Richard M Stallman, the fearless leader of the free software movement has raised some serious concerns about the inclusion of online search in Ubuntu. Stallman is not the only one who is disturbed by this move, the Electric Frontier Foundation also criticized Ubuntu calling it a "data leak" and a "violation" of privacy.
Ubuntu, a widely used and influential GNU/Linux distribution, has installed surveillance code. When the user searches her own local files for a string using the Ubuntu desktop, Ubuntu sends that string to one of Canonical's servers. (Canonical is the company that develops Ubuntu.)
Stallman compares this with the 'surveillance' practice he learned about Windows.
This is just like the first surveillance practice I learned about in Windows. My late friend Fravia told me that when he searched for a string in the files of his Windows system, it sent a packet to some server, which was detected by his firewall. Given that first example I paid attention and learned about the propensity of "reputable" proprietary software to be malware. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Ubuntu sends the same information.
Including shopping results in the Dash is not a bad concept and no one -- neither EFF nor Stallman are against it -- what they are opposing is the way it has been implemented. Instead of being an opt-in feature it's an opt-out. The concern is that my data is being sent to Canonical servers without my knowledge or concent.
After criticism by the community members, Canonical included a feature to turn the online search off. But how many users know about it?
Another problem that I see in this implementation is if you turn the online search off it also disables all the online lenses and services you enabled from the Online Accounts. You won't be able to search Google Docs or AskUbuntu from the Dash. This to me looks like 'my way or the highway'. The desired way of doing this is allowing a user to 'enable' the services they want to use. I should be able to turn off the dispacth of seach queries to Ubuntu servers yet keep Google Docs and other such services active.
There are genuine concerns behind the way Ubuntu is handling user's data. As EFF wrote in its blog:
You could be searching for the latest version of your résumé at work because you're considering leaving your job; you could be searching for a domestic abuse hotline PDF you downloaded, or legal documents about filing for divorce; maybe you're looking for documents with file names that will gave away trade secrets or activism plans; or you could be searching for a file in your own local porn collection. There are many reasons why you wouldn't want any of these search queries to leave your computer.
These critics may not have any problem with Ubuntu if the online search is turned off by default and a user enables it manually. That's what Stallman is also saying:
To protect users' privacy, systems should make prudence easy: when a local search program has a network search feature, it should be up to the user to choose network search explicitly each time. This is easy: all it takes is to have separate buttons for network searches and local searches, as earlier versions of Ubuntu did. A network search feature should also inform the user clearly and concretely about who will get what personal information of hers, if and when she uses the feature.
Stallman goes on to suggest:
If you ever recommend or redistribute GNU/Linux, please remove Ubuntu from the distros you recommend or redistribute. If its practice of installing and recommending nonfree software didn't convince you to stop, let this convince you. In your install fests, in your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL events, don't install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.
Canonical has not yet officially responded to EFF's request, will Stallman's blog have any impact on the company? The problem as I stated above is not in Ubuntu's integration of online shopping results with the Dash, the issue is with the way it was deployed.
If Canonical implements the changes suggested by EFF and Stallman, it will bring an end to this discussion. I wonder what's keeping them from making it an 'opt-in' feature.