In the late 2000s, when “Cloud Computing” replaced “Web 2.0″ as the latest internet industry buzzphrase, FSF founder Richard Stallman spoke out against the whole concept in a 2008 interview with the Guardian. In the same year, the Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services was published by the Autonomo.us working group. While I agree with many of the concerns raised by both Stallman and Autonomo.us, I do remember thinking that Stallman’s comments in particular had the potential to confuse people. If he wasn’t objecting to traditional uses of servers for serving web pages, or email, what exactly was he objecting to about “Software as a Service” (SaaS)?

Fast forward to 2010, and again Stallman was being interviewed about SaaS, this time by the Boston Review. Fast forward again to 2013, and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the GNU Project, when Wired magazine published an opinion piece by Stallman entitled ‘Why Free Software Is More Important Now Than Ever Before‘. In this call-to-arms, Stallman presents another of his hack phrases, like “Digital Restrictions Management”, which put a new spin on a familiar buzzphrase in order to concisely expose the unspoken implications lurking behind it. Says Stallman, “non-free software still makes the users surrender control over their computing to someone else, but now there is another way to lose it: Service as a Software Substitute, or SaaSS, which means letting someone else’s server do your own computing activities.” The most current version of Stallman’s critique of “SaaSS”, last updated this year, is ‘Who Does That Server Really Serve‘.

The guts of Stallman’s critique is that “doing your computing” (eg word processing) on someone else’s server  gives them many of the same powers over how your computing is done as you give to the writer of a proprietary program if you use that. In some ways it’s worse than proprietary software though, because if your computer is set up to depend on servers to do everything, as devices like ChromeBooks and Android handhelds are, you can’t even use your own computer, or your own data, without an internet connection. As Stallman is at pays to point out, even if the servers you depend on are running free code software (under a license like the GNU Affero GPL), that doesn’t change the fact that you are dependent on them.

The alternative is for both users, free code software developers, and open hardware developers to design computing experiences which distribute as much computing as possible to the computer on the user’s desk (or in their hand), or to home servers like the FreedomBox.

Filed June 17th, 2015 under Uncategorized

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