On the Internet, proprietary software isn’t the only way to lose your freedom. Software as a Service is another way to let someone else have power over your computing.
Background: How Proprietary Software Takes Away Your Freedom
Digital technology can give you freedom; it can also take your freedom away. The first threat to our control over our computing came from proprietary software: software that the users cannot control because the owner (a company such as Apple or Microsoft) controls it. The owner often takes advantage of this unjust power by inserting malicious features such as spyware, back doors, and Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) (referred to as “Digital Rights Management” in their propaganda).
Our solution to this problem is developing free software and rejecting proprietary software. Free software means that you, as a user, have four essential freedoms: (0) to run the program as you wish, (1) to study and change the source code so it does what you wish, (2) to redistribute exact copies, and (3) to redistribute copies of your modified versions. (See the free software definition.)
With free software, we, the users, take back control of our computing. Proprietary software still exists, but we can exclude it from our lives and many of us have done so. However, we now face a new threat to our control over our computing: Software as a Service. For our freedom’s sake, we have to reject that too.
How Software as a Service Takes Away Your Freedom
Software as a Service (SaaS) means that someone sets up a network server that does certain computing tasks—running spreadsheets, word processing, translating text into another language, etc.—then invites users to do their computing on that server. Users must send their data to the server, which returns the results.
“With SaaS, the users do not have even the executable file: it is on the server, where the users can’t see or touch it.”These servers wrest control from the users even more inexorably than proprietary software. With proprietary software, users typically get an executable file but not the source code. That makes it hard for programmers to study the code that is running, so it’s hard to determine what the program really does, and hard to change it.
With SaaS, the users do not have even the executable file: it is on the server, where the users can’t see or touch it. Thus it is impossible for them to ascertain what it really does, and impossible to change it.
Furthermore, SaaS automatically leads to harmful consequences equivalent to the malicious features of certain proprietary software. For instance, some proprietary programs are “spyware”: the program sends data about users’ computing activities to the program’s owner. Microsoft Windows sends information about users’ activities to Microsoft. Windows Media Player and RealPlayer report what user watches or listens to.
“Microsoft Windows sends information about users’ activities to Microsoft.”Unlike proprietary software, SaaS does not require covert code to obtain the user’s data. By the very nature of SaaS, users must send their data to the server.
SaaS gives the same results as spyware because it requires users to send their data to the server. The server operator gets all the data with no special effort, by the nature of SaaS.
Some proprietary programs can mistreat users under remote command. For instance, Windows has a back door with which Microsoft can forcibly change any software on the machine. The Amazon Kindle e-book reader (whose name suggests it’s intended to burn people’s books) has an Orwellian back door that Amazon used in 2009 to remotely delete many Kindle copies of Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm which people had purchased from Amazon.
SaaS inherently gives the server operator the power to change the software in use, or the users’ data being operated on. Once again, no special code is needed to do this.
Thus, SaaS is equivalent to total spyware and a gaping wide back door, and gives the server operator unjust power over the user. We can’t accept that.
Untangling the SaaS Issue from the Proprietary Software Issue
SaaS and proprietary software lead to similar harmful results, but the causal mechanisms are different. With proprietary software, the cause is that you have and use a copy which is difficult or illegal to change. With SaaS, the cause is that you use a copy you don’t have.
Many free software supporters assume that the problem of SaaS will be solved by developing free software for servers. For the server operator’s sake, the programs on the server had better be free; if they are proprietary, their owners have power over the server. That’s unfair to the operator, and doesn’t help you at all. But if the programs on the server are free, that doesn’t protect you as the server’s user from the effects of SaaS. They give freedom to the operator, but not to you.
Releasing the server software source code does benefit the community: suitably skilled users can set up similar servers, perhaps changing the software. But none of these servers would give you control over computing you do on it, unless it’s your server. The rest would all be SaaS. SaaS always subjects you to the power of the server operator, and the only remedy is, don’t use SaaS! Don’t use someone else’s server to do your own computing on data provided by you.
Distinguishing SaaS from Other Network Services
Does condemning SaaS mean rejecting all network server? Not at all. Most servers do not raise this issue, because the job you do with them isn’t your own computing except in a trivial sense.
The original purpose of web servers wasn’t to do computing for you, it was to publish information for you to access. Even today this is what most web sites do, and it doesn’t pose the SaaS problem, because accessing someone’s published information isn’t a matter of doing your own computing. Neither is publishing your own materials via a blog site or a micro-blogging service such as Twitter. The same goes for communication not meant to be private, such as chat groups. Social networking can extend into SaaS; however, at root it is just a method of communication and publication, not SaaS. If you use the service for minor editing of what you’re going to communicate, that is not a significant issue.
“Fortunately, development hosting sites such as Savannah and Sourceforge don’t pose the SaaS problem, because what groups do there is mainly publication and public communication, rather than their own private computing.”Services such as search engines collect data from around the web and let you examine it. Looking through their collection of data isn’t your own computing in the usual sense, so these services are not SaaS.
E-commerce is not SaaS, because the computing isn’t solely yours; rather, it is done jointly for you and another party. So there’s no particular reason why you alone should expect to control that computing. The real issue in E-commerce is whether you trust the other party with your money and personal information.
Using a joint project’s servers isn’t SaaS because the computing you do in this way isn’t yours personally. For instance, if you edit pages on Wikipedia, you are not doing your own computing; rather, you are collaborating in Wikipedia’s computing.
Wikipedia controls its own servers, but groups can face the problem of SaaS if they do their group activities on someone else’s server. Fortunately, development hosting sites such as Savannah and Sourceforge don’t pose the SaaS problem, because what groups do there is mainly publication and public communication, rather than their own private computing.
Multiplayer games are a group activity carried out on someone else’s server, which makes them SaaS. But where the data involved is just the state of play and the score, the worst wrong the operator might commit is favoritism. You might well ignore that risk, since it seems unlikely and very little is at stake. On the other hand, when the game becomes more than just a game, the issue changes.
Some sites offer multiple services, and if one is not SaaS, another may be SaaS. For instance, the main service of Facebook is social networking, and that is not SaaS; however, it supports third-party applications, some of which may be SaaS. Flickr’s main service is distributing photos, which is not SaaS, but it also has features for editing photos, which is SaaS.
Some sites whose main service is publication and communication extend it with “contact management”: keeping track of people you have relationships with. Sending mail to those people for you is not SaaS, but keeping track of your dealings with them, if
substantial, is SaaS.
If a service is not SaaS, that does not mean it is ok. There are other bad things a service can do. For instance, Facebook distributes video in Flash, which pressures users to run nonfree software, and it gives users a misleading impression of privacy. Those are important issues too, but this article’s concern is the issue of SaaS.
“That’s what the buzzword “cloud computing” is for. This term is so nebulous that it could refer to almost any use of the Internet.”The IT industry discourages users from considering these distinctions. That’s what the buzzword “cloud computing” is for. This term is so nebulous that it could refer to almost any use of the Internet. It includes SaaS and it includes nearly everything else. The term only lends itself to uselessly broad statements.
The real meaning of “cloud computing” is to suggest a devil-may-care approach towards your computing. It says, “Don’t ask questions, just trust every business without hesitation. Don’t worry about who controls your computing or who holds your data. Don’t check for a hook hidden inside our service before you swallow it.” In other words, “Think like a sucker.” I prefer to avoid the term.
Dealing with the SaaS Problem
Only a small fraction of all web sites do SaaS; most don’t raise the issue. But what should we do about the ones that raise it?
For the simple case, where you are doing your own computing on data in your own hands, the solution is simple: use your own copy of a free software application. Do your text editing with your copy of a free text editor such as GNU Emacs or a free word processor. Do your photo editing with your copy of free software such as GIMP.
But what about collaborating with other individuals? It may be hard to do this at present without using a server. If you use one, don’t trust a server run by a company. A mere contract as a customer is no protection unless you could detect a breach and could really sue, and the company probably writes its contracts to permit a broad range of abuses. Police can subpoena your data from the company with less basis than required to subpoena them from you, supposing the company doesn’t volunteer them like the US phone companies that illegally wiretapped their customers for Bush. If you must use a server, use a server whose operators give you a basis for trust beyond a mere commercial relationship.
However, on a longer time scale, we can create alternatives to using servers. For instance, we can create a distributed program through which collaborators can share data encrypted. The free software community should develop distributed peer-to-peer
replacements for important “web applications”. It may be wise to release them under the GNU Affero GPL, since they are likely candidates for being converted into server-based programs by someone else. The GNU project is looking for volunteers to work on such replacements. We also invite other free software projects to consider this issue in their design.
In the meantime, if a company invites you to use its server to do your own computing tasks, don’t yield; don’t use SaaS. Don’t buy or install “thin clients”, which are simply computers so weak they make you do the real work on someone else’s server. Use a real computer and keep your data there. Do your work with your own copy of a free program, for your freedom’s sake.
Copyright © 2010 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.
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“Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer [...] and I don’t think we’ve done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat.”
–Jim Allchin, President of Platforms & Services Division at Microsoft
Bruce Perens at the launch event of GPLv3
Summary: Bruce Perens explains what he has seen Microsoft doing inside governments in order to marginalise Free software, mostly through hired guns like CompTIA and ACT
MICROSOFT IS A political problem, not just a technical problem. In previous posts we showed how Microsoft controls the United States government (along with other proprietary software companies), but it’s not just a problem in the United States.
For those who are not familiar with Bruce Perens, here are some of our posts that mention him:
Perens has just published this post about government legislation where he writes:
Equal Representation, and Visibility of Lobbying
It’s been obvious, whenever I talk with government, that there’s a well-staffed Microsoft lobbying organization nearby, as well as intermediaries who act for them like CompTIA. Against them, there’s been a low or no-budget representation for Open Source, sometimes just me all alone. And of course the proprietary software companies can afford more advertising and they create lavish events to promote themselves.
To level out this situation, and many others, we need required public reporting of all lobbying, including the parties present, the time and duration of the meeting, and the topics discussed. The general public should be able to see that information on the internet with no more than a day’s delay, if they are to have a chance to offset the effect of the deep-pockets lobbyists.
In addition, there needs to be legislation protecting and promoting the access of the less-grandly-funded to those in government who have or will receive other lobbies, so that there can be balance of representation.
The only group he mentions by name is CompTIA, whose corruption of the political system and standards body we have documented in many past posts. Bruce Perens has already responded to ACT, which is another Microsoft front group (Perens knows that). Both groups happen to have lobbied intensively against ODF and for OOXML. Given Microsoft’s history of corruption when it comes to document formats, nobody should be surprised that Microsoft uses outside lobbying groups. From Italy we hear that this corruption never ends. Posted some days ago:
Microsoft, where did you get those data about OpenDocument?
I already explained in another article that open file formats are essential to save money in Public Administrations and make them more efficient and that the right choice for office document is the OpenDocument Format (ODF).
Since I regularly follow these themes, in September 2009 I received this request from outside Italy:
I have read in a report that: “According to Microsoft Italian regional authorities have examined ODF, but proposal for adopting ODF as the mandatory standard have been rejected” (translated by the sender of the message). This fact probably comes from this Microsoft paper. And we are trying to fact check it… can you help?
Back then I knew, just as I know today, that there is no law or regulation in Italy, not even at the city level, that mandates ODF as the only accepted format for office documents, regardless of the context. What I did come across in the last year, instead, were cases where nobody seemed to know about ODF or law proposals that, albeit unvoluntarily, may make the situation even worse. However, I did not remember ever reading about proposals of that kind.
Over in the UK, the story is similar but Microsoft’s lobbying groups are slightly different. Tim Anderson, a British Microsoft booster, gives lip service to a company which says that the UK government only gives lip service to F/OSS. Anderson writes about the claims from Ingres:
Ingres has a direct commercial interest in this, of course, so such statements are not surprising. Shine has a point though. It takes more than a few speeches to change the software culture of the myriad departments and other state-run entities that between them compose government IT.
Anderson is being an apologist here. It’s not just about Ingres getting a contract; it’s about a nation sticking to standards and to code that it actually owns and is allowed to modify and redistribute. It’s about the United Kingdom not being a hostage of some convicted monopoly abuser from the United States. There is no need for Microsoft apologists here, as they seem not to comprehend the very fundamental issues. The same goes for accomplices like BECTA, who take a similar approach of lip service. They try to silence opposition this way.
“It is crooked politicians like Luc Pierre Devigne and Pedro Velasco-Martins who allow this to happen.”Earlier today we posted videos from yesterday's event about ACTA, which Richard Stallman calls “Anti-Citizen Tyranny Agreement”. It shows how few super-wealthy corporations (mostly from the United States, but there is one Vivendi employee praising ACTA from the audience) take control of the law and actually run the governments against the people. It is crooked politicians like Luc Pierre Devigne and Pedro Velasco-Martins who allow this to happen. Given increased transparency, we can more effectively expose the conspirators involved in these unconstitutional steps that countries are taking to pass control to other counties (specifically to corporations in other countries). Here in the UK we have Mandelson with his Digital Economy Bill (DEB). █
“Business secretary Peter Mandelson is slimed by an environmental protestor outside the Royal Society on Carlton House Terrace, Pall Mall after allegations of ‘favours for friends’ over the Heathrow third runway decision” [Courtesy of “Plane Stupid”, via Wikimedia]
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Summary: Amazon implicitly parrots Microsoft rhetoric and discriminates against desktop GNU/Linux, which it does not support
LAST MONTH we saw Amazon selling out to Microsoft [1, 2, 3]. Amazon decided to allow Microsoft’s racketeering to receive legitimacy, after Amazon had accepted many Microsoft executives into its staff. Amazon was clearly transformed from the inside over time and although Kindle has run Linux for several years, we now find that it is supporting just two proprietary software platforms and ignoring Linux (on the desktop), which Amazon exploited to build the Kindle and its servers infrastructure. This is the attitude of a company that does not care about Free software in general and GNU/Linux in particular. It’s just a selfish user and this is not the only reason why we encourage readers to boycott Amazon, as some readers already do.
What Amazon is doing these days allows Microsoft racketeering [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7] to carry on, along with the company's own patent troll, whose latest actions Glyn Moody has just explained. He calls him “King of the Trolls” and in our previous posts about this patent troll we showed just why (here is an index).
If you haven’t heard of Intellectual Ventures, you will do. Set up by ex-Microsoftie Nathan Myhrvold, with investments from Microsoft among others, it is basically a patenting machine – filing and buying them in huge quantities. Note that it doesn’t actually *use* these patents – except to threaten people with. In other words, Intellectual Ventures is a patent troll – or, rather the King of the Patent Trolls.
They don’t *invent* anything in the proper, deep sense of the word: they merely file and buy patents – with no intent of ever making stuff or solving real-life problems. It’s purely a cynical exploitation of the broken US patent system that grants very broad patents on often obvious ideas, which are then used to *impede* other companies’ activities.
This is the killer: Intellectual Venture’s business model is fear. “If IV breathes in your direction, take a license” – never mind whether their patent claims are valid, just roll over, because nobody messes with the King of the Patent Trolls.
Companies like Amazon and Microsoft have adopted software patents despite the fact that their existence — that of Amazon’s in particular — owes itself to the rejection of software patents by Berners-Lee. Moody writes:
Here’s a fine piece of hagiography, with a really excellent conclusion that touches on those diabolical software patents:
The founders of Google and Microsoft have made their fortunes out of the world wide web, as have numerous other dot-com entrepreneurs. Sir Tim, though, has never cashed in on his brilliant idea. He doesn’t have a yacht or a mansion or a private jet. But neither does he have any regrets about his lack of wealth.
Patent laws are not taking account of the culture that developed around technology. Thanks to the Internet, it is a culture of sharing and collaboration, not monopolisation and exclusion. Here is a funny new case about patents:
Tool Maker Loses Lawsuit For Not Violating Another Company’s Patents
Patent system supporters regularly point (slightly misleadingly) to the claim that the patent system gives patent holders the right to exclude others from using their inventions. And, thus, most lawsuits we see around patents revolve around cases involving a company manufacturing a product that includes a patented invention. But what about a lawsuit for a company that deliberately chose not to license or use a patented technology, because it was too expensive?
Welcome to today’s world.
Patents hamper society’s progress. But some rich companies with a lot of lobbyists love them. That is the subject of the next post. █
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Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. By Gustave Dore.
(January 6, 1832 – January 23, 1883)
Summary: Microsoft’s companions help the company either influence other companies or take over their agenda, Mono being the tool by which .NET gets injected into rivals
THE previous post argued that Novell’s Microsoft MVP (who does nothing but Microsoft boosting in his blog this week) could fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an employee of Microsoft because Novell might be bought by Microsoft. Analysts say so too. Having already changed the direction of Novell to one that is centered around Mono (to promote Windows, Xbox, .NET, Visual Studio, and so forth), Novell becomes a more convenient target for Microsoft to acquire. We have warned about it for several years and it is no longer far fetched.
“…Novell becomes a more convenient target for Microsoft to acquire.”When a company adopts something like Mono, it is rather telling. One proponent of Mono is Mainsoft and this week we find Mainsoft helping Microsoft by augmenting its software or ecosystem. Another example is the Mono boosters from Microsoft itself (former Microsoft employees) who seem to be all over the place. Not even one of them seems to oppose .NET, not after leaving the company that treats .NET like it's a "religion" (there are several examples which we prefer not to name as that would make it personal or confrontational).
Meanwhile, Novell forgets about OpenSUSE. Some of the people who contribute a lot to Linux were let go and laid off (naming them would seem abrasive) while Novell increased focus on Microsoft-assistive software instead. In fact, Novell’s neglect of OpenSUSE is so apparent because the SUSE Planet is currently down and now we find out the reason:
Planet SUSE aggregates blog posts from the SUSE Linux universum, including openSUSE and SUSE Linux Enterprise. It aggregates not only English blog posts but also as separate feeds German, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese posts.
Planet SUSE has been unavailable for the last days due to some problems while renewing the domain. We have therefore setup an alternative DNS entry for the server under the openSUSE domain, you can reach the planet now as
planet.openSUSE.org. The alternative name will stay, so feel free to change your bookmarks permantelty to it.
If you’d like to see a blog shown on Planet SUSE, please tell the admins James Ogley and Pascal Bleser.
A special thanks to our Planet heros – James, Pascal, Darix and Justin,
Last year we showed that Novell’s neglect of OpenSUSE was so serious that the project was looking for sponsorship. If it were Mono, this would never happen. █
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Summary: As BrainShare kicks off it becomes apparent that Novell does not reject a takeover and Microsoft could be among the bidders
THE news continues to come regarding Novell's willingness to sell the company given the right offer/price. Brian from the Linux Foundation has this to say:
Why Novell waited until Saturday to announce the news is anyone’s guess, but since I can be classified as anyone, let me take a shot: rejecting what on the surface seemed a pretty solid bid as far away from stock market times as possible will will help alleviate any potential blow NOVL’s stock price this morning when the NASDAQ opens. Though, in early market trading this morning, NOVL was up, so perhaps that blow isn’t coming.
As for Novell, time will tell if someone comes up with another bid. And will that bid be a better one, or was Elliott’s first run the best offer?
Over at Linux Magazine we find this new article which ponders a Microsoft takeover of Novell. Since Novell has products that compete against Microsoft’s, there would be antitrust barriers, but if Novell was sold in pieces, it might actually work. Earlier this year we wrote about Novell transforming itself from a 4-unit company into a dual-unit company, possibly in preparation for a sale of one part. That was the argument we had made at the time, before more evidence came. To quote parts of the latest article:
What If… Microsoft Bought Novell?
What If… SUSE is to Windows as MySQL is to Oracle?
Much like MySQL, Linux is growing and isn’t going to simply fade away. While Oracle would probably like everyone to just purchase a large Oracle license it’s clear that’s not going to happen for a large percentage of potential customers, so they should probably just take whatever profits they can from MySQL licenses. Sell Oracle where you can. Sell MySQL where you can’t.
Microsoft could use this strategy with SUSE. Concede some areas where Microsoft struggles to Linux, force SUSE out of others, tighten the integration between the OSes and reconcile the issues of a competitive product mix with your sales team.
Messy. Complicated. Still, it’s possible and Microsoft could use a new revenue stream. But very few in the Linux community would believe MSFT was giving SUSE a fair shake.
What If… Microsoft Declares Total (Patent) War?
Possibly the most popular of the potential What If…? outcomes, Microsoft could use the ownership of Novell to push patent-laden code into SUSE (and potentially upstream into the Kernel) creating a cascade of licensing litigation/strong-arming and, possibly, the crippling of the GPL.
This is really just a variation on what many think Microsoft is already doing (See Microsoft Patches Linux; Linus Responds and Trimming the FAT: Linux and Patents). The difference in this scenario, of course, is that their ownership of SUSE could speed the process along.
Whoever buys Novell (and it’s likely that it will be sold somehow and sometime this year), the company’s output is a toxic asset to anyone who buys it. To buy products from Novell is to acquire technology whose short-term future is unknown. It’s just another reason among many more to avoid Novell products. █
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