Stallman: On Privacy, Spyware and Promoting Ubuntu Community Flavors

Richard Stallman
Flickr: Gisleh

I occasionally talk with Dr. Richard Stallman via e-mail about a variety of Free and Open Source Software related topics and I wanted to revisit a discussion on a earlier topic since I recently heard he was asking Open Source organizers in Latin America not to promote Ubuntu at their events (Which I disliked). Notably I disagree with Stallman’s position that the Amazon lens or any other current lens (including the ones landing in 13.04) are spyware but I do feel the lens still presents a privacy issue because it deprives users of transparency, choice and control over information about themselves by default.

The following are some questions I had for Dr. Richard Stallman and his answers which he consented to me sharing on my blog:


Me: So I ask…. Do you have a problem with promotion of Xubuntu,
Kubuntu, Lubuntu or Gnome Ubuntu? If so why?

RMS: If it were possible in practice to promote one and not the others, I
would treat them as separate distros.  I don’t know whether Xubuntu,
Kubuntu, Lubuntu or Gnome Ubuntu contain spyware.  I suppose they
contain nonfree software, but I don’t know.

However, in practice I don’t think most people would retain the
difference between them.  Thus, promoting one is in effect promoting

Me: Do you really feel the Amazon scope is spyware still even if its users
are well aware of the feature prior to them using it and given
plentiful opportunity not to use it by disabling the feature with the
click of a mouse?

RMS: Yes. I am sure most of them are not aware of it.
However, the user’s awareness of spyware does not make it cease
to be spyware.

          The possibility of turning it off doesn’t alter that it is spyware.
Me:  If you still think this is spyware how does this feature differ
from say a web browser which allows a user-agent string to be seen in
server logs or other internet software which share packets of personal data?

RMS: The user-agent string does create a privacy problem, but this took
people by surprise.  When that feature was added, nobody realized that
it created a privacy problem, and perhaps it did not originally do so.
Nobody realized that it would help identify users, and maybe originally
it wasn’t used for that.

In our browser IceCat we will send a user-agent string designed to
give no useful information.

However, the user-agent string is a small thing compared with sending
data about people’s specific computing activities.  Meanwhile,
nowadays we know how much surveillance is done on the Internet, so
people have a responsibility to consider how their actions affect

Me:  Why not campaign against any internet software that sends a packet of

RMS: Do you think we should?


In closing I will probably respond to Stallman’s answer which was a question by suggesting that I believe we should always have an approach of developing software that ensures the user has transparency, choice and control over all personal information to include computing activities such as searching in a dash or even more innocent things like statistical history of how many times certain applications are accessed.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that many of our libraries are doing more to ensure no individual users keystrokes, web browsing and other data is ever shared or retained while some developers are outright ignoring user choice.

Do you think Stallman’s right? Do you have a more balanced opinion? Leave a comment!


  1. Privacy says

    I think he has a point (as always) i couldn’t say he is wrong for example. But i will still use/promote Ubuntu for now and educate users i recommend Ubuntu what this feature does and how to manage it.

  2. says

    I think his point about the brand confusion of the multiple alternative user environment available under the Ubuntu project banner as well as the use of the Ubuntu brand for a specific environment cannot be overstated. There is brand confusion which is a bit of a double edged sword.

    Advocating as part of the larger project community makes it easier for everyone to work together to create a shared brand identity as a community. As demonstrated in Ubuntu project government structures and things like the membership process. But it falls a part when trying to advocate for a specific environment to try because invariably advocating for one of the alternative environments inside Ubuntu the project requires constrasting against Ubuntu the environment and it creates a very muddled communication situation.

    Canonical has an opportunity right now to clean up the branding story by turning the Unity brand into the product brand and let the Ubuntu brand be a project brand without enforced duality of purpose to cause brand confusion. The Ubuntu Unity remix can sit along side the Ubuntu Gnome remix and perhaps the Ubuntu KDE remix as peer technology offerings and advocates for any of these could compare and contrast without being caught in the quandary of mixed messaging.

    Canonical could lift the Unity brand into any of their product strategy and platform strategy elements. UbuntuOne can become UnityOne without much of a problem as its already thought of as U1, the shorthand still works. The UbuntuTouch initiative, which is shorthanded as Utouch can easily be relaunched as UnityTouch. The UbuntuSoftwareStore frontend could transition into the Unity brand for deeper platform integration needs, and let alternative environments maintain their own client front ends.

    In this way Stallman could more clearly communicate about his issues with the Unity products specifically without having to try to address the issue of whether he is talking about Ubuntu the project or Ubuntu the technology product as he does now.

    However such a transition would also require that the existing *buntu marks like Kubuntu would need to be retired, and official subprojects would need to agree to be rebranded in a consistent manner that used the Ubuntu mark as an umbrella brand. Kubuntu transitions to Ubuntu KDE, for example. More like how Chevy has a number of car model brands, but are all still Chevy’s. Ubuntu as a dealership, offering Impalas , Malibous, Silverados and Corvettes.

    And yes I realize the metaphor is not perfect. They never are. But I hope it expresses the idea of how a layered branding could work to help communicate and build Ubuntu as a project brand identity in a way that still allows individual deliverables to build their own brand identities with far less confusion than exists right now, as exemplified by Stallman’s answer concerning his criticism over privacy concerns in Ubuntu and whether you means the product or the project or both.

    Not sure all stakeholders( or any in fact) of all the brand identities involved are ready to take that leap of faith and trust me when I say that there is a solid opportunity right now to create vastly better branding stories that benefit all stakeholders long term much better than the current branding situation. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the sound I make as a beat the dead horse. So I at least have that.


  3. Winfried Maus says

    When I look at the GNU list of systems that are “not endorsed”, very unsurprisingly ALL distributions that are usable, user friendly and popular are on it. Here’s a quick reality check: Even Debian, the mother of most great free software distributions, is NOT an endorsed system!
    When you look at the GNU list of “endorsed” distributions, you will actually only find a fistful of distributions that only a few people have ever heard of.

    In other words, rms has never endorsed Ubuntu, he only found a new reason to badmouth it.

    The main problem that I have with RMS is that he is driven by his own ideology, not reason, not logic, and he is not willing to compromise on anything. In my view, that puts him in the same league as the Roman Catholic Inquisition or the Taliban.
    The ideology that RMS represents does not solve anybody’s real world problems, it actually only creates problems for those who believe in the idea of free software but who are also pragmatic and realistic about it: We are now having a useless discussion about a non-issue. You don’t like the Amazon search feature? Turn it off and move on. It’s that simple. In the world where you work for your money and get paid for your work, that’s as much talk about it as you will ever hear. How come this non-topic became such a big thing in the Open Source scene?

    Maybe the more interesting question here is why did someone implement such a feature in a free software system in the first place. Probably because somebody needed to find a way to generate some income. Because, following Stallman’s philosophy, software developers are not supposed to make money directly with their software. Because, well, software has to be FREE. And in terms of software, free as in speech also means that it is free as in beer, because this is the Internet age where nobody pays anymore for floppy disks with free software on them.
    RMS –NEVER– came up with a WORKING business model for authors of free software. His basic ideas are selling support, selling T shirts and selling physical media that have the free software on them. Awesome. Just tell me how much energy you have left to write free software when you’re spending 40 hours a week with end user support for that software.
    And now the ideological leader of the free software movement even has a problem with free software that comes with a search feature for the Amazon store; a feature that many USERS actually like and that might even put some food on the table of the developers.

    Sorry, but we are feeding the trolls here by paying way too much attention to something that should at best consume five minutes in a technical meeting.

  4. says

    The way I see it, RMS lives in a mostly black and white world, populated by mostly black and white ideals on how people should use their computers. And this leads him to make claims that seem a bit… overbearing to most people who aren’t afraid to do a little compromising on a case-by-case basis.

    On the other hand the shopping scope/lens was introduced and pushed in such a way that should be frowned upon. And it was a mistake that should be learned from and not repeated, using minimal communication or forethought with the community. And the online scopes still have some potential issues that should be looked at.
    But they have taken good steps toward mitigating the privacy and control concerns, and could make the choice more obvious for new users if they need to.

    So it really comes down to how dangerous each user thinks consensual spyware is or if spyware can even be consensual while still infringing on any freedoms or privacy. Or if “spyware” is even called spyware if the information can’t be used in a malicious fashion.