Stallman vs. Clouds

by Doc Searls

I respect Richard Stallman for the same reason I respect gravity. The man is a force of nature. He is like the iron core of the Earth: fixed, central, essential. So, when I read a story like "Cloud computing is a trap, warns GNU founder Richard Stallman", which ran in the Guardian last week, I take notice. And I'm not alone. A search on Google for stallman "cloud computing" brings up 142,000 results.

Of cloud computing, RMS says, "It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign". Also, "Somebody is saying this is inevitable – and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it's very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true". And, "One reason you should not use web applications to do your computing is that you lose control... "It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's web server, you're defenceless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software".

The story points back to this post by Chris Brogan, about how Nick Saber one day "came back from lunch to find out that he couldn't get into his Gmail account. Further, he couldn't get into anything that Google made (beside search) where his account credentials once worked". Long story short, Nick's account was restored, and Google did get back to him personally (after putting him through an automated impersonal treatment stage), and much learning resulted through actual human contact. But still, we're talking about exposure here. How much of our lives should we be willing to put off in the mists we call "clouds"? RMS has a simple answer: none.

But are all clouds the same, and do they all involve relinquishment of control over your own digital life? After failing to master SpamAssassin last year I gave up and started routing my inbound mail (to my address) through Gmail. Google doesn't keep any of that mail. And I don't have to keep Google as a provider of spam filtration. In fact I have what Joe Andrieu calls "service portability": the ability to substitute one service for another -- as one would with, say, a bank.

Is that a Bad Thing? Not sure. On the other hand (or another tentacle, since there are many different scenarios here), I've never felt comfortable about doing my writing or storing my files in any clouds; although I have to confess that Amazon's S3 tempts me, mostly because I've lost or crashed more personal hard drives than I can count. Meaning, I think the chance of Amazon losing my data is a lot smaller than my own chance of doing the same.

I'm also not clear to me if a Web service like Flickr is a "cloud" thing. I have 23,697 photos on Flickr right now. I can do far more with those pix there than I can here. But I do have them here, on a hard drive. Two, actually. And if those are lost or stolen, I'm SOL. Except for the shots on Flickr.

Still, I think that RMS is onto something. The core promise of computing, even on a vast network that connects us all, is autonomy and independence. It's being free (as in freedom) to operate on your own, and to share what's meant to be shared in ways that nobody else can control, and to improve useful goods in ways that work for everybody. There are, in those core values, imperatives that seem at odds with the dependencies that "cloud computing" can sometimes involve.

For my chapter of Open Sources 2.0, I borrowed this "layers of time" diagram from the Long Now Foundation...

... and explained,

At the bottom we find the end-to-end nature of the Net. It's also where we find Richard M. Stallman, the GNU project, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and hackers whose interests are anchored in the nature of software, which they understand fundamentally to be free.

When Richard M. Stallman writes, "everyone will be able to obtain good system software free, just like air", he's operating at the Nature level. He doesn't just believe software ought to be free; he believes its nature is to be free. The unbending constancy of his beliefs has anchored free software, and then open source development, since the 1980s. That's when the GNU tools and components, along with the Internet, began to grow and flourish.

The open source movement, which grew on top of the free software movement, is most at home one layer up, in Culture. Since Culture supports the Governance, the open source community devotes a lot of energy and thought to the subject of licensing. In fact, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) serves a kind of governance function, carefully approving open source licenses that fit its definition of open source. While Richard and the FSF (Free Software Foundation), sitting down there at the Nature level, strongly advocate one license (the GPL or General Public License), the OSI has approved around fifty of them. Many of those licenses are authored by commercial entities with an interest in the governance that supports the infrastructure they put to use.

Well, now that culture is at the heart of Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Dell and other providers of "cloud" services. We treat these as infrastructure, but in fact they're not. They're up at the Commerce level, and in some ways at the Fashion level as well -- at least to the degree that "cloud" is a hot topic.

In that same Guardian piece, Oracle's Larry Ellison calls cloud computing announcements "fashion-driven", adding, "The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?"

Meanwhile, there's RMS, back down at the Nature level, calling this current weather system stupid. Is it?

I'm thinking of writing more about this for an upcoming print edition of Linux Journal, so I thought I'd ask what ya'll think first. Post comments below or write me at doc AT

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