If something strikes me as "big brother-y," I am, almost universally, against it. Are you a company, group or government that is gathering data on me without my consent? Then you and I are probably going to disagree on some things.
So, when this year's Big Brother Awards were announced, I took note of the "winners" (aka "organizations deemed to be acting 'Big Brother-y'"). It's a valid and, in my opinion, quite useful system to highlight trends that are, let's just say, less than desirable in the area of personal privacy.
This year, though, there was one "winner" that caused my left eye-brow to raise itself significantly higher than my right: Ubuntu. That's right. Ubuntu won a Big Brother Award for the Ubuntu Dash feature that allows you to get Amazon search results.
As most of you will undoubtedly be aware, this very feature has already brought quite a lot of criticism against Ubuntu, most notably in the form of Richard Stallman's declaration that this feature is "spyware."
There's just one problem - both Stallman and the jury of the Big Brother Awards are simply wrong.
The Ubuntu/Amazon search feature is, let's be honest, a small one. Nobody is going to start using Ubuntu because of this feature. Not one person. But it's not because people are afraid of being spied on. It's because people can already open up any web browser, on any operating system, and do a quick search of Amazon themselves.
But that doesn't mean the feature, itself, isn't spyware. So what, exactly, is spyware? From Wikipedia:
"Spyware is software that aids in gathering information about a person or organization without their knowledge and that may send such information to another entity without the consumer's consent, or that asserts control over a computer without the consumer's knowledge."
It's pretty straightforward, right? There are two problems with applying this label to the Ubuntu/Amazon search feature:
- Ubuntu isn't trying to be sneaky here. The feature searches Amazon and displays the results to you.
- You can turn it off incredibly easily.
Does this feature gather information? Yes. Yes, it does. But you know it does this, and you can opt out at any time with absolutely no negative side effect. You can keep using the rest of your Ubuntu system without any restrictions whatsoever.
Which means that this is not spyware. Not by any definition I've ever heard. It is not even remotely Big Brother-y. And the fact that it won the Big Brother Award – during a time when there are significant personal privacy concerns to address – just feels like unsubstantiated FUD directed towards a small software feature that hasn't earned it.