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Free Software Foundation Attacks Ubuntu's Amazon Search

Just when we thought it was over, the saga surrounding Canonical's controversial integration of Amazon.com search features into Ubuntu resurged this week as Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation

Christopher Tozzi

December 10, 2012

3 Min Read
Free Software Foundation Attacks Ubuntu's Amazon Search

Just when we thought it was over, the saga surrounding Canonical‘s controversial integration of Amazon.com search features into Ubuntu resurged this week as Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, denounced the feature as “spyware.” Depending on whether you think Stallman is a messianic visionary or a self-caricaturing embarrassment to the open source community, his thoughts may or may not sway your opinion. Either way, though, they highlight the huge challenges Canonical faces gaining user acceptance of its policies.

In an essay published Friday, Stallman complained about a new feature, introduced with the release of Ubuntu 12.10 in October 2012, that displays results from Amazon.com when users search in the Dash of Ubuntu’s Unity desktop interface. Notably, in an indication that he was writing in his official capacity as founder and president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), his words appeared on its website, rather than on his personal site, where he often posts thoughts about a variety of timely issues.

In addition to expressing concerns over Canonical’s collaboration with Amazon.com, a company which he believes “commits many wrongs,” Stallman complained in the essay about what he perceives as brazen violation of Ubuntu users’ privacy:

Ubuntu uses the information about searches to show the user ads to buy various things from Amazon. Amazon commits many wrongs (see http://stallman.org/amazon.html); by promoting Amazon, Canonical contributes to them. However, the ads are not the core of the problem. The main issue is the spying. Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it.

Although he realizes that users can disable the Amazon.com feature if they choose, Stallman lamented that Canonical has chosen to turn it on by default.

Ultimately, Stallman wrote, the reason all of this is so troubling is that it undermines the open source (err, Free Software) community’s ability to promise that its products, unlike proprietary programs whose code is not publicly visible, are free of spyware. “If we can only say, ‘free software won’t spy on you, unless it’s Ubuntu,’ that’s much less powerful than saying, ‘free software won’t spy on you.'”

Shaky Seas for Canonical

As a man without whom Linux distributions as we know them would almost certainly not exist, Stallman enjoys substantial influence in the open source community–even though he is wary of the term “open source” itself, which he distinguishes from “Free Software.” At the same time, however, his history of polemics and ideological extremism have constrained his impact in many corners of the channel.

Nonetheless, even if most Ubuntu users do not follow Stallman closely, his comments on this issue will likely reinvigorate a major debate that had seemed to have fizzled out after a lot of complaining from users, not to mention the Electronic Freedom Foundation, about the Amazon.com feature earlier in the fall. Stallman’s essay, combined with Canonical’s recent announcement of plans for expanding commercial online search functionality in the next Ubuntu release, is a reminder that reconciling efforts to make money with privacy concerns can be a tremendous challenge in the open source channel.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the debate is, the latest installment promises to be interesting. Jono Bacon, Canonical’s “community manager,” has already lobbed the F-word (“FUD”) at Stallman for his criticisms (though Bacon qualified his remarks as his personal opinion, not Canonical’s official stance). We’ll keep our eyes out for other flames as the discourse continues.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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