"Multisearch" in Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala Alpha: Privacy Concerns?
If you thought using free software protected you from the privacy invasion and forced advertising that are often bundled with proprietary platforms, you may have thought wrong. Until recently, the alpha release of Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) sported a feature in Firefox called “Multisearch,” which modified Google searches in order to collect data about user behavior. Here’s the story.
Beginning a couple of weeks ago, individuals testing the next release of Ubuntu, which will appear in stable form in October, found that performing a Google search from within the Firefox toolbar or from Ubuntu’s start page led to a custom results page with a modified interface. A vague wiki entry about the new feature describes it as part of an “experiment” to collect data about user search habits and send them back to Ubuntu developers, ostensibly in order to “lead into work that can try to reduce the time spent when searching.”
This discovery prompted an angry response in bug reports and an Ubuntu forums thread, where developers were blasted for unilaterally implementing a feature with questionable consequences for user privacy. Users were also upset that the custom search broke some Google features, like “I’m feeling lucky.”
The experiment ended suddenly on August 11, as quietly as it began. But users remain in the dark, lacking any official communication from Canonical regarding the issue, or why developers thought it was a good idea.
Violating user trust?
The wiki page cited above promises that the “multisearch plugin will not exist in its current form in the final Ubuntu 9.10 release”; unfortunately, I’m unable to find a more official source corraborating that claim.
Nonetheless, I’ll give Canonical the benefit of the doubt that the experiment was truly aimed at finding ways to improve the Ubuntu user experience–and also, I suspect, generating some revenue by injecting advertisements into Firefox searches, which is fair enough as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of privacy and usability.
The way in which Ubuntu developers approached the test, however, is unacceptable. The least they could have done is made the community aware of the feature’s presence, rather than taking advantage of unsuspecting users who test alpha releases by forcing this change upon them through an Ubuntu update.
The process behind the experiment should also have been much more transparent; as it is, developer responses to comments in bug reports are largely vague and condescending, and Alexander Sack’s promise of an official communication about the feature in a blog post or wiki page has yet to come to fruition.
For the time being, I’m chalking this fiasco up as one of the “bumps in the road,” as Canonical representative Jono Bacon put it, in a relationship between Canonical and the community that has generally been very positive and transparent. But let’s hope a mistake like this isn’t made again.