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<title>Who Does That Server Really Serve?
- GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF)</title> Foundation</title>

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<h2>Who does that server really serve?</h2>

<p>by <strong>Richard Stallman</strong></p>

<p>(First

<blockquote><p>(The first version was published by
in <a href="http://bostonreview.net/BR35.2/stallman.php"> href="http://www.bostonreview.net/richard-stallman-free-software-DRM">
Boston Review</a>.)</p> Review</a>.)</p></blockquote>

<p><strong>On the Internet, proprietary software isn't the only way to
lose your freedom.  Software  Service as a Service Software Substitute, or SaaSS, is
another way to let someone else have power over your
computing.</strong></p>

SaaSS means using a service implemented by someone else as a
substitute for running your copy of a program.  The term is ours;
articles and ads won't use it, and they won't tell you whether a
service is SaaSS.  Instead they will probably use the vague and
distracting term “cloud”, which lumps SaaSS together with
various other practices, some abusive and some ok.  With the
explanation and examples in this page, you can tell whether a service
is SaaSS.

<h3>Background: How Proprietary Software Takes Away Your Freedom</h3>

<p>Digital technology can give you freedom; it can also take your
freedom away.  The first threat to our control over our computing came
from <em>proprietary software</em>: software that the users cannot
control because the owner (a company such as Apple or Microsoft)
controls it.  The owner often takes advantage of this unjust power by
inserting malicious features such as spyware, back doors, and <a
href="http://DefectiveByDesign.org">Digital Restrictions Management
(DRM)</a> (referred to as “Digital Rights Management” in
their propaganda).</p>

<p>Our solution to this problem is developing <em>free software</em>
and rejecting proprietary software.  Free software means that you, as
a user, have four essential freedoms: (0) to run the program as
you wish, (1) to study and change the source code so it does what
you wish, (2) to redistribute exact copies, and (3) to
redistribute copies of your modified versions.  (See
the <a href="/philosophy/free-sw.html">free software
definition</a>.)</p>

<p>With free software, we, the users, take back control of our
computing.  Proprietary software still exists, but we can exclude it
from our lives and many of us have done so.  However, we now face a
new threat to our control over our computing: Software Service as a Service. Software
Substitute (SaaSS).  For our freedom's sake, we have to reject that
too.</p>

<h3>How Software Service as a Service Software Substitute Takes Away Your Freedom</h3>

<p>Software

<p>Service as a Service (SaaS) Software Substitute (SaaSS) means using a service as a
substitute for running your copy of a program.  Concretely, it means
that someone sets up a network server that does certain computing tasks—running spreadsheets,
word processing,
tasks—for instance, modifying a photo, translating text into
another language, etc.—then invites users to do their computing on via
that server.
Users  A user of the server would send their her data to the server,
which does their computing <em>her own computing</em> on the data thus provided, then
sends the results back to her or acts directly on them
directly.</p> her behalf.</p>

<p>The computing is <em>her own</em> because, by assumption, she
could, in principle, have done it by running a program on her own
computer (whether or not that program is available to her at
present).  When this assumption is not so, it isn't SaaSS.</p>

<p>These servers wrest control from the users even more inexorably
than proprietary software.  With proprietary software, users typically
get an executable file but not the source code.  That makes it hard
for programmers to
study the code that is running, so it's hard to determine what the
program really does, and hard to change it.</p>

<p>With SaaS, SaaSS, the users do not have even the executable file: file that
does their computing: it is on
the someone else's server, where the users
can't see or touch it.  Thus it is impossible for them to ascertain
what it really does, and impossible to change it.</p>

<p>Furthermore, SaaS SaaSS automatically leads to harmful consequences equivalent
to the malicious features of certain proprietary software. software.</p>

<p> For instance, some proprietary programs are “spyware”:
the program <a href="/philosophy/proprietary-surveillance.html">
sends out data about users' computing activities. activities</a>.
Microsoft Windows sends information about users' activities to
Microsoft.  Windows Media Player and RealPlayer report reports what each user watches or
listens to.</p> to.  The Amazon Kindle reports which pages of which books the
user looks at, and when.  Angry Birds reports the user's geolocation
history.</p>

<p>Unlike proprietary software, SaaS SaaSS does not require covert code to
obtain the user's data.  Instead, users must send their data to the
server in order to use it.  This has the same effect as spyware: the
server operator gets the data.  He gets it with data—with no special effort, by the
nature of SaaS.</p> SaaSS.  Amy Webb, who intended never to post any photos of
her daughter, made the mistake of using SaaSS (Instagram) to edit
photos of her.  Eventually
<a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/data_mine_1/2013/09/privacy_facebook_kids_don_t_post_photos_of_your_kids_on_social_media.html"> they
leaked from there</a>.
</p>

<p>Some proprietary programs can mistreat users under remote command. operating systems have a universal back door,
permitting someone to remotely install software changes.  For
instance, Windows has a universal back door with which Microsoft can
forcibly change any software on the machine.  The Amazon Kindle e-book
reader (whose name suggests it's intended to burn people's books) has
an Orwellian  Nearly all portable
phones have them, too.  Some proprietary applications also have
universal back door that Amazon used in 2009
to <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html"
>remotely delete</a> Kindle copies of Orwell's books <cite>1984</cite> and
<cite>Animal Farm</cite> which doors; for instance, the users had purchased from Amazon.</p>

<p>SaaS inherently gives Steam client for GNU/Linux
allows the developer to remotely install modified versions.</p>

<p>With SaaSS, the server operator the power to can change the software in use, or use on
the users' data being operated on.  Once again, no
special code is needed server.  He ought to do this.</p>

<p>Thus, SaaS is equivalent be able to total do this, since it's his computer;
but the result is the same as using a proprietary application program
with a universal back door: someone has the power to silently impose
changes in how the user's computing gets done.</p>

<p>Thus, SaaSS is equivalent to running proprietary software with
spyware and a gaping wide universal back
door, and door.  It gives the server operator
unjust power over the user.  We
can't accept that.</p>

<h3>Untangling user, and that power is something we must
resist.</p>

<h3>SaaSS and SaaS</h3>

<p>Originally we referred to this problematical practice as
“SaaS”, which stands for “Software as a
Service”.  It's a commonly used term for setting up software on a
server rather than offering copies of it to users, and we thought it
described precisely the cases where this problem occurs.</p>

<p>Subsequently we became aware that the term SaaS is sometimes used for
communication services—activities for which this issue is not
applicable.  In addition, the term “Software as a Service”
doesn't explain <em>why</em> the practice is bad.  So we coined the term
“Service as a Software Substitute”, which defines the bad
practice more clearly and says what is bad about it.</p>

<h3>Untangling the SaaSS Issue from the Proprietary Software Issue</h3>

<p>SaaS

<p>SaaSS and proprietary software lead to similar harmful results, but
the causal mechanisms are different.  With proprietary software, the
cause
mechanism is that you have and use a copy which is difficult or and/or
illegal to change.  With SaaS, SaaSS, the cause mechanism is that you use a copy you don't
have.</p> have
the copy that's doing your computing.</p>

<p>These two issues are often confused, and not only by accident.  Web
developers use the vague term “web application” to lump
the server software together with programs run on your machine in your
browser.  Some web pages install nontrivial or nontrivial, even large JavaScript
programs temporarily into your browser without informing
you.  <a href="/philosophy/javascript-trap.html">When these JavaScript
programs are nonfree</a>, they are as bad the same sort of problem as any
other nonfree software.  Here, however, we are concerned with the
problem of the server software itself.</p>

<p>Many free software supporters assume that the problem of SaaS SaaSS will
be solved by developing free software for servers.  For the server
operator's sake, the programs on the server had better be free; if
they are proprietary, their owners have power over the server.  That's
unfair to the operator, and doesn't help you the users at all.  But if the
programs on the server are free, that doesn't protect you <em>as the <em>the server's user</em>
users</em> from the effects of SaaS.  They give freedom to SaaSS.  These programs liberate the
server operator, but not to you.</p> the server's users.</p>

<p>Releasing the server software source code does benefit the
community: it enables suitably skilled users can to set up similar
servers, perhaps changing the
software.  But  <a href="/licenses/license-recommendations.html"> We
recommend using the GNU Affero GPL</a> as the license for programs
often used on servers.</p>

<p>But none of these servers would give you control over computing you
do on it, unless it's <em>your</em> server.
The rest would  It may be OK to trust
your friend's server for some jobs, just as you might let your friend
maintain the software on your own computer.  Outside of that, all
these servers would be SaaS.  SaaS SaaSS for you.  SaaSS always subjects you to
the power of the server operator, and the only remedy is, <em>Don't
use SaaS!</em> SaaSS!</em>  Don't use someone else's server to do your own
computing on data provided by you.</p>

<p>Services are fundamentally different from programs, and the ethical
issues that services raise are fundamentally different from the issues
that programs raise.  To avoid confusion,
we <a href="/philosophy/network-services-arent-free-or-nonfree.html">
avoid describing a service as “free” or
“proprietary.”</a></p>

<h3>Distinguishing SaaS SaaSS from Other Network Services</h3>

<p>Does avoiding SaaS mean

<p>Which online services are SaaSS?  The clearest example is a
translation service, which translates (say) English text into Spanish
text.  Translating a text for you refuse to use any network servers run is computing that is purely yours.
You could do it by anyone other than you?  Not at all. running a program on your own computer, if only you
had the right program.  (To be ethical, that program should be free.)
The translation service substitutes for that program, so it is Service
as a Software Substitute, or SaaSS.  Since it denies you control
over your computing, it does you wrong.</p>

<p>Another clear example is using a service such as Flickr or
Instagram to modify a photo.  Modifying photos is an activity that
people have done in their own computers for decades; doing it in a
server instead of your own computer is SaaSS.</p>

<p>Rejecting SaaSS does not mean refusing to use any network servers
run by anyone other than you.  Most servers do are not raise this
issue, SaaSS because the job you
jobs they do with them isn't your are not the user's own computing
except in a trivial sense.</p> computing.</p>

<p>The original purpose idea of web servers wasn't to do computing for you, it
was to publish information for you to access.  Even today this is what
most web sites do, and it doesn't pose the SaaS SaaSS problem, because
accessing someone's published information isn't a matter of doing your own
computing.  Neither is publishing your own materials via a blog site
or a microblogging service such as Twitter or identi.ca. StatusNet.  (These
services may have other problems, of course.)  The same goes for other
communication not meant to be private, such as chat
groups.  Social groups.</p>

<p>In its essence, social networking can extend into SaaS; however, at root it is just a method form of communication and
publication, not SaaS.  If you
use the SaaSS.  However, a service whose main facility is
social networking can have features or extensions which are SaaSS.</p>

<p>If a service for minor editing of what you're going to communicate,
that is not SaaSS, that does not mean it is OK.  There are
other ethical issues about services.  For instance, Facebook
distributes video in Flash, which pressures users to run nonfree
software; it requires running nonfree JavaScript code; and it gives
users a significant issue.</p> misleading impression of privacy while luring them into baring
their lives to Facebook.  Those are important issues, different from
the SaaSS issue.
</p>

<p>Services such as search engines collect data from around the web
and let you examine it.  Looking through their collection of data
isn't your own computing in the usual sense—you didn't provide
that collection—so using such a service to search the web is not
SaaS.  (However,
SaaSS.  However, using someone else's search engine server to implement a search
facility for your own site <em>is</em> SaaS.)</p>

<p>E-commerce SaaSS.</p>

<p>Purchasing online is not SaaS, SaaSS, because the computing
isn't solely yours; <em>your own</em>; rather, it is done jointly by and for you and another party.  So there's no
particular reason why you alone should expect to control that
computing.
the store.  The real issue in e-commerce online shopping is whether you trust the
other party with your money and other personal information.</p> information (starting
with your name).</p>

<p>Repository sites such as as Savannah and SourceForge are not
inherently SaaSS, because a repository's job is publication of data
supplied to it.</p>

<p>Using a joint project's servers isn't SaaS SaaSS because the computing
you do in this way isn't yours personally. your own.  For instance, if you edit pages on
Wikipedia, you are not doing your own computing; rather, you are
collaborating in Wikipedia's computing.</p>

<p>Wikipedia computing.  Wikipedia controls its own
servers, but groups can face organizations as well as individuals encounter the
problem of SaaS SaaSS if they do their group activities on someone else's server.
Fortunately, development hosting sites such as Savannah and
SourceForge don't pose the SaaS problem, because what groups do there
is mainly publication and public communication, rather than their own
private computing.</p>

<p>Multiplayer games are a group activity carried out on computing in someone else's server, which makes them SaaS.  But where the data involved is
just the state of play and the score, the worst wrong the operator
might commit is favoritism.  You might well ignore that risk, since it
seems unlikely and very little is at stake.  On the other hand, when
the game becomes more than just a game, the issue changes.</p>

<p>“Backend as a Service”, or BaaS, is a kind of SaaS, because it
involves running your own web service on top of software that you
can't control.  If you set up a service using BaaS, the BaaS platform
may well collect information about your users as well as you.</p>

<p>Which online services are SaaS?  Google Docs is a clear example.
Its basic activity is editing, and Google encourages people to use it
for their own editing; this is SaaS.  It offers the added feature of
collaborative editing, but adding participants doesn't alter the fact
that editing on the server is SaaS.  (In addition, Google Docs is
unacceptable because it installs a
large <a href="/philosophy/javascript-trap.html"> nonfree JavaScript program</a>
into the user's browser.)  If using a service for communication or
collaboration requires doing substantial parts of your own computing
with it too, that computing is SaaS even if the communication is
not.</p>
server.</p>

<p>Some sites offer multiple services, and if one is not SaaS, SaaSS,
another may be SaaS. SaaSS.  For instance, the main service of Facebook is
social networking, and that is not SaaS; SaaSS; however, it supports
third-party applications, some of which may be SaaS. are SaaSS.  Flickr's main
service is distributing photos, which is not SaaS, SaaSS, but it also has
features for editing photos, which is SaaS.</p>

<p>Some sites whose main service SaaSS.  Likewise, using
Instagram to post a photo is publication and communication
extend not SaaSS, but using it with “contact management”: keeping track to transform the
photo is SaaSS.</p>

<p>Google Docs shows how complex the evaluation of a single service
can become.  It invites people you have relationships with.  Sending mail to those people edit a document by running a
large <a href="/philosophy/javascript-trap.html">nonfree JavaScript
program</a>, clearly wrong.  However, it offers an API for
you uploading
and downloading documents in standard formats.  A free software editor
can do so through this API.  This usage scenario is not SaaS, but keeping track of SaaSS, because
it uses Google Docs as a mere repository.  Showing all your dealings with them, if
substantial, data to a
company is SaaS.</p>

<p>If bad, but that is a matter of privacy, not SaaSS; depending
on a service for access to your data is not SaaS, bad, but that does not mean it is OK.  There are
other bad things a matter of
risk, not SaaSS.  On the other hand, using the service can do.  For instance, Facebook distributes
video for converting
document formats <em>is</em> SaaSS, because it's something you could
have done by running a suitable program (free, one hopes) in Flash, your own
computer.</p>

<p>Using Google Docs through a free editor is rare, of course.  Most
often, people use it through the nonfree JavaScript program, which pressures users to run is
bad like any nonfree software, program.  This scenario might involve SaaSS, too;
that depends on what part of the editing is done in the JavaScript
program and what part in the server.  We don't know, but since SaaSS
and proprietary software do similar wrong to the user, it
gives users a misleading impression of privacy.  Those are important
issues too, is not
crucial to know.</p>

<p>Publishing via someone else's repository does not raise privacy
issues, but this article's concern publishing through Google Docs has a special problem: it
is impossible even to <em>view the issue text</em> of SaaS.</p> a Google Docs document
in a browser without running the nonfree JavaScript code.  Thus, you
should not use Google Docs to publish anything—but the reason
is not a matter of SaaSS.</p>

<p>The IT industry discourages users from considering making these distinctions.
That's what the buzzword “cloud computing” is for.  This
term is so nebulous that it could refer to almost any use of the
Internet.  It includes SaaS and it includes nearly
everything else. SaaSS as well as many other network usage
practices.  In any given context, an author who writes
“cloud” (if a technical person) probably has a specific
meaning in mind, but usually does not explain that in other articles
the term has other specific meanings.  The term only lends itself leads people to uselessly broad
statements.</p>

<p>The real meaning of
generalize about practices they ought to consider individually.</p>

<p>If “cloud computing” has a meaning, it is to suggest not a way of
doing computing, but rather a way of thinking about computing: a
devil-may-care approach towards your computing.  It which says, “Don't ask questions, just trust every business without hesitation. questions.  Don't
worry about who controls your computing or who holds your data.  Don't
check for a hook hidden inside our service before you swallow
it.” it.
Trust companies without hesitation.” In other words, “Think like “Be a
sucker.” I prefer A cloud in the mind is an obstacle to clear thinking.
For the sake of clear thinking about computing, let's avoid the term.</p> term
“cloud.”</p>

<h3>Dealing with the SaaS SaaSS Problem</h3>

<p>Only a small fraction of all web sites do SaaS; SaaSS; most don't raise
the issue.  But what should we do about the ones that raise it?</p>

<p>For the simple case, where you are doing your own computing on data
in your own hands, the solution is simple: use your own copy of a free
software application.  Do your text editing with your copy of a free
text editor such as GNU Emacs or a free word processor.  Do your photo
editing with your copy of free software such as GIMP.</p>

<p>But what GIMP.  What if there
is no free program available?  A proprietary program or SaaSS would
take away your freedom, so you shouldn't use those.  You can contribute
your time or your money to development of a free replacement.</p>

<p>What about collaborating with other individuals? individuals as a group?  It may
be hard to do this at present without using a server, and your group
may not know how to run its own server.  If you use one, someone else's
server, at least don't trust a server run by a company.  A mere
contract as a customer is no protection unless you could detect a
breach and could really sue, and the company probably writes its
contracts to permit a broad range of abuses.  Police  The state can subpoena
your data from the company along with
less basis than required everyone else's, as Obama has
done to subpoena them from you, phone companies, supposing the company doesn't volunteer them
like the US phone companies that illegally wiretapped their customers
for Bush.  If you must use a server, use a server whose operators give
you a basis for trust beyond a mere commercial relationship.</p>

<p>However, on a longer time scale, we can create alternatives to
using servers.  For instance, we can create a peer-to-peer program
through which collaborators can share data encrypted.  The free
software community should develop distributed peer-to-peer
replacements for important “web applications”.  It may be
wise to release them under
the <a href="/licenses/why-affero-gpl.html"> GNU Affero GPL</a>, since
they are likely candidates for being converted into server-based
programs by someone else.  The <a href="/">GNU project</a> is looking
for volunteers to work on such replacements.  We also invite other
free software projects to consider this issue in their design.</p>

<p>In the meantime, if a company invites you to use its server to do
your own computing tasks, don't yield; don't use SaaS. SaaSS.  Don't buy or
install “thin clients”, which are simply computers so weak
they make you do the real work on a server, unless you're going to use
them with <em>your</em> server.  Use a real computer and keep your
data there.  Do your work own computing with your own copy of a free
program, for your freedom's sake.</p>

<h3>See also:</h3>
<p><a href="/philosophy/bug-nobody-allowed-to-understand.html">The
Bug Nobody is Allowed to Understand</a>.</p>
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