas so that subsequent releases offer a more and more compelling experience, freely available and sharable for all.
Naturally, privacy is critically important to us in doing this work. In the eight year history of Ubuntu and Canonical we have always put privacy forward as a high priority across the many, many different websites, services, and software that forms the Ubuntu platform and community.
The challenge of course is that privacy is a deeply personal thing and the way in which you define your privacy expectations will likely radically differ from each of your friends, and vice-versa.
With this in mind, just because someone may have differing views to mine on the implementation of privacy in software doesn’t mean they are wrong. Likewise, just because my views may differ to theirs doesn’t mean I am wrong. We are all different and we all manage our information and our expectations around information sharing in different ways.
Just look at Facebook; the privacy debates there have been raging on for years and have encompassed many different views and perspectives ranging from “I want to control every detail of my privacy in Facebook” to “I don’t care, if it is on the Internet, I don’t care who sees it”, and everything in-between.
We want Ubuntu to be a safe, predictable, and pleasurable platform for everyone, irrespective of their personal views on privacy, but we also respect that there will be some folks who don’t feel we are doing enough to represent their particular personal privacy needs.
When we implemented the Amazon search results feature we didn’t get it 100% right with the first cut in the development release of Ubuntu, but that is how we build Ubuntu; we add software to our development branch and iterate on it in response to feedback and bugs. We did exactly this with these functional and privacy concerns…responding and implementing many of the requirements our community felt were important. We will continue to make these improvements in the future in much the same way.
Now, some of you may share Richard’s concerns over some aspects of this feature, and as I mentioned earlier, I am not here to convince you otherwise. Richard has every right to share his views on privacy, and who am I to tell him or you that he is/you are wrong?
What concerns me more is the FUD in his post. Statements such as:
In your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL events, don’t install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.
Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users.
These statements simply generate fear, uncertainty, and doubt about Ubuntu; a project that has a long history of bringing Free Software to millions of users around the world with an open community and governance.
But then again, this is not particularly surprising from Richard.
I have tremendous respect for Richard and his fantastic work in laying the foundations for the Free Software and Open Source world that we have today, but I think he is short-sighted at times. His views on software projects are pretty binary: either a strict set of ethics (defined by him) are observed, or it should be shunned.
The challenge here is that freedom is also a deeply personal thing.
I believe that freedom is far more than simply freedom of source code or a specific policy around privacy. When I got involved in the Free Software community 14 years ago my passion from then onwards was not driven by creating awesome Free Software code, it was more about creating awesome Free Software experiences that open up technology, education, creativity and collaboration to everyone. Free Software code is simply one mechanic in how we deliver these experiences; it is not the be all and end all of what we do.
A completely free set of source code that implements a system that is difficult to use, lacks the features that users want, is not competitive with proprietary competitors, and/or does not offer a desirable and delightful experience is not going to bring Free Software to the wider world. It may bring Free Software to a passionate collection of enthusiasts (as we saw back in the early days of Linux), but in my mind true freedom is software that is not just available to all but usable by all, even those who are not enthusiasts.
Just look at the success of Apple. General consumers have voted with their feet, and people want beautiful, desirable products that let them do useful and fun things with their friends, families and colleagues. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t achieve this with Free Software.
In Ubuntu we want to build a platform that is even more beautiful, elegant and delightful than Apple, but is infused with the Free Software values that empower that technology, education, creativity and collaboration in everyone.
But unfortunately, as far as Richard is concerned, if Ubuntu doesn’t meet his specific requirements around privacy or Free Software, irrespective that it has brought Free Software to millions of users and thousands of organizations, and despite the fact that you might not share his viewpoint, you should shun it.
This just seems a bit childish to me.
Let’s turn the tables around. Do I agree with everything the Free Software Foundation does? Not at all, but I do think their general body of work is fantastic, worthwhile, and provides an important and valuable service, and I would never want to suggest you should boycott them if you disagree with one part of what they do. Quite the opposite, I would encourage you to see their website, donate, and consider joining them as they provide a valuable piece of the wider Free Software ecosystem, in much the same way Ubuntu provides another piece. Let’s work together, not against each other.
UPDATED: I posted an apology to Richard about to refering to his position as ‘childish’ you can read it here.