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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.

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4 Responses to “On Revoking Ubuntu’s Root Privileges”

  1. Eric Hope says:

    I know you wrote this post a long time ago, but I just wanted to commend you on it. You expressed my feelings on the matter PRECISELY. Thank you for finding the words where I could not. I no longer feel that I can trust Canonical, and have begun the sad task of trying out a bunch of different distros as an alternative to Ubuntu (which is a shame, because I really like Ubuntu/Unity’s interface). I’m curious what you ended up doing. Are you still running Ubuntu, perhaps just with a different desktop environment? Perhaps you’ve switched distros completely? I’ve not found the one I want to switch to permanently yet, though I’m playing around with VM’s of Mint, Ubuntu Studio, SolydK, Elementary OS & Manjaro (XFCE). I’d be interested in hearing what you switched to.

    Thanks for taking the time to write your post.

    • Hi Eric,

      I am still running Ubuntu, but I switched to GNOME 3 and haven’t looked back. I’m incredibly happy with it. Out of the box, there were a few things that were awkward at first, but is fantastic. A couple extensions and I was on my way.

      I’m still a bit torn between Ubuntu and Debian testing. Ubuntu’s 6-month release cycle is just much better for tracking recent software releases… But, part of running GNOME means I’ll still be using the same desktop environment even if/when I do switch to Debian testing.

      Since switching to GNOME, I’ve felt further removed from Canonical, so to be honest it hasn’t been as much of a priority lately, but I’m planning to maybe switch one of my machines to Debian testing over the next few months and see how it feels as an everyday distro. I’m much more comfortable with Debian philosophically… it’s just the release cycle that’s a stumbling block for me. (And, to be honest, Ice Weasel/Ice Dove versus Firefox/Thunderbird… but maybe that shouldn’t be a big deal.) But, I’m also much, much more comfortable with the GNOME Foundation than Canonical.

      (I do have an audio production machine that dual boots 64studio and Ubuntu Studio with XFCE too.)

      The GNOME switch was super easy, especially with I highly recommend at least giving it a try. Great alternative to Unity, and loosens the Canonical dependency.

      Which way are you leaning?


  2. Eric Hope says:

    Sorry for the delayed response. I’m not leaning in any direction in particular just yet. A few things came up outside of my computing life, which caused me to put my Linux distros on the back burner for a little bit, and just do things on my Macs. But of the distros I’d mentioned above, I was kind of liking Manjaro (XFCE) the most. The only thing I really don’t love about it (perhaps XFCE more specifically), is that, like Mint Cinnamon, it is built more on a Windows paradigm visually, and as I’m not a real fan of Windows to begin with, that’s really not a plus for me. I know there’s the OpenBox version of Manjaro, and I did play with that in a VM for a hot minute, but I found OpenBox to be absolutely TOO crazy. I just need something to be a nice, manageable everyday distro. I don’t want to have to build it from the ground up, or to have to constantly fiddle with it. The general consensus out in the world seems to be that if you want to escape Canonical/Ubuntu/Unity, just go to Mint, and in fact I have tried that on numerous occasions. And while Mint is fine (though still built on a Windows paradigm), I’ve never really been able to embrace it the way I did Ubuntu/Unity. I’ll have to give Ubuntu with GNOME 3 a go. That may be the answer I’m looking for. I played with GNOME 3 in an installation of Fedora a couple of years ago, though, and I wasn’t liking it. Didn’t strike me as intuitive. Maybe things have changed, though. It HAS been a while since I’ve touched it. I’ll try it out. Anyway, thanks for getting back to me. I checked out your music, too. Very nice stuff, man! I enjoyed it quite a bit. Keep it up.

    Talk to you again soon.

  3. gnu/linux is not *buntu says:

    I leaved defenitively Ubuntu with 10.04 release because I realized that LTS releases are very buggy too. I had a lot of troubles and I was forced to switch back to debian testing.

    However I think debian stable (maybe with Xfce) is the way to go. It’s very well tested and you can get newer packages from official backports repositories.. just

    apt-get -t <>-backports install <>

    and you can get one of the latest releases of Libreoffice, Firefox/Iceweasel and even kernel and drivers…

    Also openSUSE is a good distribution…

    I wonder why linux people still consider only these f****d-up *buntus

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