Blog - Unity Behind Diversity

Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: privacy

On Revoking Ubuntu’s Root Privileges

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu GNU/Linux. While they’ve made great contributions to free software, they’ve also been very inconsistent in their commitment to software freedom. Mark Shuttleworth’s response to the privacy concerns in Ubuntu 12.10 has fundamentally shattered my trust.

An Uneasy History

From restricted drivers to Launchpad to non-free documentation licences, there have always been concerns about Canonical’s commitment to free software. By 2010, the issues were becoming more serious. Ubuntu used to clearly warn users about restricted drivers, but in the Ubuntu Software Center, no longer is proprietary software merely tolerated, but now it’s celebrated and actively promoted. The average user doesn’t interact with Launchpad, but with Ubuntu One, Canonical’s proprietary service, users must delete, disable or ignore all of the places where it’s built-in to the Ubuntu experience. The concerns were starting to affect my everyday use.

But, I didn’t leave. I uninstalled the Ubuntu One packages, and ignored the Software Centre. Though, I did start exploring my options, with a Debian dual-boot and Trisquel in a virtual machine. However, there are many things that I do like about Ubuntu. My Ubuntu install is still 99% free software. Despite the controversy over the design process and community engagement, there are many things I like about the Unity — the current obsession of Canonical’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth. I appreciate the outcome of his previous obsession as well — Ubuntu’s release cycle works really well. And, maybe there’s some sentiment — I’ve been running the same Ubuntu GNU/Linux install, across three different computers, since I first left Windows in 2007.

In 2010, my relationship with Ubuntu became uneasy, but it didn’t end. I’m not sure I can say the same for 2013.

The Amazon Dash Debacle

The EFF, RMS and this tongue-in-cheek bug report provide a decent summary the issue: Ubuntu 12.10 raises serious privacy concerns by reporting searches in the Unity Dash — which have traditionally been local searches — to Amazon, relayed through Canonical.

That Ubuntu screwed up is obvious — at the very least, by enabling this by default. But it’s more than the mistake; it’s the response. In defending the decision, Mark Shuttleworth writes:

We are not telling Amazon what you are searching for. Your anonymity is preserved because we handle the query on your behalf. Don’t trust us? Erm, we have root. You do trust us with your data already. You trust us not to screw up on your machine with every update. You trust Debian, and you trust a large swathe of the open source community. And most importantly, you trust us to address it when, being human, we err.

This doesn’t build my trust; this shatters it. I did not switch to a free software operating system to have the overlords flaunt their control over my computer. Canonical has done many annoying and prioprietary things in the past, but “Erm, we have root” is antithetical to the very notion of software freedom. Ubuntu does not have root access on my machine, nor does Canonical have access to my data. Yes, I must trust the Ubuntu project every time I run updates on my system, but this is a relationship and responsibility to be handled delicately, transparently, respectfully — not a position of power to be flaunted. I trust Ubuntu to maintain the software on my computer. That I trust Ubuntu to provide my system with security updates and bug fixes does not in any way give them licence to do other things, like relay my Dash searches to a third-party through a proprietary network service.

To make matters worse, Mark Shuttleworth recently referred to “who rant about proprietary software” as “insecure McCarthyists.” In response to a question about “decisions that have been less than popular with the Free-software only crowd,” Shuttleworth writes:

Well, I feel the same way about this as I do about McCarthyism. The people who rant about proprietary software are basically insecure about their own beliefs, and it’s that fear that makes them so nastily critical. […]

If you think you’ll convince people to see things your way by ranting and being a dick, well, then you have much more to learn than I can possibly be bothered to spend time teaching.

Aside from the pot-kettle-black nature of his tone, this does not build my trust in Canonical.

These responses strike at very heart of my decision to use GNU/Linux — software freedom. Canonical has never consistently cared about software freedom, but their offences and missteps have come closer and closer to my everyday computing. Now, a serious violation of privacy is brushed aside dismissively because I should just trust Ubuntu and Canonical because “erm, we have root,” and to raise concerns about proprietary software is akin to “McCarthyism.”

No, Mr. Shuttleworth, you don’t have root. The fact that you think you do makes me want to move far away from Ubuntu.

After Ubuntu: An Exit Strategy

I would rather not leave Ubuntu. I don’t take the decision lightly. But developments over the past few years have made me very uneasy, and Shuttleworth’s attitude has shattered any trust I ever had in Canonical. Even if Ubuntu fixes this particular problem, I’m not sure what can be done to rebuild trust.

At the very least, I’m preparing an exit strategy:

  1. I’m going to install GNOME 3 in Ubuntu (and maybe LXDE). I like many things about Unity, but adjusting to a different desktop environment will make leaving Ubuntu easier.
  2. Then, I’ll re-evaluate other GNU/Linux distributions. I really like Debian GNU/Linux — it’s just the release cycle that gets me for a primary machine, but I’ve heard good things about Debian testing for everyday use. I’ll also take another look at Trisquel.
  3. I may give Ubuntu 13.04 a chance. I don’t look forward to migrating to another distribution, and the Ubuntu GNOME Remix might be a compromise. Also, it’s not just me — my wife, father, and some machines at the office all run Ubuntu, as well as my living room and recording studio machine. I’m just not sure if I can trust Ubuntu anymore. So, seeing as it may take me a few months to try out other desktop environments and distributions, I may wait to see what changes in Ubuntu 13.04, and re-evaluate middle-ground options like the Ubuntu GNOME Remix, though I’m wary of just “fixing” the problem for myself.

I’ve been patient through many Canonical missteps, and I’ve defended the Ubuntu project over the years. But the “erm, we have root” response shatters my trust in any Shuttleworth-run endeavour. It’s antithetical to the reason I switched to GNU/Linux — software freedom — and I’ll switch again if that’s what it takes.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Comments (4)

Degooglifying (Part II): Feed Reader

This post is part of a series in which I am detailing my move away from centralized, proprietary network services. Previous posts in this series: email.

Next to email, replacing Google Reader as my feed reader was relatively easy, though I’ve chosen to use the move as an opportunity to clean out my feed subscriptions, rather than doing a straight export/import. I’ve replaced Google Reader with two free software feed readers: Liferea (desktop) and Tiny Tiny RSS (web).

A reading list can be very personal, and it can also be very misleading out of context. For example, my reading list suggests all sorts of things about my religious and political views, about the communities to which I may be connected, etc. Though, it would take some analysis to try and figure out why I subscribe to any particular feed. Is the author’s view one I espouse and whole-heartedly hold as my own? One I find interesting, challenging, or thought-provoking? Or one I utterly disagree with yet want to learn more about?

There is something private about a complete reading list, much like the books you might check out from the library or the videos you might rent from a store. As we get more of this content through the internet, it’s easy for these lists (and even more behavioural data about how we interact with them) to be compiled in large, centralized, proprietary databases, alongside all sorts of other personal information that would not be available to a traditional Blockbuster or public library. Besides the software fredom issues, this is another revealing personal dataset that I can claim more control over by exercising software freedom, rather than dumping it into a big centralized, proprietary database. Both software freedom and privacy issues are at play here.

Desktop Client: Liferea

Liferea is a desktop feed reader for GNU/Linux. Google Reader was my first feed reader, so a desktop feed reader was a bit of an adjustment, but there are a few things I really like about it:

  • Native application: It integrates well with my desktop, with something like Ubuntu’s Messaging Menu, and it’s a client that feels somewhat familiar in GNOME.
  • Control over update frequency: One of the things that bugged me about Google Reader is it constantly checks for new content, whether or not you want it to. Sometimes, I don’t want to see anything new until tomorrow. It’s nice to be able to click update, read, and then let it be until I choose to update again. (Though, the downside is missing material if you don’t update often enough.)
  • Integration with Google Reader / Tiny Tiny RSS: This is a killer feature. You can use Liferea to read feeds through the Google Reader API, and recent versions have added support for a tt-rss backend as well. This helped with my transition because I could use Liferea as a front-end for Google Reader before I was prepared to migrate my feeds, to test it out, to ease the transition, etc. And, I will be able to use Liferea and tt-rss together to have both desktop and web-based clients.
  • Embedded Web Browser: This is also a killer feature. Websites that don’t have full-text feeds and only offer a content snippet are annoying in Google Reader, because you have to leave Reader to see the full content. But, in Liferea, you can tell it to automatically load content for a feed using the embedded web browser instead of just viewing the snippet, or hit enter on any feed entry to load the URL using the embedded browser. It even has basic tabbed browsing support, so you don’t have to flip back and forth between your web browser and your feed reader. This makes reading content from non-full-text feeds easy without leaving Liferea.
  • Integrated Comments: Liferea can detect comment feeds on many blogs, and it shows a handful of comments underneath entries. Combine this with a quick enter key to visit the web page with the embedded browser, and you no longer have to leave the feed reader to participate in the comments. This is a nice step up from the usual isolation of a feed reader from comment threads.
  • Authentication support for protected feeds: This is a useful feature for subscribing to protected content, such as an updates feed on an internal wiki.

I tested Liferea as a Google Reader front end, then migrated subscriptions group by group (giving me a chance to re-organize, though I could have just used an OPML export/import), and once I upgrade to Liferea 1.8, I’ll connect it to tt-rss.

Other Desktop Clients: RSSOwl is a free software, cross-platform (Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux) feed reader, which also has Google Reader integration. I have only tried this briefly, so that I could recommend it to Windows users.

Web Client: Tiny Tiny RSS

Tiny Tiny RSS is a web-based feed reader, similar to Google Reader, but free software that you can run on your own web server. There are some feeds I read all the time, and others I’ll skim or catch up on when I have a chance. For the must-read feeds, it makes a huge difference to be able to read them from my mobile computer. With Google Reader, I used grr, and there is a mobile web interface. I migrated my must-read feeds to tt-rss instead of Liferea so that I’d have easy access to them while away from my laptop, while still having the ability to use Liferea when on my laptop with it’s tt-rss integration. I’m moving more and more feeds into tt-rss, though I plan to leave some less frequently updated, less important feeds or feeds that are difficult to read from my mobile in Liferea only.

Some cool features:

  • Publish articles to shared feed: Google Reader had a shared articles RSS feed, and I’d piped that into tt-rss has a similar RSS feed, which I’ve also been able to include on my website
  • Mobile web interface: tt-rss has a mobile web interface for webkit browsers powered by iUI. With Macuco on my N900 or the Android web browser, it works quite well — though, only for full-text feeds.
  • Filters: With tt-rss, you can create filters on feeds. So, for example, I am automatically publishing articles from the Techdirt feed that I’ve written, or I can auto-delete posts for a particular series or author that I’m not interested in to custom tailor a feed to my interests. It’s very useful for automating certain actions or reducing noise on a high-traffic feed.
  • Custom CSS: I suppose you could customize Google Reader’s styles with a GreaseMonkey script or something, but tt-rss offers custom CSS overrides and multiple themes out of the box, which is great for setting some more readable default colours.
  • API: tt-rss has an API, which allows for Liferea integration, an Android client, etc.
  • Authentication support for protected feeds: Like Liferea, tt-rss provides support for feeds requiring authentication.

As with Liferea, tt-rss gives me control over how frequently updates run, since I schedule the update job. But that control also comes without the downside of missing content if I’m away from my feed reader for a while; unlike a desktop client that needs to be open to retrieve new content, tt-rss does so in the background from the server, so it can still track new entries while I’m away. It has the benefits of Google Reader’s persistent background updates, while still giving me control over frequency and scheduling. I have the update job set to run a few specific times through the day, and tt-rss gives you the option to set an even longer update interval for any given feed.

While I was initially migrating from Google Reader to Liferea, Tiny Tiny RSS is quickly becoming my primary feed reader, while Liferea will become my primary desktop client for tt-rss and home for less frequent/important/non-full-text feeds.

Other Web Clients: NewsBlur is another web-based, free software feed reader, which is based on a more modern web stack and seems to have some neat features. I have yet to try it, and I’m not sure of the state of its mobile or API/desktop integration, which are two things I really like in tt-rss. It’s worth taking a look at though for sure. has a hosted service, if you aren’t able to run your own web server or don’t have a friend who’s running one.


My migration away from Google Reader is essentially complete. I have less than a dozen feeds remaining there, but mostly old or broken feeds. I no longer log into Google Reader to read anything, though I’ve got one more round of cleaning to do to empty my account. I’m currently split between Liferea and tt-rss, but with Liferea 1.8, I’ll be able to integrate the two. I also have other libre options to explore with NewsBlur and RSSOwl.

There is nothing that I miss about Google Reader, and if anything, with an embedded browser, native desktop options, integrated comments, control over update scheduling, feed filters, and authentication support for protected feeds, I have a lot of useful features now that I didn’t have with Google’s proprietary service — nevermind more software freedom and less surveillance.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Comments (5)

Google+ exists to organize people, but I don’t want to be “organized”

There are many things I like about Google+, but, beyond being yet another proprietary social networking service, something just doesn’t sit well with me about Google’s primary purpose. Comments by Brad Horowitz that Google+ will be connected to everything Google are a good example of what concerns me:

Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do — search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube — so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are [emphasis added]

Maybe I’m naive or wrong, but it never seemed like the primary motivation behind Gmail was to sell more ads. It felt like an innovative email service that Google was able to monetize with relevant, contextual ads, not merely a means to improve Google’s ad business. But Google+ feels different. Google’s primary interest is to get access to more social information, not to create a better social networking service. Buzz or Google+ are just the means for Google to gather social data.

As Fred Wilson said with respect to Google+ as an identity service:

It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.

Google is often pretty good at aligning its interests with that of its users. For example, the more useful their ads are to users, the better Google does. Or, the better your web browser is, the more you use the Internet, the more Google thrives. But with Google+, it feels like the desire for an identity data mining tool well precedes their desire to provide a useful social networking platform.

Google+ is not first and foremost “a place for friends” or a way for student life to find expression online. From Google’s hyper-engineer perspective, we are just things to be organized in the process of organization the world’s information. They’ve organized web sites, photos, maps, calendars, videos, books — now, they’re just organizing people.

Maybe Google+ is really no different from other Google services. Maybe I’m just different. I don’t want my relationships with other people, my identity, to be treated as ultimately just data to harvest, information to organize, inputs to a proprietary Google algorithm, a way to teach Google about me as some sort of data structure. Google+ seems to exist more for Google than it does for me.

I don’t want to be treated as just a thing to be organized.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Comments (1)

Four Criteria for Free Network Services

I’m increasingly critical of network services — software that you use on someone else’s server to do your own computing. We rely on computers more and more for our work, social lives, civic engagement, health, education and leisure, and more and more that means relying on networking services rather than our own personal computers. There are serious trade-offs to living as a tenant online, rather than a property owner. I’ve been reconsidering the network services I use and rely on, especially in the shift to mobile computing.

The work of has heavily influenced my thinking. Also of note is Stallman’s essay on software as a service (though he does more to identify the problems than recommend solutions). I essentially agree with the Franklin Street Statement from As a user of network services, I’ve narrowed it down to four major criteria to look for when deciding whether to trust a service on freedom and autonomy.

  1. Free (libre) software
  2. Control over data
  3. Privacy / Encryption
  4. Distributed Systems

Note: This is more of a working list than an attempt at a formal definition. For example, I’m not sure that #3 and #4 should be required, even though I believe they are important. Feedback is welcome.

1. Free (libre) software

Free (libre) or open source software licenses designed for network services, like the GNU AGPL, help guarantee the software will respect users’ freedoms. The arguments for software freedom have been addressed at length elsewhere, but the freedom to run the software yourself is particularly relevant here since, unlike desktop software, you often have the choice of letting someone else run the software for you. Even if you don’t run the software on your own server, having the freedom to do so ensures that you can still run the service in the event that the service provider shuts down — a frequent concern with proprietary web startups after acquisition or failure. And, even if you can’t run the software yourself, with all four freedoms, chances are someone else will. The broader case for software freedom is made at length elsewhere.

Network services should respect users’ freedoms. has a good list of free web services and alternatives.

2. Control over data

If users want to leave a service provider, can they take their data with them? Open standards are important. Open standards allow other software to read and understand your data. Open standards also allow you to mix the software you use on the client and server or across multiple devices more easily. Not only does this make migration more realistic, but it makes transitions smoother.

Google’s network services aren’t often free (libre) software, but Google does have a strong commitment to open standards and making your data easily available. I’ve used many Google services from non-Google clients: Gmail from Thunderbird, Evolution and Modest; Google Calendar from Lightning, Evolution, and my N900; Google Reader from Liferea and grr; Google Talk from Empathy, Pidgin, and my N900, etc. I’ve been able to switch my client-side software before changing the back-end. This makes it possible to transition to new services gradually, in smaller steps, with less disruption.

Facebook has a download feature, but it’s slow, and it just chucks all of your data into a giant zip file rather than putting it into formats that other software or services could understand. Facebook has also actively blocked services that export your data to other providers. Your data is available for download, but not in a very useful way.

Migrations are not always planned. On your own server, you have the master key. With a service provider, if you lose access to your account because it’s cracked or cancelled suddenly, will you also lose access to your data? Or will you have an up-to-date copy locally? Open standards often help make it possible to keep a local copy up-to-date, but this isn’t always the default way we use these services. A synchronization service will typically maintain a complete local copy of your data, but services intended to be accessed through the web often require additional client-side set up
on the user’s part to make this happen (e.g. using Thunderbird or OfflineIMAP to keep a local copy of your Gmail email, or using Google Sync to keep a local copy of your calendar and contacts). Or, the services may only offer data dumps as backup. Does a service let you keep a complete local copy of your data easily in your everyday usage? Even if you primarily use the web interface, setting up a desktop client for regular use can help maintain a local copy of your data without having to consciously download backups.

Lastly, public data that is intended to be shared should be available under a free and open licence. uses CC BY for public user data. focuses on freely licensed music. This gives control over public content to the community, rather than just the service provider.

Network services should let users control their data, using open standards to give users control of their personal data and free licences to give the community control over public data. Despite having a very mixed record on other criteria, Google is a good example of open standards done right. Free (libre) and open source tools are also usually good with open standards. is a good example of licensing public data freely.

3. Privacy / Encryption

My concern with privacy isn’t so much what a service provider’s policies are, but who has access to the data in the first place.

With the launch of Google+, I’ve been quite relieved that I’ve moved a lot of my important data out of Google over the past few years. It’s one thing for Google to have my email or my social graph or my documents, but the volume of data that would be in one place using all of Google’s services is astounding. Google is generally a well-meaning company, but I wouldn’t want any single organization to have everything that Google might have: my email (love letters, job applications…), address book (contacts and their private information), documents (budget, resume, business plans), calendar (activities, habits, regular whereabouts), RSS feeds (passions, interests, and political, intellectual, religious leanings), instant messaging (chat logs with friends, lovers, co-workers), my social graph (strong ties, relationships), my phone calls (the ability to recognize my voice from Google Talk or Google Voice), my photos (facial recognition and identification of my family, friends, colleagues) — nevermind all of the revealing personal information contained in web searches! There are lots of questions regarding each type of data and whether or not you’d want to trust it with someone else, but the aggregation of all of it into a single account is a more noticably bad idea. It’s a recipe for disaster in the event of a privacy leak or breach, oppressive government actions, a supeona, the loss or revocation of your account, etc.

Furthermore, some things I simply don’t want on someone else’s computer ever. I’ve felt comfortable trusting service providers like Google with my email in the past, but I’ve never been comfortable trusting them with my entire address book — that’s not just my data, but other people’s private information too. Similarly, I would never want my personal journal on someone else’s computer — that’s just too private.

However, Mozilla does a fantastic job of handling private data. With Mozilla Weave (i.e. Firefox Sync), not only is it free (libre) software that you can run on your own server, but your data is encrypted on the server. A user has two passwords — one to authenticate with the server, another to encrypt the data locally. Since encryption happens locally, the server only sees the encrypted data and never sees your second password. Mozilla doesn’t even ask for the information to decrypt your Firefox Sync data. You can use their server to sync your data across computers, but it’s only ever decrypted on your computers, not the server. If you use Mozilla’s server instead of your own, Mozilla still won’t have access to your data.

I wish more services providers would do this. I understand it doesn’t work for services that are meant to be accessed directly on the server through the web, but at least for synchronization services it seems like a privacy no-brainer. Funambol, for example, is a great libre software data synchronization server for mobile devices, but I don’t think their gratis service at encrypts your data. I suppose they have a web interface on their server, but I’d rather run my own Funambol server in the absence of Weave-style encryption, whereas I don’t mind using Mozilla’s Firefox Sync service at all.

Encryption of data in transit is another concern. Does a network service or web application offer encrypted methods of communication? Or is your private data being transmitted out in the open? Gmail now offers HTTPS by default. Facebook and Twitter offer an “Always use HTTPS” setting. The EFF has developed a Firefox add-on that uses HTTPS wherever possible. I’ve started using basic StartSSL Class 1 certificates, which are available at no cost to individuals, in order to encrypt traffic on my home servers.

A good network service should take privacy seriously, and offer encryption wherever possible. I’m not sure that this should be a requirement for a free network service, but it’s an important consideration before using a service hosted by somebody else. However, a service that may fail to adequately protect your privacy as a hosted service could still provide an acceptable self-hosted solution.

4. Distributed Systems

Email is a common example of a distributed set of protocols. If Bob uses Hotmail and Sally uses Gmail, they can still communicate with each other. Telephony provides another example; Bell customers can phone Rogers customers, and vice versa. This is the ideal — choosing a service provider independently from the people with whom you want to communicate. Distributed systems strengthen the Internet, creating fewer points of failure or censorship, more opportunities for expression and innovation, more freedom and autonomy for users. This isn’t always relevant for network tools or synchronization services aimed at individuals or small groups compared to social network services and communications tools.

Most online social networking services are walled gardens. Facebook users can only talk to other Facebook users, MySpace users can only talk to other MySpace users, etc. In this environment, social pressure has negative effects on freedom and autonomy. You might not feel comfortable using Facebook, but if that’s where your social circles are active, you’re faced with the choice of being left out or using a service provider with which you’re uncomfortable.

Google Talk makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than developing their own proprietary walled garden instant messaging service, Google used the open standard XMPP (aka Jabber) for its chat service. With XMPP, you can chat with people on other servers. I have a Jabber account on my own server (and there are dozens of public Jabber servers), and I can still talk with (or call) people on Gmail Chat. I’ve left Google Talk, but I’m not cut off from Google Talk users. Compare that to Skype, which has so far relied on a proprietary VoIP protocol that only lets Skype users call other Skype users (short of bridging to traditional telephony).

In the social networking space, there are efforts like GNU Social/StatusNet and Diaspora to develop distributed solutions. StatusNet has already had some success implementing an open standard for distributed status updates. I’m curious whether Google+ might advance the cause of distributed social networking services (even slightly), given Google’s commitment to distributed systems and open standards elsewhere, and their development of new standards like OpenSocial.

Social network services should be distributed, allowing users to communicate across service providers. Email, traditional telephony, XMPP/Google Talk and GNU Social/Diaspora are all good examples of this. I’m not sure that this should be a strict requirement for a free network service, but the freedom to run the software on your own server is pretty useless for some social applications if you can’t communicate with people on other servers.

Conclusion, the flagship StatusNet site, is a perfect example of a free network service. It’s free software (AGPL), implements open standards and documented APIs for accessing your data, they’ve pioneered an open standard for distributed networking, and public updates are licensed freely. I’m happy to use

Mozilla’s Firefox Sync is a good example of a free network synchronization service. Data is encrypted, it’s free software that can be run on another server, and bookmarks are stored locally in a format that other applications can read. I’m comfortable using Mozilla’s service for Firefox Sync.

AGPL network sync services like Funambol and Snowy are also libre services (free software, open standards or documented formats), but in the absence of Mozilla-style encryption, I’d prefer to run them on my own server. The FreedomBox Foundation has been working on an easy way to run libre services from a home server, and make them available to others. I currently use a combination of always-on GNU/Linux home computers available remotely and some dedicated servers that I manage. Even without your own server, you can use free (or more freedom-friendly) hosted services like for email, or others for instant messaging, for mobile sync, Mozilla Firefox Sync for bookmarks and browser data, over Twitter, (SIP) over Skype, over, etc. If you’re looking to try out some of the self-hosted services, I do have Snowy, Funambol, and Tiny Tiny RSS running on my home server — contact me if you’d like an account to try them out.

The process of disentangling from proprietary network services can take some time, but it’s well worth it for the sake of freedom and autonomy, even when it may be challenging in the short-run. If you can’t leave a proprietary service right away, recognizing where it fails to meet these criteria can help you take some important steps in the meantime.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Comments (8)

Grooveshark Wants To Judge Your Soul

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

Dante Cullari made an observation on the Music Think Tank Open blog last month that seems to have gone unnoticed: Grooveshark’s privacy policy has a “soul” clause. Unlike other “immortal soul” clauses, I don’t think Grooveshark’s is intentional.

“This [personally identifiable] information may also be kept longer than 6 months by EMG if a user is found by EMG’s soul judgment to be suspect of carrying out illegal, unlawful, or dangerous actions with or in this service. Prior to keeping IP address information for more than 6 months, the user will be notified via email about their suspect status.”

The privacy policy still says that, though Dante also grabbed a screenshot.


Somehow, I don’t think Grooveshark actually intends to judge a person’s immaterial soul for evidence of suspicious activity. But, lest you think it’s a lone typo, the phrase “soul purpose” also appears later in the policy.

“EMG may allow 3d parties to place cookies and other tracking technologies, such as web beacons, clear GIFs, web bugs, tracking pixels on the Site for the soul purpose of allowing that 3d party to record that a User has visited the Site and/or used the Service.”


I think they meant “sole.” Somewhere, in the depths of my own soul, it feels like somebody was relying on spell check a bit too much…

Read the comments on Techdirt.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Post a Comment

Ok, Facebook, you’ve crossed the line

I have always been a huge fan of Facebook. I’ve come to their defence many times. Over the News Feed controversy, I sided with them (if you don’t want people to see something, why are you posting it on Facebook?). While people were complaining about Facebook opening its doors, I welcomed the change (networks and privacy settings overcome any issues there). When people were afraid of the API and Facebook “selling your personal information to third party companies,” I came to its defence by explaining the nature of an API to non-programmers.

But this time, they’ve gone too far.

The news on Facebook Beacon just keeps getting worse and worse. Facebook Beacon is a service that runs on third-party sites, publishing user actions to the news feed. For example, if you go to eBay or Blockbuster and make a purchase, this will show up in your Facebook mini-feed. This is problematic for many reasons, for example, Christmas shopping or embarrassing personal purchases. It’s one thing if a user has taken an action on – that is expected to be shared in some way. But this is on third-party websites.

Furthermore, Beacon tracks Facebook users when they’re logged-off and it even tracks non-users and users with deactivated accounts. Whose bright idea was that? This was discovered by security researchers, not announced by Facebook.

Facebook initially responded by changing Beacon to request a user’s permission before publishing a story, but calls for a universal opt-out have been ignored.

Until now. As I am writing this post, I am stumbling upon news of Zuckerberg’s post from this morning on the Facebook blog. An apology and a universal opt-out was certainly in order and has now been delivered.

We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it.

At first we tried to make it very lightweight so people wouldn’t have to touch it for it to work. The problem with our initial approach of making it an opt-out system instead of opt-in was that if someone forgot to decline to share something, Beacon still went ahead and shared it with their friends. It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share. Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution. I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation and I know we can do better.

Is this becoming a pattern? Once was commendable, but you’d think they might have learned their lesson. There is a lot of potential for Facebook to provide value for users and monetize itself in the process, but it has to take privacy more seriously. Whose bright idea was it to make Beacon opt-in by default? And with no opt-out? If you look at Google, they’ve been successful at making money off people’s personal data (e.g. Gmail contextual ads) without compromising privacy or being intrusive. At the very least, Facebook needs to learn to err on the side of caution.

Let’s hope this is the last time Zuckerberg needs to blog an apology.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Comments (3)

MPAA University toolkit for combatting “piracy” violates copyright laws

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) recently released software which it urged some of America’s largest universities to employ in order to monitor their networks for unauthorized file sharing. Not only do the universities not owe the MPAA anything, but the toolkit was found by security specialists to raise some major privacy concerns. Steve Worona, director of policy and networking programs at EDUCAUSE, says of the toolkit, “no university network administrator in their right mind would install this toolkit on their networks.”

More interestingly though, the software in question was based on Ubuntu variant Xubuntu and also made use of the Apache web server. There’s enough irony in the use of free and open source software to enforce draconian copyright laws already, but apparently the MPAA was in violation of the GNU GPL, the license the majority of the software is released under, by not making the source code available. Matthew Garrett from the Ubuntu technical board contacted the organization about their violation of copyright which resulted in a removal of the toolkit from the MPAA’s website. It will likely be up again soon once they sort things out, but this episode is both ironic and embarrassing for the MPAA. Calls for stricter copyright begin to sound hypocritical when the MPAA fails to respect other copyright holders’ rights.

Oh, and apparently this isn’t the first time the MPAA has done this sort of thing. And aside from violating copyright, they may also be in violation of Ubuntu’s trademark.

I really hope they’re embarrassed, but I’m not holding my breath.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Post a Comment

Why I Don’t Use MySpace

I strongly dislike MySpace. Unfortunately, as the de facto standard for online communication in the music world, it sometimes feels necessary. Though I maintain an account for my band, I refuse to create my own personal or artist account.

It’s not that I refuse to participate in “social networking”. I’m a bit of a Facebook fanatic and my friends can attest to that (though Facebook calls itself a social utility instead of a social network). It’s MySpace in particular that inspires loathing.

Security: Things like the Samy Worm, a cross-site scripting attack that took MySpace by storm in October 2005, make me feel uneasy about the freedom a user has to add anything to their profile. Although it was largely due to an Internet Explorer vulnerability (there are many) that Samy was able to get his code to execute (which thankfully, was not malicious), there are other security holes which are MySpace’s fault – such as the ability to view a user’s private data – which go unpatched for months.

Privacy: Ignoring the huge security holes in MySpace privacy settings that have existed in the past (mentioned above and here), MySpace simply has no hope of ever coming close to implementing the types of complex privacy controls that Facebook has; you can tell they just don’t have the infrastructure in place. There are no networks, no meaning to relationships such as “friend of a friend” (since it’s more common to be friends with a stranger than someone you actually know), and hardly any ability to separate off sections of your profile, since it’s largely a single section where anything goes. Privacy settings seem to consist of simply “public” or “private”, rather than having any real meaningful or useful control over your content.

Search: ie. lack thereof. Try finding one of your friends who’s not in your Top 8 and hasn’t posted on your profile recently. Enough said. It’s easier to find someone who you’re not already friends with on Facebook than it is to navigate to a friend’s profile on MySpace.

Design: MySpace design is practically non-existent. There is actually no bar that’s set because anything goes. The lack of any sort of unity between profiles breaks so many fundamental rules of user interface design. People can change the basic buttons (e.g. the “Add as Friend” or “Message” buttons), and even change/hide the main website header! And I don’t even have the patience to talk about the freedom to mess with the colour scheme. On Facebook, you can’t fundamentally alter the look or structure of your profile. That’s because the focus is on the profile content, rather than it being some sort of contest to see who can deviate from the standard most. It makes navigation and communication easy without limiting a user’s ability to “express themselves” in a meaningful way. True freedom is not an absence of any structure or rules. In order to drive, we all need to agree to some basic rules of the road. Without that structure, we’d have the freedom to do anything on the roads, yet we’d lose our freedom to use them for safe and effective travel.

Bugs: Now, as a programmer, I know that there will always be bugs in software. But for a website as big as MySpace to constantly tell me “You must be logged in to do that” when I am trying to log in, to have broken links in the inbox, to constantly serve up “unexpected errors” or to not warn a user when javascript is needed and not enabled just makes me feel embarrassed for them. I deleted a message from my inbox today from Tom assuring me that MySpace did “NOT DELETE” any of my friends. There was just a bug they’d discovered that rendered a friend count inaccurate, which, upon correcting, had lowered some people’s friend counts. How hard can it possibly be to maintain a friend count? And how hard can it be for a social networking site to develop a mechanism for making announcements to users that doesn’t involve spamming the entire user base?

Culture: Internet culture often inspires the lowest common denominator. MySpace inspires some of the worst. Case in point: my band received a friend request (and accompanying message) from this guy today. Somebody shoot me. Err.. $ombodyz sh00t me!!~~~ (Yes – I rejected the request.)

Intrusive Advertisements: MySpace needs a button to report inappropriate content on its advertisements. I have the desire to report ads much more often than I ever have the desire to report user content (unless it’s a message from Tom…). Someone needs to introduce them to the words “quality” and “control”.

Autoplay: I’m sick and tired of reaching for the mute button (especially since it’s never in the same place).

Pet Peeve: Is it just me or is the equalizer in the MySpace music player just faking it?

I’ll continue to maintain my band’s MySpace profile (as long as it feels necessary), but let me take this opportunity to reaffirm my resolve to boycott MySpace on a personal level. I’d much rather use more powerful, user-friendly utilities such as Facebook and (see my artist page – who needs MySpace!).

I think MySpace’s days are numbered. Here’s to hoping that number is relatively small.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Permalink | Comments (3)