Stallman’s Hype Machine About Cloud Computing

Richard Stallman has no doubt had a massive effect on the way open source, free software, and even the web has developed. But I can’t agree with his blanket statement about “cloud computing.” “It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign.”

Any thing we do with software, including stand alone applications or cloud computing needs to be considered in the same light: what rights do I have if I use it? That simple question needs to be asked no matter what software, cloud or not, you use. He even alludes to the root of the problem when he uses the term “freedom-respecting program.” That is the root of the evil after all, freedom.

For example, the article picked on Gmail. I can move my data in and out of Gmail freely, and with my own domain I can move my email to another service whenever I want. That sounds fairly free to me.

Localised software can also be used to lock people in. God, we’ve been talking about that for decades. Microsoft became a master at it.

In fact cloud computing has the potential to make our data even more “free.” For instance, rather than store multiple copies of my data on local machines, as Stallman suggests, I can store my data in the “cloud” and take it with me on multiple device as long as I have a network connection.

Now if the argument is, like Larry Ellison, that the term “cloud computing” is confused and is a “marketing hype campaign.” Then I agree. It’s in the same camp as “web 2.0.” They’re both why I get to use inverted commas so much ;).

So, the same rules apply to software in general: make sure you ask yourself what freedom you have when using any software? Can you take the data and use it elsewhere?

There are a few people in the old-guard that have exhausted their used-by-date I guess.

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18 thoughts on “Stallman’s Hype Machine About Cloud Computing

  1. While it’s true that you can copy your data from – for instance – Gmail, you can’t remove it. This goes beyond the obvious examples of sendmail cache/forward or secure data deletion from a disk… Gmail, as best we can tell, never gets rid of your data as a matter of policy, even after you’ve pitched your link to it in the trash.

    I don’t think Stallman is suggesting going back to locale-bound computing… he’s just suggesting you run your own server. I can get my webmail from Gmail, and from the system sitting in the spare room at home, from just about anywhere.

  2. Hi cmholm

    I get what you’re saying, and that depends how important privacy is to you. Personally, I’m not phased if Google keeps my email. Although as you say, that is “as best we can tell,” and I prefer not to make assumptions. Here is what they say in the About Gmail Privacy page.

    “Google keeps multiple backup copies of users’ emails so that we can recover messages and restore accounts in case of errors or system failure, for some limited periods of time. Even if a message has been deleted or an account is no longer active, messages may remain on our backup systems for some limited period of time. This is standard practice in the email industry, which Gmail and other major webmail services follow in order to provide a reliable service for users. We will make reasonable efforts to remove deleted information from our systems as quickly as is practical.”

    But I get what you are saying. If privacy is a major concern, then perhaps some encrypted email system is a better solution. And that is certainly part of the question people should ask when they ask how “free” their data is.

    However, it’s really impractical to suggest that everyone should run their own server. It’s more impractical than suggesting people keep it all on their PC. Most people I know struggle running a PC, never mind running their own sweet of servers. To use an old analogy that Jonathan Schwartz used to love, it’s like suggesting people run their own powerstation.

  3. [quote]In fact cloud computing has the potential to make our data even more “free.” For instance, rather than store multiple copies of my data on local machines, as Stallman suggests, I can store my data in the “cloud” and take it with me on multiple device as long as I have a network connection.[/quote]

    Don’t be foolish. It’s only free so long as Google chooses to give it to you. More mobile, yes. More free, no.

  4. Hi “name”

    I didn’t say that Google was completely “free.” I said cloud computing “has the potential to make our data more “free.”” And that Gmail was fairly free.

    There is almost always a “cost,” and that is usually an individual choice. Hence my suggestion that everyone should ask the question “what rights do I have if I use it?” Mileage will vary.

    You’re being pedantic, and snippy with a “Don’t be foolish” comment.

  5. No, foolish fits – you are always relying on the good graces of whoever is running your cloud to play nice regardless of how libre their software stack is

  6. That’s very true PaulO. But you could always rephrase this to “you are always relying on the good graces of whoever is developing your software to play nice regardless of how libre their software stack is.” That’s my basic point, it’s not the “cloud” that’s of concern. It’s the same problem we’ve always had, it doesn’t matter where the software resides.

  7. We’re kind of in agreement here – if you’re using a proprietary stack you are to an extent at the mercy of your vendor. The key difference is at least you have not handed your data to someone else to house – so if the cloud provider (for want of another term) goes belly up or wants to steal your stuff you’re gone.

  8. PaulO, exactly. And that’s why the question is important no matter what we use.

    I ask the question whatever I use. I know that with services like Zoho CRM, Flickr, and Google Docs I can export my data. I also know they are big enough not to show warning signs, or provide enough time if they go belly up to export my data, photos, and documents. I wouldn’t use a small, unfunded company to store important data for that very reason.

    But Stallman didn’t qualify what he meant (at least he wasn’t quoted as qualifying it), and instead made a blanket statement. If I listened to him I’d miss out on a great CRM I can easily share with work colleagues, an amazing photo community, and collaborative sharing of documents no matter where I am. That’s freedom to me.

    We could very easily extend the old analogy that was used in the computer security business (might still be in fact), that if you want to protect your data, stick it in a safe and lock it. That’s not “free.”

    There are always pros and cons, and they always have to be considered (my point in asking the question). But Stallman doesn’t even seem willing to ask what the pros are when using the “cloud.”

  9. While the article tries to frame the statement in the context of privacy, I’m more inclined to believe that the ‘freedom’ Stallman was referring to is about software freedom, not ‘the freedom to move your data to wherever you see fit and access it however you want to’.

    See the FSF’s Free Software definition here:

    I believe the reason why Stallman sees cloud computing as dangerous is primarily because users of cloud computing services usually cannot have access to the software that runs those services. They cannot study the software or modify it or redistribute it.

  10. Two things that Stallman hasn’t taken to account (And it’s these two things that the fundemental flaws in FOSS in general)

    1. Not everyone has the skill or hardware to build and/or install their own software that would allow them do what services like Gmail, Google Apps or Basecamp do

    2. Not everyone out of those who DO have skill or hardware have the time to do it. Did he think about the fact that many people use these services because they are convenient? I don’t have to care about hard drive failures, or power outages – it’s someone else’s problem.

    So once again FOSS fails to realise that the < 1% of people who would rather spend their lives sitting in a dark office in some Computer Science faculty somewhere optimising their Haskell implementation of the towers of Hanoi aren’t the norm – most people just what to get their work done. If that means Google gets to go through my data, big fucking deal. If my data was that private, I wouldn’t be using the cloud anyway.

  11. Myles, I think that the issue of skill/convenience is orthogonal to FOSS. FOSS is simply about licencing software under terms that permit third parties to obtain, modify and redistribute source code. How this is achieved – whether or not people are paid to produce the original code, whether any third parties have the time or skill to get involved, and so on – is separate from the issue of open licencing.

  12. Sham: Ideally it is, but in reality all that FOSS gives us is the opportunity to view, review and change the source of those systems – so my point is, that it’s relevancy, particularly when speaking about web applications is small when talking in terms of the vast majority of users, as the number of people that can and will make modifications is minute.

  13. Pingback: Richard Stallman’s cloud computing nonsense « Webcitizen FelipeC

  14. Does anyone recall reading in the paper about credit card numbers being stolen in the millions? How about social security numbers? And this was in company data not intended to be put out over the web.

    There used to be a saying that no IT person ever got fired for buying IBM. In the future none will be fired for not putting company data into the cloud.

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