The Framing Issue with RMS on SaaS

I am seeing some thoughtful commentary on RMS’s latest essay on the SaaS problem and even had some friends ask for my opinion. In brief, what Stallman is objecting to is software that performs some operations of value on your behalf but denies you access to the source code, or even a binary, to exercise your freedom to modify the software’s operation. I’ll concede this is a troubling loophole for getting around copyleft but it is one that has been exploited for some time by software makers and service operators.

Personally, I think Stallman is bogging down too much in the particulars of where computation takes place and at whose behest. Computation is ephemeral, once complete what do you have to judge where the actual work took place? I put far more stock in the efforts of autonomo.us and even Google’s Data Liberation Front that are working to ensure the durable information that persists regardless of when and where computing takes place can be free.

I think this oversight also leads to Stallman giving collaboration focused network services too much of a free pass. The co-opting of my intensively cultivated social network shouldn’t be exempt from expectations of data and software freedom. I’ll concede that the problem begs far more difficult technical challenges, ones that simple adoption of the AGPL won’t easily solve.

I am all for free alternatives to what Stallman calls “SaaS”, a re-definion to laden the term with connotations similar to “proprietary” in his parlance. I am irked that he is doing this to a term already in use rather than suggesting a new, more evocative label. I guess I am just more moderate for thinking I shouldn’t have to work as a full blown sysadmin and run my own GPL/AGPL compatible copy of a service to exercise my freedom. I am not sure his vague thoughts on trusted operators and the implications that arise suggesting yet another web of trust make much more sense.

As long as I have the possibility of moving my data where I choose and strong expectations around trusted handling of my data, I consider that sufficiently free. Again, I am not suggesting that these problems are any easier to solve, but I think they are where we should be focusing our efforts first and foremost.

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