Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services

The current generation of network services or Software as a Service can provide advantages over traditional, locally installed software in ease of deployment, collaboration, and data aggregation. Many users have begun to rely on such services in preference to software provisioned by themselves or their organizations. This move toward centralization has powerful effects on software freedom and user autonomy.
On March 16, 2008, a workgroup convened at the Free Software Foundation to discuss issues of freedom for users given the rise of network services. We considered a number of issues, among them what impacts these services have on user freedom, and how implementers of network services can help or harm users. We believe this will be an ongoing conversation, potentially spanning many years. Our hope is that free software and open source communities will embrace and adopt these values when thinking about user freedom and network services. We hope to work with organizations including the FSF to provide moral and technical leadership on this issue.


We consider network services that are Free Software and which share Free Data as a good starting-point for ensuring users’ freedom. Although we have not yet formally defined what might constitute a ‘Free Service’, we do have suggestions that developers, service providers, and users should consider:
Developers of network service software are encouraged to:

  • Use the GNU Affero GPL, a license designed specifically for network service software, to ensure that users of services have the ability to examine the source or implement their own service.
  • Develop freely-licensed alternatives to existing popular but non-Free network services.
  • Develop software that can replace centralized services and data storage with distributed software and data deployment, giving control back to users.

Service providers are encouraged to:

  • Choose Free Software for their service.
  • Release customizations to their software under a Free Software license.
  • Make data and works of authorship available to their service’s users under legal terms and in formats that enable the users to move and use their data outside of the service. This means:
    • Users should control their private data.
    • Data available to all users of the service should be available under terms approved for Free Cultural Works or Open Knowledge.

Users are encouraged to:

  • Consider carefully whether to use software on someone else’s computer at all. Where it is possible, they should use Free Software equivalents that run on their own computer. Services may have substantial benefits, but they represent a loss of control for users and introduce several problems of freedom.
  • When deciding whether to use a network service, look for services that follow the guidelines listed above, so that, when necessary, they still have the freedom to modify or replicate the service without losing their own data.

103 thoughts on “Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services

  1. jesse

    In general, I support the principles of the Franklin Street Statement, but I’m a bit concerned that you’ve limited yourselves to a single license. Why did you choose to force developers to use the AGPL by name rather than describing the freedoms a compliant license needs to guarantee?

  2. mako

    Jesse: That’s a great point. At the moment, the AGPL is the only actively maintained license that attempts to do this at the moment. But I agree, I think we should consider amending the statement to make it clear that other licenses that accomplish the same thing would be appropriate.

  3. mlinksva

    Jessse, ‘force’ is a very strong word for a mere statement that ‘encourages’. If the statement somehow has the effect of forcing action we need to crank out some more statements. :)
    There are other free licenses with network service requirements, see http://autonomo.us/wiki/Licensing_approaches_to_network_services
    That said this is very early days for free network services, whether using a license with network service requirements or a plain free software license, and more importantly for figuring out what works and what doesn’t (licensing only being one small part of that).

  4. johnsu01

    I endorse the Franklin Street Statement.
    (I think the context around the AGPL line makes it clear that other options would work too. For example, the second point that uses “freely-licensed”.)

  5. novalis

    I endorse the Franklin Street Statement. My one reservation is that the software running this site is not available under the AGPL, and source code is not available for the site-specific customizations. I also think that “Users should control their private data ” is somewhat vacuous; what does “private” mean in this context?

  6. mako

    Novalis: Do you know blog software under the AGPL that we could switch to? I would like to.

  7. novalis

    Mako: no, I don’t. But you could still voluntarily post the source code of your instance of wordpress (minus wp-config.php, of course).

  8. paulproteus

    I (Asheesh Laroia) endorse the Franklin Street Statement.
    (Easy to do when they’re suggestions, not demands!)

  9. dennisk

    A good start! I’ll be telling my students about this and making it a part of our Software Freedom Day presentations in September.

  10. sarterus

    Freedom for IP endorses the Franklin Statement with comments and suggestions for amending the user recommendation. The theory is great and I applaud the work.
    Please consider rewriting the user statement:
    “Where it is possible, they should use Free Software equivalents that run on their own computer.” This is near Luddite talk… It is almost always possible to use an app on your own comp, but it is so inefficient. Networked online apps are not inherently evil, should you back up your work offline, yes. Should you have alternative options and data portability, yes. You should fight to improve them. But you should not avoid them like the plauge.
    I would rewrite the user section to say:
    Users are encouraged to:
    * Consider carefully how they use software on someone else’s computer. Where it is practical and efficient, they should use Free Software equivalents that run on their own computer. Services may have substantial benefits, but they can represent a loss of control for users and can introduce problems for freedom.
    * Look for network services that follow the guidelines listed above, so that users still have the freedom to modify or replicate the service without losing their own data.
    * Take precautions when using any online service and back up their data in case of problems or opportunities to migrate to more ethical alternatives.

  11. justin

    I’m new here, but I have to agree with the encouragement (as originally stated) to users that:
    “Where it is possible, they should use Free Software equivalents that run on their own computer.”
    There is nothing wrong or inefficient about doing your own stuff on your own computer. Unless it’s your express intent to communicate or collaborate with others over the net, or publish what you are doing on the web, I don’t see any benefit to a networked online app. When I am developing or working on something on my own computer with free software, I have control over it. I don’t need to worry if it meets somebody else’s TOS or other legal mumbo-jumbo. I don’t need to worry if somebody is leaking my data to third parties or mining it to serve ads.
    E-mail is also a significant concern for me. Spam is a significant problem, and major e-mail providers are not forthcoming about how they deal with it. There may be a spam folder to check for the borderline cases, but in the majority of cases the spam is silently dropped. I hate spam as much as anybody, but somehow users should have more freedom and control in how their own e-mail is filtered, and private e-mail should not be mined for ads, ever.

  12. dannyobrien

    I endorse the Franklin Street Statement. Thanks for writing this.

  13. jaromil

    I endorse the Franklin Street Statement. To make the vision less abstract some examples of software development might be useful, I suggest having a look and eventually reference the CSpace.in framework and the syndie.i2p2.de projects.

  14. evan

    I removed an errant comma from this statement. “a workgroup convened at the Free Software Foundation[,] to discuss issues of freedom”.

  15. joshuagay

    I’m not yet ready to endorse the Franklin Street Statement, although I think it’s a big step in the right direction. I have some points of confusion and some things I’m not sure I can agree upon.
    1) I find the following sentence unclear, and perhaps ambiguous, “Develop software that can replace centralized services and data storage with distributed software and data deployment, giving control back to users.” Does this mean you are “seek out specific forms of distributed software and data deployment that give control back to the users,” or does it mean, “as a result of choosing data storage with distributed software and data deployment, users will gain back control.”
    2) I believe it would be good to clarify whether or not the non-conforment licenses listed onhttp://opendefinition.org/licenses are considered “acceptable” or not. It’s unclear if non-conforment are approved or unapproved by OKF.
    3) I find the following statement to be lacking in detail, and I’m not sure if I can just agree with it. “Where it is possible, they should use Free Software equivalents that run on their own computer. Services may have substantial benefits, but they represent a loss of control for users and introduce several problems of freedom.” Specifically, the idea of “where it is possible,” could be interpreted as a bit ‘extreme,’ when if you know the service is AGPL’d and free software, and you like it, there might not be a reason to not embrace it — especially if it’s something like solving problems. For example, consider that any solution to the entire class of NP problems can be verified in polynomial time, it makes sense to take advantage of third party processors to solve difficult problems, even if you might be able to do it in a little more time on your own machine. We should be seperating out data from processing and services we trust more and that are understood versus those that are not. Making a blanket statement like this is not necessarily helpful for encouraging the kinds of progress that high-parallelism can provide computationally.

  16. Liz Henry

    I endorse the Franklin Street Statement. This is a great idea! It’s going to be important to shift popular expectations of what the Internet is and how a person can engage with it.

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