Activist and free software guru Richard Stallman on Friday hammered Ubuntu for including what he termed spyware in new versions of the popular open-source operating system and urged GNU and Linux users to avoid the distribution.
In a lengthy article posted to the Free Software Foundation's website, Stallman decries the presence of an advertising search result pane in Ubuntu, which, he says, is a way to collect personal information from users. The Amazon pane, which is enabled by default, provides a separate category of search results, which are provided by the online retail giant, to users making general search queries from the Ubuntu desktop.
"Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it," Stallman writes.
Although Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth has dismissed the concerns as "FUD," Stallman argues that the Amazon integration is a real threat to user privacy, and urges "community opinion leaders" not to fall for the argument that the feature can simply be turned off.
"Even if it were disabled by default, the feature would still be dangerous: 'opt in, once and for all' for a risky practice, where the risk varies depending on details, invites carelessness. To protect users' privacy, systems should make prudence easy: when a local search program has a network search feature, it should be up to the user to choose network search explicitly each time," he writes.
Even before the Amazon feature was introduced, the FSF did not endorse the use of Ubuntu, saying that its use of "nonfree" software and rights restrictions mean that it didn't comply with the organization's strict guidelines. The organization's official website describes the Amazon ad linkage as "a malicious feature."
Stallman -- who founded the FSF in 1985 -- says that Canonical now faces the prospect of free software adherents moving en masse away from Ubuntu and onto an Amazon-free fork of the project.
"Most free software developers would abandon such a plan given the prospect of a mass switch to someone else's corrected version," he writes.
Canonical's partnership with Amazon has already drawn a great deal of fire from parts of the free software/open-source community, members of which have objected strongly to the idea that their search queries could be shared with the online retailer.
Email Jon Gold at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.