Free software father declared Ubuntu Linux to contain spyware

Free software father declared Ubuntu Linux to contain spyware

Summary: Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, has proclaimed that Ubuntu Linux includes spyware. Ubuntu supporters disagree with this take.

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Richard M. Stallman, RMS, founder of the Free Software Foundation, says Ubuntu includes spyware.

Richard M. Stallman, aka RMS, creator of the Gnu General Public License (GPL) and the Free Software Foundation has announced that as far as he's concerned, Ubuntu contains spyware and that Linux supporters should shun Ubuntu for spying.

Specifically, RMS hates that Ubuntu 12.10 incorporated Amazon search into its default search function. So, if you searched for say "Hobbit." you'd get results from both your PC and Amazon. When it was introduced, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, defended this change by saying Ubuntu wasn't going to incorporate ads into the operating system, which Microsoft has done with Windows 8, and that no personalized data would be sent to Amazon.

Slideshow: Say hello to Ubuntu 12.10 Linux

Later, Ubuntu make Amazon search an optional feature, while leaving it on by default. That's not good enough for RMS.

This is just like the first surveillance practice I learned about in Windows. My late friend Fravia told me that when he searched for a string in the files of his Windows system, it sent a packet to some server, which was detected by his firewall. Given that first example I paid attention and learned about the propensity of "reputable" proprietary software to be malware. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Ubuntu sends the same information.

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 [Ubuntu's parent company] 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.

True, "Ubuntu allows users to switch the surveillance off. Clearly Canonical thinks that many Ubuntu users will leave this setting in the default state (on)." But, "Even if it were disabled by default, the feature would still be dangerous: 'opt in, once and for all' for a risky practice, where the risk varies depending on details, invites carelessness. To protect users' privacy, systems should make prudence easy: when a local search program has a network search feature, it should be up to the user to choose network search explicitly each time."

Therefore, RMS concludes,

It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this. 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.

If you ever recommend or redistribute GNU/Linux, please remove Ubuntu from the distros you recommend or redistribute. If its practice of installing and recommending non-free software didn't convince you to stop, let this convince you. In your install fests, in your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL [Festival Latinoamericano de Instalación de Software] events, don't install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.

Jono Bacon, Canonical's community manager begs to differ. While not speaking officially for Canonical, Bacon flatly stated, "This is FUD."

It's FUD, because Bacon wrote RMS is not presenting, "an accurate set of facts." Bacon explained, "The goal of the dash [Ubuntu's core search interface] in Ubuntu has always been to provide a central place in which you can search and find things that are interesting and relevant 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."

Part of that goal is how to handle privacy. Bacon continued: "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," but "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."

Does Canonical always get it right. No. Bacon admitted that, "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."

Bacon's real problem with RMS is that he sees RMS throwing out the good of Ubuntu with the "bad" of a still evolving privacy policies and practices. He sees RMS' views on software projects as being a binary where you either stick with his set of privacy and freedom ethics be shunned. Bacon doesn't see the world in RMS' black and white.

Everyone has different views on privacy and freedom. Bacon explains:

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.

Bacon cited the example of Apple. Deep under Mac OS X and iOS' surface lies a free software BSD Unix operating system.: Darwin. Only operating systems experts know that "difficult to use" Unix lies behind the "easy to use" Apple products.

Bacon believes that there's no reason why Ubuntu, or some other true, open-source operating system, can't be "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."

Unfortunately, Bacon continued, "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."

Bacon concluded by holding out an olive branch to RMS, "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."

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Topics: Ubuntu, Amazon, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software Development

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104 comments
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  • Search functions a controversy?

    If that is what security controversy is in the Linux world, then all is still well for my Xubuntu. Not too worried.
    D.J. 43
    • No

      A security controversy is that Linux stinks at security: Linux.com hacked is the proof of it.

      Wait! You are configuring it wrong!!!
      markbn
      • Now they turn on each other

        Hohoho. Love it.
        LBiege
        • Their Watching You....

          All humor aside, spying is becoming all too common not just with computer technology but even any of means home entertainment. It's a shame to think that even pulling the ethernet cords won't guarantee you a private life. Now about turning on each other; hasn't the best example been the all too loyal users of Windows and their ever beloved 8?
          partman1969
      • Linux does not stink at security. The truth is...

        All OSes have vulnerabilities all of them. Unix, OSX, Android, OS/2, Windows, QNX. The second you assume you can't be hacked because of some technology and become lax about security, you become vulnerable. For years it was a mantra about Apple that they were secure. The first challenge was some guy made a bet that he could place an unprotected Apple Server and that no-one could hack it and he put money on it. It was down in less than 30 minutes.

        Then a few years later Pwn2Own came around as part of CanSec and Charlie Miller won 3 years running hacking Apple computers. He was interviewed and said he hacked apples because they were easiest to hack. This was a huge wake up call to Apple. Microsoft had already had its wakeup call regarding security and it took a while before they were able to tighten it up.

        Linux networks and websites and android phones have all been successfully attacked.

        The point is, you can't be passive about security. Either as an OEM or as a user.
        DevGuy_z
  • Yeah

    Canonical is Linux communities Microsoft and "Cancer" for free software as well.
    It isn't just source code, it is about ethics and marketing how they presents others work as own and they take credit for it and then build vendor lock in with it.
    Fri13
    • •••••••••

      Speaking just for me: I don't agree with "Yeah" about that cancer remark. I've been using Ubuntu for my personal machines for years. I like this fork of linux; it's useful and free. I haven't seen an amazon search returned ever, not once. If that did occur, I might turn it off, but I wouldn't throw away the OS. I still suppport Ubuntu. I will volunarily contribute $$ on the next download. If the distribution makes a turn for the worse, I might change my mind. Please don't attempt to scare me with argumentation by extreme. Ubuntu ain't microsoft.
      jayfulton
      • yeah

        Clearly you have because you don't even know the fact that Ubuntu isn't a fork of Linux...
        And clearly you have swallowed every lie what canonical say as you believe that Ubuntu is the operating system instead that Linux is the operating system in Ubuntu.
        Fri13
        • attention Yeah

          why are trying to invalidate my opinion? Did I fail to precisely specify the debian source to your satisfaction? Ubuntu is still a darn good option for me. Drop the attack mode and stick the issues. thanks
          jayfulton
          • Nope

            Then clearly don't use Canonical lies and correct your technical mistakes if you want to express your opinions about Ubuntu to public.

            It isn't personal at all, you only take it as such as you can not take corrections about Canonical lies and propaganda.
            Fri13
          • WTF

            Sorry but you are such a troll kiddo.

            Linux is not an OS, for your knowledge, so may you correct your "technical mistakes"?....

            Linux is a kernel, GNU/Linux, and any other "linux distro" such as Ubuntu are OSes (using linux kernel, gnome-based graphical shell, grub2 bootloader...).

            Whats the meaning of "Linux fork" when they all (OSes) use the Linux kernel? Are you ever aware such stupidity you saying? How can any Linux distro (OS using linux kernel) not being a linux fork?

            Ubuntu is a Debian fork, everybody knows about that. That doesnt make debian a linux fork (no sense again) just because Debian itself its not based in any other previous distro.

            Grow up, and make yourself and elaborated opinion just before disrespecting others and behaving so arrogant.

            Linux has no forks as far Im aware. And ofc, if it ever had, it would be another kernel, and not an OS (apes dont have baby dogs, missed school day?).
            Toperharrier
        • Ubuntu is the OS

          Linux is the kernel. Fortunately, Linux distros are highly interoperable.
          John L. Ries
        • ARE YOU SERIOUS?

          Ubuntu is not a fork of Linux? Then what is it then? Where did it come from? What are the forks of Linux in your opinion?

          BTW, Linux is the kernel, which most free and open source operating systems are based on. Most of them also use the common desktop environments (Gnome, KDE, etc.) on top of it. This is where Ubuntu sets itself (visually) apart by forking Gnome and developing Unity. Still, they're still pretty much Linux and open source.
          JOB83
          • Distro's are not forks

            A fork of Linux would have been Android, but even that is less than a fork than it used to be now that the Android code changes have been merged back in. Still though, the kernels used for specific SoC's might be considered forks, since OEM's often do some heavy modification to the kernel to suit their needs.

            Also, there are other open and free OS's out there which are Unix variants.
            lehjr
      • That's because it's new in 12.10 (Quantal Quetzal)

        So of course you haven't seen it.

        Yet.

        You clearly are running something earlier -- probably 12.04 LTS (Precise) or 10.04 LTS (Lucid).

        I actually kind of liked Lucid -- it was the last pretty good Ubuntu. Though I'm really a Debian guy, I was relatively comfortable recommending Lucid (certainly better than Fedora for newbies).

        But Unity is a real hit-or-miss proposition for newcomers (some love it, but more hate it) and it's a no-go for older hardware. On top of the perpetual quality-control issues that's made an Ubuntu recommendation hard to justify, and this whole "It's not really spyware, because we always wanted to do it" thing is the last straw (not just the Amazon Search itself, but the attitude and resistance to fixing the drawbacks).

        in the end:
        Spyware is, as spyware does.
        bswiss
  • RMS's self-gratification

    RMS uses only cash. He does not trust ATMs or Credit Cards. He has probably never bought anything online. I give him credit he walks the talk. But he is hardly someone who would be affected or should care if Amazon or Canonical collects private data.

    Not many others would choose his path. Most users have bought things online and do have credit cards. They might want to use Dash to access Amazon and other shopping sites. So what we have here is a disconnect between Mr. Stallman and those who live in the real world. He perhaps has not considered that others might want to live a life differently from him.

    The second issue is that this story broke in September and was over a month later. It has been dead for more than a month. Canonical has responded to some concerns and the shopping lens is easily removed. So, what is his point in bringing it up now? Could it be to get his name in the news and fill up his speaking engagements for which he gets paid? He has a self interest in raising these concerns.

    The third issue is that he has branded the distribution as spyware (originally he called it malware) when it is only part of the distribution that can be uninstalled. So he is deliberately overstating this to sensationalise things. To what purpose? He gains by making the headlines. He would otherwise be relegated to obscurity.

    I respect RMS as difficult as that may sound. Every time he opens his mouth like this it reduces my opinion of him. He has a knack for sticking his foot in his mouth. I am beginning to think that it should stay there.
    linuxcanuck1
    • Idealism

      RMS does conscientiously try to persuade people to follow a better way, which is a good and proper thing to do and has produced some very good results, to include the system from which I am typing this message (Fedora). But the rest of us can and should consider whether or not his way is actually better, or if all aspects of his way are actually better, then do as we think proper.

      This is not Carrie Nation wrecking saloons with her little hatchet, but one man speaking out on what he thinks is a moral issue (as is his right)

      I don't use Ubuntu myself, so I don't know if he's right.
      John L. Ries
    • Spyware is as spyware does.

      The story may have broke in September, but Shuttleworth still hasn't fixed the underlying problem. Instead, he chose to only half fix the problem -- when a full fix would have been just as easy.

      The fact that savvy users can uninstall the package entirely (assuming they have admin rights, and know about this) is besides the point. The toggle is just a late attempt to defuse the objections -- but the fact that Shuttleworth/Canonical is holding stubbornly fast to an "opt-out" and inflexible "all or nothing" approach, says all you really need to know.

      And as aggravating as Stallman can be, he has this even more irritating tendency to be proven right in the end -- it's worth reconsidering what he has to say.
      bswiss
      • Wait...

        You mean lame excuses and poorly thought out explanations are not a fix?
        lehjr
    • RMS is an eccentric and iconoclast.

      While I have great respect for his work in software and with the GPL, and consider him one of the true geniuses in the computing world, that does not make him wise man on every topic. His philosophies increasingly show signs of serious paranoia about mundane processes, which would be considered eccentric or even unbalanced in someone not so famous. I don't care if Ubuntu shares searches with Amazon. I buy stuff from Amazon all the time. Maybe they'll show me something I want. If it gets Linux to a wider audience it's worth it. I like Ubuntu because it generally just works. In my experience it works better than any other distro out there, and offers more software and more flexibilty, without getting hung up over whether this or that firmware or snippet of code is "free" or not. The vast majority of users don't understand the implications of these things, and almost certainly don't care. Almost everything we encounter in the media world is "encumbered" to some extent. By concentrating on Stallman's version of "freedom" software in general would mostly stand still while it kept reinventing the wheel over and over again while commercially funded projects jumped ahead by leaps and bounds. This is precisely why Linux has struggled to get 1% of the desktop for twenty years, because of this over-thought, over-idealistic approach. An operating system that can do nothing useful for the average user is not going to interest them. If all the developement that's been wasted in Linux on duplicate, pointless, dead-end projects had been put into building win32 binary compatibility, for example, Linux might now be a real contender on the desktop, rather than having to do an end run via cellphones and tablets. While Stallman makes some good points from time to time, the fact is that almost nobody has the luxury of living like he does in a philosophical bubble, largely on the indulgence of others. He'd be relegated to being a hermit in a cave if he actually had to live by the rules most of us do.
      guyonearth