Freedom in the Cloud?

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 -

Peter Upfold is a technology enthusiast from the UK. Peter’s interest in Linux stems back to 2003, when curiosity got the better of him and he began using SUSE 9.0. Now he runs Linux Mint 9 on the desktop, runs a CentOS-based web server from home for his personal website and dabbles in all sorts of technology things across the Windows, Mac and open source worlds.

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Discussion: Freedom in the Cloud?

  1. lefty.crupps (guest)

    # Posted on 08 October 2008 at 12:25 PM

    I would much prefer the online software that I use to be Free Software, but the larger concern here (imho) is someone else holding your data. They could data mine this for information about you; they could lock you out of it for a ransom (or a third party could hack that site and do that); they could 'lose' it -- when was the last time you got ahold of Google's help desk? -- or they could scan your information looking for reasons to snitch that you copied a paragraph out of a magazine into an email.

    Honestly, who knows what could happen -- but privacy is unlikely to be what will happen, and that comes at a cost. Just as MySpace was the next big thing and I successfully avoided that (I think), this too is an optional way to lose your privacy. I use Gmail but will think very hard before handing all of my data over to one of these services.

  2. Silvio (guest)

    # Posted on 08 October 2008 at 02:17 PM

    A simple solution to this problem would locally encrypting the data before uploading it to the cloud. That would ensure that whoever gets that data can't really have access to it.

  3. bergkamp.sliew (guest)

    # Posted on 09 October 2008 at 07:27 AM

    Silvio, my opinion is that encryption doesn't really solve the problem. The data (although it's encrypted) still resides on the other people's machine and worst still, like what the article said - we wouldn't know if the server is really running free software.

    At the same time, I kinda agree with Peter's opinions. Looking at the current market trend and advantages of using it, it's hard to disregard the potentials and capabilities of cloud computing. Open standards , licensing and transparency can play major roles in making sure the "freedom" still exists at certain level.

  4. drasko (guest)

    # Posted on 09 October 2008 at 11:04 AM

    I think that the fear is understandable, but largely unnecesary: everything that could happenen to your data on some server, could also happen on your private computer too. I like the idea not to think about how to make my data reachable at all times. Also, many of your private data is already owned by the government and state agencies, banks etc. If you don't belive to some service you don't have to use it, it's same as holding your money at the bank account. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know, but new technology should be used if it makes your life easier.

  5. bob (guest)

    # Posted on 10 October 2008 at 02:34 PM

    The point is that it is foolish to depend upon these "third party cloud services" to do your important private computing. The only way to maintain your freedom in the cloud is to run your own cloud.

  6. obfu (guest)

    # Posted on 11 October 2008 at 12:49 AM

    Though I use some cloud services, I tend to agree with bob: run your own cloud with free software. Doing this effectively will require some free sharing of data as peter said and more symmetric connections from ISPs (sorry, I can't afford a T1) along with terms of service adjustments since most home-user account terms do not allow running servers of any kind.

    On a side note, wouldn't IPv6 make individual cloud servers easier? No need to use dynDNS...

  7. RAV TUX (guest)

    # Posted on 01 December 2008 at 07:02 AM

    I like the idea of cloud computing and in the Open Source, GNU/Linux arena it appears Zonbu is at the forefront on this potential market.

    Like most I fear letting someone else store my stuff on another server, I would even fear storing stuff on my own external server for that matter.

    I think a external hard drive is more reasonable and prudent, but it would be nice to run my own home server and access all my needs from there. Where ever I may be at.

    Would I trust Google to be the cloud computing host?...yes but cautiously.

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