In October of the recent year, Canonical released the newest version of its popular Linux operating system, Ubuntu 12.10. This version, not unlike previous versions, was subject to controversy from the broader Linux community. The reason for this controversy was found in a new feature added to the search lens. Since the inclusion of the Unity desktop environment, Ubuntu has attempted to ease searching for applications and files by included search lenses. In this development release, Ubuntu’s home lens, which is meant to search all the other lenses simultaneously, included online results. While websites like the BBC were added, what got the attention of most were results by Amazon, from which Canonical received a percentage of any affiliate sales. This sparked accusations of adware and even spyware from free software patriarch Richard Stallman.
While Ubuntu has never been a perfect system, nor was this feature very well implemented, I believe the accusations brought against Canonical were, in the words Jono Bacon — community manager for the company — FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). First of all, these are not ads. These are responses to searches performed by the user. To say this would be to accuse all Internet search engines of being ads. Yes, Canonical is able to make money off of this feature, but this is only for some of the results, meaning this probably wasn’t the original intention of the feature’s inclusion. To those who object to Canonical making money, I would ask how much they paid for the operating system. The answer is nothing, because Canonical provides the operating system to us at no cost, even though making an operating system still has costs. Second, these search results are not spyware, despite Richard Stallman’s accusations. The search results are sent to Canonical’s servers via a secure (SSL) connection where they are directed to the various websites anonymously so as to protect the individuals’ identities. Moreover, since Ubuntu is open source, all the code for doing this is provided for public consumption so that we know exactly what that code is doing. To give us even more assurance, Canonical has allowed us to turn this feature off with great ease. This feature is far from perfect. It does not provide very accurate results; it searches the Web for things it obviously won’t find there, and some would say it should be an opt-in rather than an opt-out. This is to be expected, however, because 12.10 is a development release as will be 13.04 and 13.10. These releases are not meant to ultimately define the Ubuntu operating system; they are meant for testing new features to see if users want them and how they can be improved.
It seems as if Canonical cannot be given an opportunity to see how a Linux distribution can survive beyond the nerd world created around Linux. Ubuntu is trying to provide the benefits of a free and open source operating system for everyday users. In order to do this, it needs to build innovative and useful tools that are different from the competition and be able to fund itself at the same time. Almost every time Ubuntu includes a new feature that is different than other distributions, it is met with harsh criticism before being truly tried and tested.
One might say that I don’t care about privacy or that I simply don’t understand what is done with my data on the Internet. Some of this is true; I am not as paranoid about privacy as many. I use Google products without hesitation knowing full well that everything I do on them is tracked for advertising purposes. However, I do know what is done with my data on the Internet, and that is why I am not as concerned about privacy. Everything done on the Internet is a public activity. This may be a surprise to some, but you do not have your own private Internet. You are going to websites not your own, you interact with other people, and you are taking advantage of services you do not pay for. Everything you do can — and most likely will — be tracked. Even if a website says it is not tracking you, given enough motivation, that data can be found. So privacy on the Internet is all but impossible. When you interact with an external person (or, in this case, website), you are sharing data with them. As in any public space, you must be mindful of what you do on the Internet.
I don’t believe that these new features are cause for worry from everyday users and nerds alike. Not only are these features enacted very securely to keep the data as private as possible, but users are allowed to turn them off with ease. For those who don’t trust Canonical with their data, I repeat founder Mark Shuttleworth’s words:
Can Canonical and the Ubuntu community handle the responsibility associated with this sort of service?
Using an operating system depends on a certain amount of trust. With most closed source operating systems, the user has to trust that the originating company will abide by its own privacy policies. With a system like Ubuntu, we not only have privacy policies but we also have the source code to see what it happening behind the scenes. To date, Canonical has given us no reason to mistrust it.
My name is Nate Carpenter; I am an 18-year-old aspiring Linux expert and musician. I was introduced to Linux by a friend when I was 14 and have been an enthusiast ever since. I enjoy convincing people of the numerous benefits of open source software, setting up and configuring Linux servers, attending cello concerts, listening to famous cellists, practicing cello, and eating pizza… lots of pizza.
Image: Ubuntu Party 12.10 shared by Ubuntu Party (via Flickr)