Cloud computing is a systematic campaign to hand over user data to companies

If you want freedom and privacy, you have to swim against the current

Tim berners-lee has developed the world wide web from 1990 for the worldwide exchange of information, on the 6. August 1991 he released it for general use.

Slowly, however, it is transforming into a system of outsourced computing, a system of the "remote computing". It stores data of users and data about users, which the user himself cannot access – but the us federal police fbi can at any time. The network takes over the data processing, the user relinquishes control over it. This new web is full of temptations – but we must resist them.

In the 1980s, most people did not use computers, and if they did, it was mainly pcs or time-sharing services that allowed multiple users to access one computer through a terminal. On both of them you could install software at will, on both of them you had full control over your own data – even if it is not clear how much insight the fbi could take into time-sharing services (which largely disappeared in the nineties anyway).

This does not mean that users had control over their computing at that time. In software, either the user has control over the program (free software), or the program has control over the user (proprietary or non-free software). At that time, people used proprietary software because there was nothing else available. The user could not change anything in the software and did not know exactly what the software was doing. Proprietary software intentionally restricts the user

The abuse of proprietary software has increased since then; it intentionally restricts the user, often spies on him, and contains backdoors. Some examples of such an approach:

  • Windows makes updates without the user’s permission.
  • Amazon can delete previously purchased books from kindle readers without the user’s consent.
  • Many android smartphones do not allow installation of modified versions of the android software.
  • The iphone determines which applications the user is allowed to install – an extreme form of digital handcuffs.
  • Users who modify their iphone to be able to install other programs talk about "jailbreaking" – an allusion to the product being a prison ("jail").

But even without such extreme examples, it has never been okay for software to control the user. That’s why i started the free software movement in 1983. We wanted to create a completely free operating system and free applications over which the user retains full control. I called the system gnu (it is often wrongly called gnu) "linux" denotes.) those who switch to this system and use only free software have full control over their data processing. We have liberated only a small part of cyberspace, but this part is an important pillar for freedom.

Some developments on the net threaten this success. The first problem was the appearance of invisible links on websites to other servers, whose main goal is to monitor – possibly for advertising. Users who visit certain pages don’t even realize that these pages are being used with an offer – such as i’m watching you.The first problem was the appearance of invisible links to other servers, whose main purpose is monitoring – possibly for advertising – so that the site can remember on each visit and in the long term that the user has visited certain pages.

No respect for user privacy

Javascript poses another problem. Initially used for harmless things like fancy menus, javascript’s capabilities have multiplied to the point where it can execute even complex instructions and handle non-trivial data. Services like google docs install crude javascript programs in the browser. Although these run on the computer, the user has no control over them at all.

And then there is the matter of data storage on the servers of companies. The most rude of these companies have no respect for the privacy of their users. When a user gives his or her data to facebook, other companies pay money for the use of that data. They pay facebook – not the user – to advertise with their face.

Facebook users are not customers, they are the commodity

With few exceptions, the time-sharing providers of the 1980s still treated their users’ data with care because they had paying customers who could switch providers at any time. Facebook users pay nothing, so they are not customers. You are the commodity that is sold to other companies. If the company or its parent company is from the u.S., the fbi can exploit user data at whim and without any court order. In addition it entitles a very unamerican law, which protects the data "patriot act" has been called.

Some services offer to process their users’ data on their servers. In fact, this means that the provider’s servers take full control over the data processing.

A systematic campaign is currently underway to get users to entrust their data to companies they should not trust. The buzzword is "cloud computing" – a term that is used for so many things that its only true meaning is: "do it without thinking about what you are doing."

There is even a product, google chromeos, designed to store data exclusively in the data cloud. Users completely outsource their data processing to the provider’s servers. Ironically, chromeos is free software, a variant of gnu/linux. Users can access the source code, they could modify it to store and process data locally – if the chromeos machine has enough local storage space, and if it allows the user to install their own software versions. If it goes the way of android phones, most chromeos devices probably won’t allow it.

All this doesn’t mean that internet users can’t enjoy privacy. It also does not mean that users can no longer have any control over their data processing. It only means that they have to swim against the tide to get it all.

Copyright 2011 richard stallman, published by spiegel online under creative commons attribution noderivs 3.0 license. The editorial staff of spiegel online has published the article of the free software activist at his request under the given cc license. The text may be distributed, but not modified, provided that the cc license is clearly stated.

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