Richard Stallman’s head is in the clouds

I don’t agree with Stallman’s recent comments that users of cloud computing are stupid. I do agree that the growth of web services, including software as a service, have created walled gardens with huge concerns of data integrity, privacy and interoperability, amongst others noted by the NY Times recently.

Cloud computing confuses some. For example, some conflate FOSS, social networking, online storage, software as a service and blogging as cloud computing, which is not terribly useful to interrogate Stallman’s concerns. Speaking from experience, I’ve never had confidence in the ‘cloud’, which is why systems I design for peacebuilding and peace negotiations, inter alia, are designed to work over multiple internet transports, most of them low bandwidth, based on open standards and when possible, open source, are interoperable to the extent possible with other relevant systems and are redundant – the failure of a single node will not, akin to the Internet itself, bring down the whole network.

Organisations that believe they are users of the ‘cloud’ often fail to realise that complete reliance on these services is very dangerous, as it holds hostage mission critical operations and processes to server side outages, local network and ISP outages or blocks, data loss resulting from bankruptcy of the parent company and the infringement of civil liberties through insecure content management.

So in this sense, Stallman is right – we are stupid to not look at ways to reduce our reliance on the cloud, believing in its benign munificence as a guarantee that data will always be safe, secure and available. Through bitter experience, this is something I have written on at length – see WordPress.com goes down – A chink in the “cloud” and how to plan for it

However, Chanuka’s point in this comment is also correct. Proponents of the idea of using alternatives to walled-gardens as they exist today – be it Gmail, Facebook, Myspace, Amazon’s S3 servers or Google Docs – rarely have any viable alternatives that offer the same set of features, ease of use and functionality.

Because of the nature of repressive regimes, HR defenders and those at the frontlines of strengthening democracy often have no option but to rely on cloud storage and information dissemination, given the risk associated with local data storage. But bad practices and ignorance lead to deplorable habits online, leaving many HR defenders, few of whom are IT literate to the extent they need to be today, very exposed to data leaks.

So Stallman is only partly right. His comments, like most of what he says, alienate even those who recognise that there is great value in the issues he raises. The manner he raises them however relegates him to a fringe lunacy, an binary mentality that cannot grasp, much less articulate, a more nuanced approach to and understanding of issues such as cloud computing.

5 comments on “Richard Stallman’s head is in the clouds

  1. IP Address
    October 14, 2008 at 8:15 pm #

    I agree with this blog. Stallman is only partially right. Cloud computing users can’t be considered as stupid. Although, I also don’t believe in ‘Cloud’ as it is quite confusing.

  2. Randall
    October 15, 2008 at 2:25 am #

    The market will work out these issues. Customers will gravitate toward those vendors who produce cloud products that meet their needs and make their lives easier, cheaper to live, and more entertaining or productive.

    Dark cloud vendors will rain customers, draining into rivers, lakes and blue oceans, evaporating, condensing, forming new clouds, completing the cycle…

  3. Jota
    October 18, 2008 at 4:13 am #

    I agree with Sanjana. Stallman usually takes polarizing views on issues where he is only partly right, and he does so with almost religious fanaticism which detracts from the good points he might have. As Randall says, the market will work out the issues. The problem with ICT infrastructure overseas is that either a) local infrastructure is good but in the hands of a few that control it completely; b) local infrastructure is poor, case in which local users have to use infrastructure in neighbouring countries in the region, with the same problems as a) or in the cloud with issues Sanjana raises; c) the local regime is extremely repressive and you have to find distributed global solutions for data storage and applications. You either get them in walled environments, or you use a grassroots built backbone. And either of these is out of your control.

  4. Randall
    November 23, 2008 at 2:09 am #

    I think a big portion of this problem results merely from a lack of supply of expertise. There aren’t enough engineers out there to solve the infrastructure problem for all businesses, so businesses that can attract that kind of talent are going to solve it for many companies.

    This happens now with services organizations going around to many different companies. The problem with the services model is that it is very expensive to solve a problem that many people have.

    Cloud computing abstracts the solution so that it can be used by many. It’s the ultimate in code re-use.

    Not every small business can have an IT person set up a rack of servers and run a farm or even a single server. But most small businesses are savvy enough to point and click and enter a credit card number.

    That’s what this movement is about.

  5. vvishnu
    March 14, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Yes, this blog is 100% correct. Stallman is only partially correct. Yes, there are concerns with Data Privacy and Data Ownership.

    But, at the same time we can’t expect to have a small business running a Data centre or maintaining it.

    I am doing a project on this topic and expecting votes. I have a poll @ http://vvishnu.wordpress.com/poll/

    So, far the poll suggests that the future will be cloud computing running open source software under its hood.

    As, Rahul pointed out the market will work out this issue.

    Thanks,

    V.Vishnu

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