Freedom in the Cloud?

  • October 8, 2008
  • Avatar for peter

Clouds - source

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and outspoken critic of anything proprietary, recently slammend 'cloud computing' as "stupidity" and a "marketing hype campaign".

It makes sense the Stallman is against cloud computing - by its very nature it requires you to be running software on someone else's machine, which you have no control over. Such an idea is repugnant to Stallman and other free software purists, as it does not guarantee you as a user any freedom.

The problem is, cloud computing looks set to be the next big thing. There are many advantages to moving your data and applications off your local machine and accessing them from any device, rather than them being stuck to a single physical device.

But does the concept of free software (and to some extent open source also) have to be fundamentally incompatible with the new cloud paradigm?

The Affero GPL is a free software and open source licence designed specifically for web applications. It is, as you'd expect, very similar to the GPL, but requires anyone who runs it on their public web server to distribute the source code if they have made changes.

One recent example of Affero GPL software is Laconica, a microblogging platform similar to Twitter. The difference is, Laconica is just the software, not the service, and the software itself is open source. Anyone is free to make their own microblogging service from the Laconica service (see, provided that any changes they make to the copy on their web server are redistributed under the same licence.

The difficulty is that the nature of web applications means that even if someone claims to run a free software web app on their server, it is almost impossible to verify that they are telling the truth. It would be trivial to make a, malicious or otherwise, change to the software and still claim you were running Free stuff.

Personally, I think Stallman's stance on this issue is untenable. Cloud computing is likely to continue to be an important market; if free software does not evolve to have a presence in that market, it could seriously suffer. While it is important to make sure there are Affero- and similar licensed alternatives to the big apps like Google, what I think we should be really pushing for is the open exchange of data between applications.

Open data exchange is another important issue in empowering users to have the freedom to switch between solutions, rather than being locked in as soon as they have put data into a system. It should be noted that in some cases this is already possible - Google Calendar iCalendar exports, for example, and many 'cloud' webmail services offering POP or IMAP access to get your messages out.

What is your opinion on cloud computing versus free software? Can they co-exist, or should we all be hoarding our data on our own systems to preseve freedom? Have your say in the comments.

[image source]

Avatar for peter Peter Upfold

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