Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU Project and founder of the Free Software Foundation, declared on Friday that Ubuntu is spyware. Jono Bacon, Ubuntu’s Community Manager, has countered on the same day by saying Stallman is spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).

Stallman’s main problem with Ubuntu is that as of version 12.10 (released in October 2012), the operating system displays advertisements in Unity Dash, the default file manager in desktop Ubuntu. When you search the Dash for files and applications, you get additional Amazon shopping results, and if a user buys something from Amazon as a result, Canonical receives money in the form of affiliate payments. As a result, the operating system sends data to Canonical when a user searches the desktop, which Stallman considers spying.

Here’s the crux of Stallman’s post:

Ubuntu uses the information about searches to show the user ads to buy various things from Amazon. Amazon commits many wrongs (see http://stallman.org/amazon.html); by promoting Amazon, Canonical contributes to them. However, the ads are not the core of the problem. The main issue is the spying. Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it.

People will certainly make a modified version of Ubuntu without this surveillance. In fact, several GNU/Linux distros are modified versions of Ubuntu. When those update to the latest Ubuntu as a base, I expect they will remove this. Canonical surely expects that too.

Most free software developers would abandon such a plan given the prospect of a mass switch to someone else’s corrected version. But Canonical has not abandoned the Ubuntu spyware. Perhaps Canonical figures that the name “Ubuntu” has so much momentum and influence that it can avoid the usual consequences and get away with surveillance.

Stallman doesn’t care that Canonical is attempting to make money to further fund Ubuntu, because he disapproves of the way it is doing so. Furthermore, he concludes by telling his readers who recommend or redistribute GNU/Linux, to remove Ubuntu from their list:

It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this. Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users.

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.

Bacon meanwhile argues that Stallman’s view on privacy is very different than his own and other people’s. Here’s the important part of Bacon’s reply (which includes a disclaimer at the top saying that it’s a personal post and does not necessarily represent the views of Canonical or the Ubuntu community):

This is FUD.

When controversies such as this kick off from time to time about Canonical and/or Ubuntu, my approach has never been to try and convince our critics that they are wrong. My goal is not to turn the unbelievers into worshippers at the church of Ubuntu. My only goal has been to ensure that everyone who participates in the debate trades in facts and not in misinformation and FUD; there is enough misinformation and FUD on the Internet without us all adding to it.

If someone has an accurate set of facts and accurately represents the topic but is critical about the position…no problem. We can then engage in respectful, accurate debate that will likely enrich all perspectives and ultimately result in better software.

The goal of the dash in Ubuntu has always been to provide a central place in which you can search and find things that are interesting and relevant to you; it is designed to be at the center of your computing experience. Now, this is a big goal, and we are only part-way along the way to achieving it.

While Bacon’s post doesn’t represent an official Canonical statement, it’s clear the company doesn’t care for Stallman’s argument. It plans to expand the feature more in Ubuntu 13.04, according to a post published today, and add more. Here are three points worth noting from the post:

  • Smart Scopes – In 13.04, the number of scopes installed by default in Ubuntu will be increased and relevancy will be improved. For example, a search for “The Beatles” is likely to trigger the Music and Video scopes, showing results that will contain local and online sources – with the online sources querying your personal cloud as well as other free and commercial sources like YouTube, Last.fm, Amazon, etc. To achieve this, the Dash will call a new smart scope service which will return ranked online search results, which the Dash will then balance against local results to return the most relevant information to the user.
  • Instant Purchasing – being able to purchase music or apps directly from the Dash, without opening a browser or a separate client, will be powered by Ubuntu One, for both applications from the Software Center and music from the Music Store.
  • More Suggestions and User Controls – it currently returns commercial content from the Ubuntu One Music Store and Amazon, but will be expanded to include more retailers.

Also worth noting is Canonical’s statement at the end about user privacy:

Privacy is extremely important to Canonical. The data we collect is not user-identifiable (we automatically anonymize user logs and that information is never available to the teams delivering services to end users), we make users aware of what data will be collected and which third party services will be queried through a notice right in the Dash, and we only collect data that allows us to deliver a great search experience to Ubuntu users. We also recognize that there is always a minority of users who prefer complete data protection, often choosing to avoid services like Google, Facebook or Twitter for those reasons – and for those users, we have made it dead easy to switch the online search tools off with a simple toggle in settings.

You can read Stallman’s full post here: Ubuntu Spyware: What to Do?

You can read Bacon’s full post here: On Richard Stallman and Ubuntu (doesn’t seem to be working properly at the time of writing, Google has cached it here)

One more thing I want to underline. Bacon points to Facebook as an example:

Just look at Facebook; the privacy debates there have been raging on for years and have encompassed many different views and perspectives ranging from “I want to control every detail of my privacy in Facebook” to “I don’t care, if it is on the Internet, I don’t care who sees it”, and everything in-between.

We already know what Stallman thinks about Facebook.

See also – Richard Stallman: Facebook and Google+ Mistreat Their Users

Image credit: Marcello eM