Cloud threatening software freedom, advocate says

The public cloud increasingly is isolating users from the actual computing that they're doing, threatening their control over the process and posing a danger to software freedom, said academic and former Debian project leader Stefano Zacchiroli on Sunday at LibrePlanet 2015.

According to Zacchiroli, all of the major "as-a-services" pose problems for user freedom.

"All different so-called service models of the cloud pose the same threat ... you will see the same pattern of moving computation away from user machines to remote machines," he said.

This is problematic, Zacchiroli argued, because everything from basic applications like email and productivity to content consumption like TV and video games, are all provided from walled gardens like Google, Netflix or Steam. Broadly speaking, he said, people are doing their key work on other people's computers.

"Computations that used to happen on machines the user owned are now happening far away from them," Zacchiroli said. "[T]he interesting computation that happens -- interesting in the sense that they are very close to what the users want to do, are no longer happening near them."

Presumably, this lack of control could leave users at the mercy of the keepers of those walled gardens. Ironically, however, this cloud-based danger is emerging at a time when the free and open-source software movements are enjoying unheard-of popularity among many of the companies who provide just such walled gardens.

Free software really is everywhere -- web server software, web browsers and mobile devices all have huge FOSS presences -- but, as one of Zacchiroli's slides put it, FOSS is "winning a war that is becoming increasingly pointless for software freedom."

But the outlook isn't all bleak, he argued. In fact, with a change, the cloud model could be a great one for software freedom -- federated clouds, with users providing their own equipment and running their own software, either on their own or in partnership with peers -- could be a way to provide the capabilities of the cloud without surrendering ultimate control over the computing part.

"We need upstream people working on federated solutions, as opposed to centralized solutions," Zacchiroli said, adding that projects like FreedomBox -- which is free software designed to provide an easy, secure way for people to run their own email, communications and social media servers -- ought to be defaults, not niche projects restricted to free software enthusiasts.

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