Stallman: cloud computing is a trap

Thomas Pfeffer thomas.pfeffer at
Sun Oct 5 11:38:45 UTC 2008

Hi everybody,

Matthias Kirschner was so kind to invite me to this list and share my comments on Stallman: "Cloud computing is a trap".
In his posting ( Matthias Kirschner asked, why so many people give away the control over their data, since USB storage is so cheap. He refered to Stallman's critisism of the use of web-based programs like Gmail as a loss of control over data and a trap of proprietary systems (
To be fully clear, I deeply respect Stallman, and advocate for the openness of scholarly publications, learning materials and software myself. 

Due to my respect for Stallmann, I am very concerned about his warnings. There are certain benefits in web-based applications (~cloud computing, ~Web 2.0?), which Stallman does not seem to consider. Maybe there are conflicting freedoms, which have to be balanced.
1) there are applications (e.g. email-accounts, webspace, collaboration tools), which by definition can not rely on the individual, local desktop. I agree, there may be the question of how to balance between desktop and web-application, but I do not think that we can do without web-applications. (e.g. storage on USB, as Matthias suggested, is no substitute for storage on a webspace, since the latter can be remotely accessed and used for collaboration.) In other words: desktop computing vs. web-based computing is not an either-or alternative. 
2) the main reason for the shift from desktop-computing to web-applications is the increasing need for communication and remote collaboration, allowing for new social arrangements. 
3) who provides and controls web-applications? There are at least three different types of providers, that offer applications to individual users: the individual nerd, who is able to maintain a webserver for his own use, a traditional institution (e.g. university or employer), who provides the application to its members, or specialised web-hosts, who provides the application to any customer.
4) Not being able to maintain my own web-applications (lack of technical competence), I only have the choice between the traditional institution I am member of (my employer) or different web-hosts. Whom do I have to be more afraid of? My employer, who e.g. might want to check my private emails without my knowledge, or my web-host, who e.g. might start to charge me in some years?

5) I admit, I am worried myself about the intransparency and the lack of control over hosted web-services. But on the other hand, I also feel strongly tempted about the opportunities, conveniences (and freedoms) they offer to me, or to communities of people. They allow me to do things I could not do otherwise.

6) Basically, I think Stallman argues from the perspective of a computer specialist, who is able to control and maintain any web-application himself. This is not the situation, I am in as an individual and a teacher. As an individual, I need web-services, which are independent from my employer. As a teacher, I want to to teach my students, how survive in the internet, how to claim their own space, how to organise collaborations, how to publish in the internet, without depending on an institution they are member of.
7) Basically, I think Stallman argues from the perspective of a computer specialist, who is able to control and maintain any web-application himself. I wonder if it would be possible for the FSFE to define criteria for identifying web-applications (and providers) that are no trap, that allow even average users to keep control. How could trustworthy web-applications and web-services look like? What is good practice for a web host? Is there room for public, non-proprietary systems of web-services and how should they look like?

8) I did not talk about money yet, but I think it's also possible to make a case for hosted web-services as a way to outsource some IT-tasks. Especially for smaller institutions (e.g. small companies or schools), hosted web-services might be cheeper and more reliable to outsource at least some functions, instead of maintaining every IT functionality themselves. 

many thanks
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