Who Does That Server Really Serve?

On the Internet, proprietary software isn't the only way to lose your computing freedom. Service as a Software Substitute, or SaaSS, is another way to give someone else power over your computing.

The basic point is, you can have control over a program someone else wrote (if it's free), but you can never have control over a service someone else runs, so never use a service where in principle running a program would do.

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. And they talk about “delivering a program by offering a service to run it.” With the explanation and examples in this page, you can tell whether a service is SaaSS.

Background: How Proprietary Software Takes Away Your Freedom

Digital technology can give you freedom; it can also take your freedom away. The first threat to our control over our computing came from proprietary software: 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 Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) (referred to as “Digital Rights Management” in their propaganda).

Our solution to this problem is developing free software and rejecting proprietary software. Free software gives you, as a user, 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 free software definition.)

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 are now offered another tempting way to cede control over our computing: Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS). For our freedom's sake, we have to reject that too.

What Does Service as a Software Substitute Look Like?

Service as a 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 activities—for instance, modifying a photo, translating text into another language, etc.—then invites users to let that server do their own computing for them. As a user of the server, you would send your data to the server, which does that computing activity on the data thus provided, then sends the results back to you or else acts directly on your behalf.

To Which Activities Is the Issue of SaaSS Applicable?

The issue of SaaSS-or-not-SaaSS is meaningful for a computing activity that is your own computing. What does that mean, precisely? It means that no one else is inherently involved in the activity. To clarify the meaning of “inherently involved,” we present a thought experiment in which we focus on one unspecified imaginary computing activity.

Suppose that all parts of the activity are implemented in free software and you have copies, and you have whatever data you might need, as well as computers of whatever speed, functionality and capacity might be required. Could you (if given those prerequisites) do this particular computing activity entirely within those computers, not communicating with anyone else's computers?

If you could, then the activity is essentially your own. Therefore, for your freedom's sake, you deserve to control it. The concept of SaaSS is applicable to such activities and not to other activities.

For such an activity, if you carry it out by running your copies of free programs, you do control it. That protects the freedom you deserve. However, doing it via someone else's service would give that someone else control over part of your computing activity. That denies you the control you deserve, so we say it is unjust. We call that scenario SaaSS.

By contrast, if due to the inherent nature of the computing to be done you couldn't possibly do that activity entirely in your own computers, then the activity isn't entirely your own, so the issue of SaaSS is not applicable to that activity. In general, these activities involve communication with others, so the others must be included in it. Buying something from a store is a typical example of an activity that needs to include some other party (the store).

If a certain activity is essentially your own, then maintaining your full control over it requires that you do it using your copies of free programs, running them on computers you control. Doing it in any other way is SaaSS because it denies you the control you deserve. This is independent of your reasons for doing it in some other way. If you choose some other way because of some convenience, it is SaaSS. If it is because you can't obtain the free programs or the computer you'd need to keep control, that is still SaaSS.

Using SaaSS Compared with Running Nonfree Software

SaaSS 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 to study the code that is running, so it's hard to determine what the program really does, and hard to change it.

With SaaSS, the users do not have even the executable file that does their computing: it is on 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.

Furthermore, SaaSS automatically leads to consequences equivalent to the malicious features of certain proprietary software.

For instance, some proprietary programs are “spyware”: the program sends out data about users' computing activities. Microsoft Windows sends information about users' activities to Microsoft. Windows Media Player reports what each user watches or listens to. The Amazon Kindle reports which pages of which books the user looks at, and when. Angry Birds reports the user's geolocation history.

Unlike proprietary software, SaaSS does not require covert code to obtain the user's data. Instead, its structure requires users to send their data to the server in order to use it. This has the same effect as spyware: the server operator gets the data—with no special effort, by the nature of 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 they leaked from there.

Theoretically, homomorphic encryption might some day advance to the point where future SaaSS services might be constructed to be unable to understand some of the data that users send them. Such services could be set up not to snoop on users; this does not mean they will do no snooping. Also, snooping is only one among the secondary injustices of SaaSS.

Some proprietary 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. Nearly all portable phones have them, too. Some proprietary applications also have universal back doors; for instance, the Steam client for GNU/Linux allows the developer to remotely install modified versions.

With SaaSS, the server operator can change the software in use on the server. Person ought to be able to do this, since it's per 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.

It is common for SaaSS dis-services to charge a monthly fee for use. Usually one SaaSS site does not substitute for another, so if users become unhappy with one dis-service provider it is no easy matter to switch to another. When users become dependent on one, it can gouge them at will with repeated small price increases that over time add up to a lot. We view the loss of freedom inherent in SaaSS as worse than the cost in money, but when a dis-service has you over a barrel, the cost can be painful. Thus, even users who don't see deeper than the bottom line should beware of SaaSS.

SaaSS is equivalent to running proprietary software with spyware and a universal back door. It gives the server operator unjust power over the user, and unjust power is something we must resist.

SaaSS and SaaS

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.

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 why 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.

Untangling the SaaSS Issue from the Proprietary Software Issue

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

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, even large JavaScript programs into your browser without informing you. When these JavaScript programs are nonfree, they cause the same sort of injustice as any other nonfree software. Here, however, we are concerned with the issue of using the service itself.

Many free software supporters assume that the problem of 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 developers/owners have power over the server. That's unfair to the server operator, and doesn't help the server's users at all. But if the programs on the server are free, that doesn't protect the server's users from the effects of SaaSS. These programs liberate the server operator, but not the server's users.

Releasing the server software source code does benefit the community: it enables suitably skilled users to set up similar servers, perhaps changing the software. We recommend using the GNU Affero GPL as the license for programs often used on servers.

But none of these servers would give you control over computing you do on it, unless it's your server (one whose software load you control, regardless of whether the machine is your property). 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 SaaSS for you. SaaSS always subjects you to the power of the server operator, and the only remedy is, Don't use SaaSS! Don't use someone else's server to do your own computing on data provided by you.

This issue demonstrates the depth of the difference between “open” and “free.” Source code that is open source is, nearly always, free. However, the idea of an “open software” service, meaning one whose server software is open source and/or free, fails to address the issue of SaaSS.

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 avoid describing a service as “free” or “proprietary.”

Distinguishing SaaSS from Other Network Services

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 is computing that is purely yours. You could do it by 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.

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 you don't control, rather than your own computer, is SaaSS.

Rejecting SaaSS does not mean refusing to use any network servers run by anyone other than you. Most servers are not SaaSS because the jobs they do are some sort of communication with visitors, rather than each visitor's own computing.

The original idea of web servers wasn't to do computing for you, a visitor; it was to publish information for you to access. Even today this is what most web sites do, and it doesn't raise the SaaSS issue, because accessing someone's published information on a web site isn't a matter of your own computing. Neither is use of a blog site to publish your own works, or using a microblogging service such as Mastodon, or StatusNet, or Ex-Twitter. (These services may or may not have other problems, depending on details.) The same goes for other communication not meant to be private, such as chat groups.

In its essence, social networking is a form of communication and publication, not SaaSS. However, a service whose main facility is social networking can have features or extensions which are SaaSS.

If a service is not SaaSS, that does not mean it is OK. There are other ethical issues about services. For instance, Facebook requires running nonfree JavaScript code, and it gives users a misleading impression of privacy while luring them into baring their lives to Facebook. Those are important issues, but distinct from the SaaSS issue.

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 SaaSS. However, using someone else's server to implement a search facility for your own site is SaaSS.

Purchasing online is not SaaSS, because the computing isn't your own activity; rather, it is done jointly by and for you and the store. The real issue in online shopping is whether you trust the other party with your money and other personal information (starting with your name).

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

Some sites offer multiple services, and if one is not SaaSS, another may be SaaSS. For instance, the main service of Facebook is social networking, and that is not SaaSS; however, it supports third-party applications, some of which are SaaSS. Flickr's main service is distributing photos, which is not SaaSS, but it also has features for editing photos, which is SaaSS. Likewise, using Instagram to post a photo is not SaaSS, but using it to transform the photo is SaaSS.

Google Docs shows how complex the evaluation of a single service can become. It invites people to edit a document by running a large nonfree JavaScript program, clearly unjust, but not SaaSS. However, it offers an API for uploading and downloading documents in standard formats. A free software editor can do so through this API. (Whether it is possible to get an account for Google Docs without running some nonfree JavaScript code, we don't know.) Anyway, this usage scenario is not SaaSS, because it uses Google Docs as a mere repository. Handing your work data to a company is bad, but that is a matter of privacy, not SaaSS; depending on a service for access to your data is bad, but that is a matter of risk, not SaaSS.

On the other hand, using Google Docs for converting document formats is SaaSS, because it's something you could have done by running a suitable program (free, one hopes) in your own computer.

Using Google Docs through a free editor is rare, of course. Most often, people edit their Google Docs documents with the nonfree JavaScript program it sends, which is bad like any nonfree 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, we can judge the whole scenario morally without knowing which part is which.

Publishing via someone else's repository does not raise privacy issues, but publishing through Google Docs has a special problem: it is impossible even to view the text of 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.

The IT industry discourages users from 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 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 leads people to generalize about practices they ought to judge separately.

If “cloud computing” has a meaning, it is not a way of doing computing, but rather a way of thinking about computing: a devil-may-care approach which says, “Don't ask 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. Trust companies without hesitation.” In other words, “Be a sucker.” A cloud in the mind is an obstacle to clear thinking. For the sake of clear thinking about computing, let's avoid the term “cloud.”

Renting a Server Distinguished from SaaSS

If you rent a server (real or virtual), whose software load you have control over, that's not SaaSS. In SaaSS, someone else decides what software runs on the server and therefore controls the computing it does for you. In the case where you install the software on the server, you control what computing it does for you. Thus, the rented server is virtually your computer. For this issue, it counts as yours.

The data on the rented remote server is less secure than if you had the server at home, but that is a separate issue from SaaSS.

This kind of server rental is sometimes called “IaaS,” but that term fits into a conceptual structure that downplays the issues that we consider important.

When the User Is a Collective Activity Or an Organization

So far we have explained how SaaSS applies to an individual's computing. For those cases, we have clarified the concept of SaaSS pretty thoroughly. SaaSS is also an issue for computing done by a group activity, which may be informal (such as developing a free program often is), or formal (a charity like the FSF or a business). It is basically the same concept, but we have not clarified the boundaries for all sorts of situations.

Here are some line we have drawn so far.

The collective activity is likely to have web pages, which will be hosted on some web server. That server's treatment of visitors to its pages raises the usual moral issues: if they send nonfree JavaScript code, that is an injustice, and if they offer to do the visitor's computing, that is SaaSS.

However, the web server's own operations can also raise the issue of SaaSS with the collective activity as victim. A web server often offers visitors a way to search through the web pages; how does it implement that? If the collective activity runs a free program on its own computer to find the matches for the search string, the collective activity has control of this, as it should. But if it asks Google (or any other search engine) where the matches are and displays what is found, the collective activity is relying on SaaSS and forfeiting its freedom.

Using a joint project's servers to work on that project isn't SaaSS because the computing you do in this way isn't your own—it is the project's computing. For instance, if you edit pages on Wikipedia, you are not doing your own computing; rather, you are collaborating in Wikipedia's computing. Wikipedia controls its own servers, but organizations as well as individuals encounter the problem of SaaSS if they do their computing in someone else's server.

Use of simple software repositories is not SaaSS because most of the actual work (as distinguished from redistribution) is done in the contributors' computers. However, when the repository starts doing other kinds of computing work for the users, such as running tests, that starts to cross the line. When the users are contributing to the project, so the work is the project's work rather than the contributor's work, that still is not SaaSS for the users. But it may be SaaSS for the project. However, if the testing means running the programs that the project develops, it is not SaaSS because the project does control the crucial software being run.

Dealing with the SaaSS Problem

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

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. 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.

What about collaborating with other 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 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. The state can subpoena your data from the company along with everyone else's, as Obama has done to 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.

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 GNU Affero GPL, since they are likely candidates for being converted into server-based programs by someone else. The GNU project is looking for volunteers to work on such replacements. We also invite other free software projects to consider this issue in their design.

In the meantime, if a company invites you to use its server to do your own computing tasks, don't yield; don't use 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 your server. Use a real computer and keep your data there. Do your own computing with your own copy of a free program, for your freedom's sake.