Stallman and Ubuntu: Sticks and Stones and a Blogosphere Brawl

It was only a few weeks ago that the Linux blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon suffered its latest round of damage thanks to the recentskirmish over the GPL, but now the popular establishment of questionable repute is actually shut down for a week for repairs.

The cause this time?

Yet another blogosphere brawl, needless to say, focusing this time on Ubuntu and its newly installed “surveillance code,” as legendary Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman called it in a recentblog post.

“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,'” Stallman explained.

“It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this,” he added. “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.”

‘Just a Bit Childish’

If you’ve spent five minutes in the Linux community you’re no doubt already aware that debate is never in short supply.

As if on cue, “FUD” was the term Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon chose to describe Stallman’s comments in ablog post of his own shortly thereafter.

“This just seems a bit childish,” Bacon added.

‘It Was Wrong of Me’

Fast-forward three days, however, and Bacon issued an apology.

“Unfortunately, sometimes I end up saying some things I wish I hadn’t, as is the case here,” Bacon wrote in a freshpost last Monday.

“Quite possibly the most significant reason why so many of us respect Richard for his lifelong body of work is due to his clarity and commitment to his view of freedom, and although there is debate about the approach in which he articulates these views at times, it was nonetheless wrong of me to describe his position as ‘childish’; he is not a child, quite the opposite,” Bacon explained.

Did Stallman’s post “somewhat over-sensationalize” the issue, as Bacon ended up putting it? Or was Bacon simply rationalizing a new commercial approach for the popular Linux distro?

That’s what the Linux blogosphere has been trying to decide.

‘They Made a Big Mistake’

“I tend to prefer Jono’s handling of the situation, but at the same time there is something profoundly wrong about what Ubuntu did here,” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien told Linux Girl.

“To me, it all hinges on it being opt-out instead of opt-in,” he explained. “The fact that they did it as opt-out means that by ‘the tyranny of the default,’ lots of people are going to be sending their information without intending to, or even in many cases without knowing that they are doing it.

“I want Canonical to be commercially viable, but I think they made a big mistake on this one,” O’Brien concluded.

‘It’s Mandatory to Warn the User’

Indeed, “I am very concerned about such issues,” began Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

At the same time, however, spying was probably “not the idea behind the Unity tool,” he added. “I think they are struggling to become a nice ‘normal user’ OS, with some helping, commercial tools.”

Nevertheless, “it’s mandatory for a GNU/Linux distribution to warn the user, and easily allow them to switch on/off such a tool,” Gonzalo Velasco C. opined.

“I hope Canonical rethinks that tool — I’m sure they already respect the millions of users they want to have,” he concluded. “On the other hand, *buntu users have other sons: Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu and other second degree-derivatives. It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of privacy in Ubuntu.”

‘He Has a Point’

Similarly, “I hate to agree with RMS, but he has a point,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack concurred. “I really don’t want my local searches transmitted to a third party.”

On the bright side, however, “there are other distros such as Mint that don’t do that,” Mack added.

And again: “RMS is absolutely right [to] criticize the ways of Canonical in this case,” Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol agreed. “The community wants a better Debian derivative, not a Windows (any version) copy cat.”

Sadly, Ubuntu “is becoming each time more like a product and less like a community distro,” Ebersol concluded. “There’s nothing wrong with making money, but one should watch what is being done to make money. Or, we enter into an ‘Ends justify the means’ mode, and that’s very dangerous.”

‘Unquestionably Spyware’

Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza took a similar view.

“Yet again, RMS is right, however little tact he might package with his message,” Espinoza told Linux Girl. “Ubuntu’s Amazon integration is unquestionably spyware by definition, as the user is not informed as to what data is collected, where it is sent, or how it will be treated.”

Apparently, “Ubuntu learned nothing from Microsoft being forced to implement browser selection screens, which was the right thing to do voluntarily when presenting an integrated search tool that sends data home every time you perform a search on your local computer,” Espinoza added.

‘Now It’s Mark’s Turn’

“The only childish thing involved is Ubuntu’s unwillingness to admit its error, a typical hallmark of corporations operated by those who believe themselves to be above reproach,” Espinoza pointed out. “At least Jono realized and admitted his mistake — now it’s Mark’s turn.”

In any case, “while the functionality is not difficult to remove, it should rather have been functionality which is not difficult to enable,” Espinoza suggested.

“My current plan for my next OS reload is LMDE,” he concluded. “I could put up with much of this from Ubuntu if the quality of the software were higher, but I seem to get the same regressions popping up over and over again.”

‘I Don’t Believe It Should Be Default’

Yet again: “I agree with Stallman, if not word for word, at least in his intent,” offered Google+ blogger Linux Rants.

“I appreciate what Canonical is trying to do with Ubuntu’s dash, but I don’t like the fact that every search I type in is sent to Canonical, whether I intend to search the Internet or not,” Linux Rants explained. “This gives Canonical a great deal of information about me and my computing habits.

“At this point, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Canonical is doing anything unscrupulous with that information, or anything at all beyond the search that it was intended to do, but believing that they’ll never attempt to use that information borders on the ludicrous,” he opined. “There are people that believe that these features are a great enhancement to their experience, and that’s fine. I just don’t believe that it should be the default.”

‘Jono Got It Right the First Time’

Not everyone saw it that way, however.

“I don’t know, I think Jono Bacon got it the right the first time around,” opined Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

“RMS is being a bit childish,” Lim said. “He seems to see an Orc hidden behind every bush.”

Canonical “needs to monetize their distribution and selected Amazon as their partner; Ubuntu gives Amazon info to improve search results,” he pointed out. “This is something rather common these days.”

Remove the ability to monetize a service, an app or an operating system, meanwhile, “and soon all you will be left with is proprietary software and some fringe software,” Lim predicted. “It’s time for the old guard to stop trying to take down the initiatives which might make Linux on the consumer desktop relevant. Leave Ubuntu (and GNOME) alone.

“There are plenty of alternatives,” he concluded. “Why force everyone to march to the beat of the same drum?”

‘The Only Way One Can Make a Living’

At the heart of the matter is the GPL and one little problematic fact, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet suggested — specifically, what he calls “the blessed 3.”

“What is the blessed 3? It’s the only way one can make a living with GPL software,” hairyfeet explained. “1. support contracts; 2. selling hardware; or 3. the tin cup begging model.”

In fact, “at the end of the day a good 90 percent of the software EVER made simply doesn’t fit in the tiny boxes of the blessed 3, as Canonical is finding out,” he added.

‘Innovation or Desperation’

Similarly, “this whole issue speaks to one of the big difficulties in reaching the consumer market with free software,” noted Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “There just isn’t a direct-to-consumer business model that works.

“The big players in this industry focus on servers, but Ubuntu was determined to bring Linux to the desktop,” Travers explained. “Not to say that it won’t happen at some point, but I am not sure a single company can do that.”

Essentially, “Ubuntu is trying to become an ad-supported operating system somewhere between the Android model and conventional adware models,” he noted. “The big problem is that people don’t really like adware, and the Android model has not been a huge money-maker for Google.

“I remain unconvinced that adware-supported OSes will ever be really viable,” Travers added. “One has to wonder why Ubuntu is choosing this route, and there are only two possibilities: innovation or desperation.”

‘The Beginning of the End’?

In other words, “it is possible that Ubuntu is just trying this to see if it works,” he explained. “Nobody has ever succeeded here, and maybe they think that if they do, they can corner the home PC market down the road. This is a pretty risky gamble.”

On the other hand, “the other possibility is that Ubuntu is desperately trying to find a way to monetize the userbase, and this is the best they could come up with,” Travers concluded. “If this is the case, it could well be the beginning of the end of Ubuntu.”

‘The Market Will Decide’

It all comes down to trust, blogger Robert Pogson suggested.

“Since we cannot control all the software we use, we have to choose whom to trust,” he explained. “I trust Google, Amazon and others to provide more and better services than I can provide myself and at lower cost.”

After all, “I cannot set up hundreds of thousands of servers to maintain my databases,” he added. “I cannot get websites I visit to work together to give me better services. Google and Amazon use GNU/Linux plus their own software to provide those services.”

Is there any alternative to trusting corporations?

“I doubt it,” Pogson told Linux Girl. “The market will decide whether FLOSS wins there, and so far GNU/Linux is doing exceedingly well just based on price/performance.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • I still don’t understand what prevents Red Hat from putting a great free desktop OS out there, and what prevents Ubuntu to put a great paid server OS out there.

    Since the money is to be made on the server market and the popularity and brand recognition comes from the home-office computer market, why are these two companies not doing (and competing in) both markets?

    Fedora could be made much more serious (not the testbench it currently is) by having a stable release, let’s say every two years…? Ubuntu server is already running on some big business tasks, so they might consider start charging their server customers and make the money there, instead of going the suicidal route of an adware-desktop.

    In the end, it’s the pretty good old "paid for business, free for everyone else", that keeps working for many software companies, open source or not.

    All this is a mistery to me.

    • They’re different markets. Red Hat aims for enterprise (where servers are generally more critical than the workstations), while Canonical aims for end users and small-medium businesses.

      And Canonical already does charge for its support services; Ubuntu+Advantage is basically to RHEL as Ubuntu alone is to Fedora: a supported version of what would otherwise be a free-as-in-beer operating system.

  • I agree with Richard Stallman’s remarks but he could have exercised a little more tact. Ubuntu should have known better, but for what ever reason chose not to.

    It is a shame as Ubuntu was my first Linux distribution when I switched over from Windows in 2009 shortly after moving to here in Florida from New Jersey being introduced to it by a British guy who was a dear friend.

    I thought Ubuntu was the greatest thing since sliced bread even though they switched to the Unity desktop. But the so called Amazon shopping lens hinges on what I would call spyware just as Stallman suggests. I got away from Windows to avoid this not have to keep dealing with it.

    As a result I will not employ Ubuntu nor recommend it to any one I am trying to convert from Microsoft or Apple. It is even hard for me to use any distribution Ubuntu based except for Uberstudent. I like that one, and it my distribution of choice right now.

    Ubuntu should have told users and not try to hide it. It should be completely disabled by default and only able to be enabled with full disclosure up front. I think it is high time Mr. Shuttleworth pull his head from his aft point of contact and start listening to and considering the wishes of users

    There can be nothing good attained as a result of putting profit ahead of customers (yes we users are customers) going against the core values of Linux and FOSS and not honoring the wishes of the community.

  • I’m personally on Stallman’s side here. Sticking product placements in an operating system was something I expected from Microsoft, not Canonical. I originally switched to Ubuntu to *escape* that kind of bullsh*t.

    Thankfully for me, I’m free from their shenanigans for the time being; I primarily use a different Ubuntu flavor (Lubuntu is my favorite, though Kubuntu is also nice when I have the hardware for it), and I’m really liking Slackware and Debian. Mint’s good, too.

    So I guess there’s something that everyone needs to remember: unlike in the world of closed-source operating systems, users of free/open-source software have choice. Hopefully they understand that they have this choice and opt to discontinue their use of Ubuntu in favor of a different flavor or distribution entirely until the privacy issues are resolved.

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