Rob Hunter

Ubuntu as Spyware and Gateware

As might be expected, Richard Stallman has condemned Canonical’s decision to integrate Amazon search results into Ubuntu in order to earn affiliate payments. Since the data from searches performed in Ubuntu are sent straight to Canonical, Stallman says that Ubuntu is now “spyware” and it’s hard to disagree with him. The charge sticks all the more firmly in light of a blog post by Canonical’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth. Responding to accusations that the new policy had troubling implications for users’ privacy and security , Shuttleworth was less than reassuring: “Don’t trust us? Erm, we have root. You do trust us with your data already.” And Canonical has announced that it will retain the Amazon search integration in future releases of Ubuntu.

So here’s yet another reason not to use Ubuntu: not only does it take a rather unprincipled approach to using unfree software, not only is it marred by unseemly (and by all accounts, unsightly) commercialized search results, not only are the people behind it are determined to use non-transparent and privacy-compromising development choices to scrounge up a little cash, but those same people are also blithely unconcerned about legitimate worries about privacy, security, and accountability. The most popular GNU/Linux distribution just got a whole lot less warm and fuzzy, its (comparatively) aggressive marketing notwithstanding.

Now, you may be saying, so what? There are other distros out there. True enough, but despite its flaws I think that Ubuntu has played an important role in popularizing computing on GNU/Linux. More importantly, it is a gateway – it’s gateware, if you will – to other aspects of free/libre computing, especially the broader Debian ecosystem. I think it’s unlikely that I would have come to Debian – my preferred operating system for just about everything – as quickly, if at all, if I hadn’t first used Ubuntu 10.04, which was as gentle an introduction to GNU/Linux as possible for someone who had previously only used Windows and OS X. Ubuntu continues to serve as a conduit for beginners and novices who want to learn more about how their computers actually work, and how they can use their computers in precisely the ways that they want; but I am no longer comfortable recommending it to anyone. Canonical has made it clear that they will continue to implement self-serving policies that are abusive toward Ubuntu users. Furthermore, Ubuntu as it ships these days makes a hash of free software principles. In fact, it’s hardly even an open source distro, since Ubuntu routinely encourages users to download non-free drivers and firmware, packages non-free software in its repositories, and has displayed an increasing willingness to encourage users to purchase proprietary software through a thinly veiled “app store.” Restricting access to software only to those who are able to pay for it is a transparent violation of the free software ethic, but I’m sure the folks at Canonical are patting themselves on the back for rolling out, in gradual stages, a “freemium” ad-supported OS that will ensure a steady stream of eyeballs for its ad affiliate dollars. Gone, too, are the days when Canonical could be relied upon to make even modest contributions to the development of free software.

This is a shame, since there was a time when Ubuntu really was, more or less, a Debian derivative that was less intimidating and more inviting for casual users – which is just what was needed for expanding the universe of free software on the desktop. The alternatives to Debian, in terms of overcoming the intimidation factor for new users, are either unprincipled (Linux Mint has no scruples about committing to free software, and neither does Arch) or obscure (CrunchBang, etc.). And while I’ll be the first to sing Debian’s praises, it has to be admitted that stable is past its prime and the ins and outs of getting a testing or unstable installation up and running will naturally elude novice users.

Let’s just hope that Wheezy launches soon.