The State of Freedom on the Web

Software as a Service

What is software as a service? (Henceforth, it will be referred to by the acronym “SaaS”) Not too long ago, if you wanted to write a document, you bought Microsoft Word and edited on your computer. You saved it to your local hard disk, and in some sense, though not entirely, you had the rights to this document. You could (theoretically) delete it and be sure it was gone. Nowadays, it’s becoming more and more popular to use something like Google Docs wherein you could simply use a website and not ever have to install additional software on your computer. This created a new paradox that wasn’t really extant in the world of technology before.

Compare the following tables which denote the positive and negative aspects of software as a service vs. traditional client software.

Traditional Software

Positive:
  1. You could be somewhat sure that your documents aren’t being examined by a third party. If you used free software like OpenOffice (now LibreOffice), you could be very certain that your documents aren’t being examined by a third party.
  2. If someone wanted to get access to your document, they would most likely have to physically be on-site to get it from your computer.
  3. You could obliterate your document securely and know that it is indeed lost forever.
  4. You don’t need to worry about licensing your pictures or videos, they’re inherently yours, all rights reserved.
Negative:
  1. Portability, portability, portability. Remember thumb drives? Remember actually having to attach documents to emails whenever revisions were made? There wasn’t a way to get to your files unless you physically had them with you in the form of a storage device or computer.
  2. Lack of collaborativity. (noun: the ability of something to be collaborated upon) As mentioned before, collaboration involved multiple people emailing the item back and forth. This took time, patience, and a whole lot of sanity to keep things straight. Who has the latest revision? Did they incorporate the other’s changes?
  3. Backups and redundancy: read none. If you aren’t religious about backups like you should be and your hard drive dies, your 50-page research paper might be permanently gone. You could always pay someone three grand to try to salvage it, but there’s no guarantee that this will even work.
  4. Showing your pictures and videos to someone usually involves sitting down in front of a small monitor and pressing the right key until it breaks. Or, you could use a super-annoying PowerPoint presentation!

Software as a Service

Positive:
  1. You can now literally access your documents from any computer anywhere in the world. Forgot your thumbdrive? Who cares? It’s on the web, and secured by a password none-the-less!
  2. Collaborate! SaaS like Google Docs has nice stuff like live-editing, real-time chat, revision tracking and more. You can log into Facebook from anywhere in the world, post pictures, videos, links, status updates, and more. Throw away Outlook; access Gmail from any browser, anywhere! All that without carrying anything on your person.
  3. Transparent data redundancy and backup. It’s in the best interests of the companies to store your information in a safe, secure, and redundant manner. If they lose your data, they lose you as a consumer/client.
  4. Your media is also in the cloud! Your entire picture library and home video library can both be accessible from anywhere. Friends can browse at their own leisure through all of the thousands upon thousands of pictures you have.
Negative:
  1. In about 90% of all SaaS applications, you cannot be certain that no one is reading your documents. While it’s certainly not appropriate to be completely paranoid about it, it’s possible. An employee at Google was fired for essentially tracking a minor using his Google Voice and Gmail accounts. This employee was fired, but not before he was able to find the young boy’s girlfriend and tease him about it. In a perfect world, stuff like this should never actually happen, but this is the real world.
  2. If someone wanted to get to your document, they have options:
    1. Attempt to break into your account by guessing your password.
    2. Attempt to break into the company’s datacenter via a security hole to obtain your information, along with others’.
    3. If they’re an employee and they’re smart, they could fairly easily get to the information.
  3. When you delete your document, you trust that they’re actually deleting it. Do they? Could you ever actually know for certain?
  4. Typically speaking, with a few exceptions, you lose all rights to your media when you put it online (on a SaaS application). Some services allow you to license your media, which is great, but most services don’t allow this.

My, how the tables have turned. Essentially, we traded our intellectual property rights for convenience. I’m in the same boat as you are. I use Gmail, Google Voice, Google Calendar, Google Documents, Facebook, YouTube, Dropbox, Evernote, and more, and on each one of those services, I have forfeited my rights to privacy. I view it as simply necessary for the convenience that it provides and to be honest, I don’t think I can go back to the way things were before. I depend on having my email in the cloud. I depend on being able to manage my text messages from my browser. I depend on storing notes of every variety with Evernote. It’s just a fact of life.

What then, is this article even about? Am I just using this as a podium to proclaim that we’re all doomed? Certainly not. As has been proposed before by far greater men than I, the free software movement needs to change to adapt to these issues. The free software movement that fights to protect computer users’ and developers’ rights is working on this issue toward a solution. Ironically, one of the solutions is being used right now to bring you this entry: WordPress.

WordPress is licensed under the GNU Public License, making it completely free as in freedom as well as open source. I can be assured that the information I put on here belongs to me, as it’s stored in my database on my server running free software designed to encourage and protect my freedom. There is, indeed, hope.

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2 thoughts on “The State of Freedom on the Web

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