Non-free Services

As both of my faithful readers can see, my blog postings have dropped significantly. I’ve been posting my random little comments on Google+ instead.

Which leads me to the following. There is a hard-core group of people who only use free software. I’m not quite that hard-core, but in practice I do use only free software, except perhaps for some binary drivers in the kernel (I don’t actually know whether the systems I’m running use binary drivers or not, and I’m not hard-core enough to find out).

I’ve seen some people argue that if you are serious about using free software, you should also only use Internet services which are themselves free software. For example, you should not use Facebook or Google+, because the software used to run those services is not free.

I don’t agree with that argument. The key goal of free software is that I always have the right to change the software that I am running. When I use an Internet service like Google+, I am not running the software. Even if I had a copy of the software, I would not be able to run it, because I don’t have enough servers. And even if I had enough servers, it would be useless for me to run the software, because I don’t have the data. And there is no way to grant me access to the data, because that would violate the reasonable privacy choices of everybody else using the service.

When it comes to a service like Google+, whether the software is free is not important. Releasing the software would not give me any more freedom than I already have. Google+ is only interesting when many people are operating out of a single shared data base, and that data base must have privacy safeguards to ensure that it is not copied.

What matters with Google+ is not the software, but the data. It is important that I be able to retrieve all my data associated with Google+, and that I be able to retrieve it in a way that makes it possible to use with other software. That is, I should be able to retrieve my posts, my comments on other people’s posts, my list of followers, my photos, etc. And I should be able to plug them into some other software service if I so choose.

In fact Google+ does have a set of APIs which permit me to retrieve my data. I haven’t verified that all Google+ data is available via the APIs, but all the obvious stuff seems to be available. Given those APIs, it should be possible for me to move all my data to some other service which provides te required APIs itself.

So I personally don’t see any reason why even a hard-core free software supporter should avoid using a service like Google+. This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be nice if Google freed up the software and accepted patches from outside users. It’s just that that is not a critical part of freedom to use software.

5 Comments »

  1. maxlybbert said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    It wasn’t all that long ago that Stallman himself agreed with you regarding “The key goal of free software is that I always have the right to change the software that I am running. When I use an Internet service like Google+, I am not running the software.” I haven’t seen anything official announcing a change, but recent statements from the FSF suggest that their view has “evolved.”

  2. fche said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    “As both of my faithful readers can see, my blog postings have dropped significantly.”

    Bummer!

    “Google+ is only interesting when many people are operating out of a single shared data base”

    That might not actually be true. It is not too hard to vaguely imagine a federated system doing this sort of thing. There’s just no money in making it happen, because one can’t as easily data-mine it for advertisers.

    “… And there is no way to grant me access to the data, because that would violate the reasonable privacy choices of everybody else using the service.”

    Dunno about that one. The privacy choices here are involved in posting personal data to a commercial service. They are not even a customer of that service, and probably have zero recourse should the service screw up, or screw them (e.g. facebook privacy fiasco). A lot of this is simple faith in the brand’s honour. And that could be fickle.

    “In fact Google+ does have a set of APIs which permit me to retrieve my data.”

    I gather google is exemplary in this regard, kudos.

  3. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

    fche: I agree that the database could be federated. I believe that Wave was designed that way, but I don’t know whether anybody actually tried setting up another server.

    There is *some* recourse if a commercial service screws up. Facebook is being sued right now for shifting the privacy bar. But it’s true that it’s not much.

  4. mjw said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 2:40 am

    That is indeed a bummer, I liked reading your Programming posts. These centralized software as a service aggregates feel creepy. I rather have a distributed network of friends to share with instead of handing over all data to one of these big corporate entities. And I certainly sympathize with these “hard-core” free software advocates that it is a shame to not be in control of the software that distributes your data to others.

    When you say that “there is no way to grant me access to the data, because that would violate the reasonable privacy choices of everybody else using the service”, wouldn’t that also hold for the centralized database that collects all the data? Why is it reasonable to grant one entity access to all the data, but not others?

    Hope you will at least mirror your posts here so rss2email picks them up and delivers them in my INBOX, without me having to hand over my reading habits to the googleplex 🙂

  5. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    It’s easier to hold a single entity responsible for their behaviour through law and public pressure than it would be to hold a million entities responsible.

    My longer posts will still be here, but I don’t expect to mirror my small posts here. That doesn’t seem useful.

    You should be able to see my Google+ posts without joining Google+, at https://plus.google.com/116100817882149647867/posts . Of course they are mostly just as silly as my posts here, so I don’t know whether I can really recommend that. It should be straightforward to use the APIs to write a script which forwards anybody’s public Google+ posts into e-mail, though I don’t know of any such script offhand.

    One unexpected result of this blog post was that I got a bunch more Google+ followers.

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