By Ryan Paul | Published: September 30, 2008 - 09:35AM CT
Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman spent yesterday condemning cloud computing and is calling for users to reject popular web applications. He insists that reliance on web-based software poses a serious risk to freedom and privacy. Cloud computing is just a "hype campaign" perpetrated by software vendors who want to control users, he says, and the only way to fight the problem is to stop using the software.
Cloud computing is one of the most significant emerging trends in the technology industry. Users are becoming increasingly reliant on web applications and remote data storage solutions. The popularity of cloud computing is climbing in both enterprise and consumer markets, and the trend is widely regarded as a game-changing advancement in software deployment and consumption. In light of the growing importance of cloud computing, Stallman's call for its rejection warrants both scrutiny and skepticism.
"It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign," Stallman told The Guardian in reference to cloud computing. "It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's web server, you're defenseless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software."
The negative characteristics of cloud computing that Stallman identifies are very real, but the solution that he prescribes seems grossly myopic and counterintuitive. The lack of seamless interoperability between mainstream web applications imposes barriers that limit data portability. Much like proprietary file formats on the desktop, the lack of data portability in closed-web ecosystems creates the potential for vendor lock-in and reduces the amount of control that users have over their own data. Many web applications also have restrictive terms of service that require users to cede some rights to their own data so that it can be exploited by the application providers for invasive advertising or other purposes.
Stallman correctly recognizes those problems, but his belief that the problems are intractable is simply wrong. The open source software movement has found productive ways to address the same kind of problems on the desktop, and I'm confident that reasonable solutions can be found to bring the same level of freedom to the cloud. The challenges posed by new computing paradigms will require the open source software community to evolve and adapt, not collectively stick its head in the sand.
The rapidly shifting landscape in the technology industry demands that participants cultivate a high level of adaptability. Stakeholders have to be willing to keep an open mind and find practical ways to embrace major changes, or risk getting left behind. If the software freedom movement is too brittle to withstand the rise of cloud computing, then it's not going to have any serious staying power.
Fortunately, I'm not the only open source software enthusiast who doesn't buy into what I view as Stallman's hysteria and defeatism. Earlier this year, tech publisher Tim O'Reilly discussed the issue during a keynote presentation at the annual O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON). O'Reilly acknowledged the challenges posed by cloud computing, but he also pointed out that the vibrant open source software community has already started exploring experimental solutions.
Here at Ars, we have reported on several intriguing open web service initiatives that have been launched in the past few years. The developers of the open source GNOME desktop environment, for instance, created the open online.gnome.org web infrastructure so that they could make web integration a core part of the user experience without compromising software freedom. Luis Villa, a law student and GNOME community member, authored a draft for an open services definition last year. His ideas have influenced broad discussion in the GNOME community.
Another really good open web services experiment is Mozilla's Weave synchronization service for Firefox. Weave is still in the early stages of development, but the long-term plan is to provide a secure web storage platform that is accessible to the browser and third-party software components. Weave uses encryption so that the data is never visible to the operator of the server. It also uses the WebDAV protocol and doesn't depend on any specialized server-side capabilities, so it will be easy for users to self-host their Weave storage and use third-party providers for the backend.
The open source Identi.ca microblogging application is another open web service that's gaining users. Identi.ca pioneered the OpenMicroBlogging standard, an interoperability protocol that makes it possible for users to communicate across compatible microblogging services. Identi.ca founder Evan Prodromou is one of many open source community members who is speaking out against Stallman's rejection of cloud computing.
"I'm very supportive of [Stallman's] concern about cloud computing, and I agree that it's something that the Free Software and Free Culture communities need to address. But in rejecting all network computing, I think RMS has thrown out the baby with the bathwater," Prodromou wrote in a blog entry this morning. "I don't believe loss of absolute control means that you lose your autonomy completely. And I think that exchanging some control in order to participate in social, collaborative computing is ultimately enriching for individuals and for society."
Prodromou is a signatory of the Franklin Street Statement, a roadmap for delivering software freedom in a cloud computing environment. The statement, which was authored by members of the open source software community in collaboration with the Free Software Foundation, encourages service providers to release their software under open licenses and give users the ability to control their own data.
Another facet of this issue that is worth considering is that cloud computing has the potential to expand user freedom in some very important ways. For instance, the growth of cloud computing and the shift in focus away from the desktop is rapidly eroding the leverage of the companies that control desktop platforms. Microsoft's operating system monopoly, for instance, is largely predicated on the abundance of software that is only available on Windows. If more of that software shifts to the web, users will become less dependent on Windows and will have more freedom to choose which operating system they adopt. That is one of the many factors that has contributed to the recent increase in vendor adoption of Linux on netbook devices.
Stallman's dismissal of cloud computing and call for the categorical rejection of web services is puzzling in light of the potential opportunities created by web technologies and the innovative work that is being done by software freedom advocates to bring openness to the web. Stallman should be using his visibility to promote adoption of the principles embodied in the Franklin Street Statement. Instead he is undermining those efforts by disingenuously dismissing the entire concept of network computing.