Fix Ubuntu

Today I saw featured on Hacker News. I assumed it was to be yet another rant about why you should use distro X instead of Ubuntu, and how Canonical are ruining it. I was half-right. I clicked the link to see what it was about and found a large box containing a list of Linux commands, with the instruction to copy and paste the block in to your Terminal and hit enter:

The instructions were followed with “Enjoy your privacy” and an explanation of what the code does underneath. It explained that it is designed to turn off the remote search (so your Dash searches aren’t sent to the internet) and other Dash scopes, to uninstall Amazon ads built in to Ubuntu, and block connections to Ubuntu’s ad server “just in case”.

It also explained what the problem they’re trying to solve is – that with default settings in Ubuntu, each search you type in the Dash (to search your computer for files and apps), your searches are sent to third parties. It expressed that Ubuntu should protect its users’ privacy by default.

As an Ubuntu user (and advocate), I had mixed feelings about this. I do believe there are genuinely useful purposes for the Dash as a desktop based web search tool – as developers strive to invent and innovate for the future of technology, the most obvious move at the moment is the move towards an integration of desktop and the web. The lenses in Unity have potential uses – for example hitting a YouTube icon from the Dash searching for videos could be useful (see other examples on askubuntu), and the technology is still young and yet to be proven – it’s probably used by a very small percentage of Ubuntu users right now. One way Ubuntu have aimed to demonstrate its potential is to include an Amazon search – and enable it by default. Searching ‘Moby Dick’ and seeing results where you can buy the book – naïvely looking at this, one might “that’s cool” but most people would find this intrusive and pushy – particularly with it being Amazon (see Richard Stallman’s notes on Amazon). I did disable this feature once I considered that every search keystroke I typed in to the Dash was actually sent to Ubuntu’s server and on to third party ones such as Amazon. For me, if I wanted this feature, it should be opt-in on both being enabled at all, and per use (i.e. clicking a particular lens icon).

I don’t have a problem with Ubuntu’s development process, nor with Canonical’s directive, nor with third party partnerships in general – but these should be options for users, and I believe better choices could have been made when implementing demonstrative default lenses. Ubuntu and Canonical are getting a lot of stick from the open source community at the moment for things like this, and should be doing their best to preserve their reputation as being a user-friendly Linux distribution. Privacy issues and general careless manipulations of user data should be avoided.

I still believe Ubuntu to be the best all-round Linux distro – and will continue to use, recommend and advocate it. But I will be keeping an eye on things like this and disabling invasive defaults.

So it looks like the author of this page has similar views to mine. He’s not just whining. I imagine he wants to continue to use Ubuntu the way he wants and feels safe – and encouraging others to do the same.

Tags: linux, privacy, ubuntu