Autonomo.us Panel at OSCON 2009

This post summarizes a panel held at OSCON on July 22, 2009. Apologies for the late posting. We still thought it would be useful to document it here.

Bradley Kuhn moderated a panel discussion entitled With Software as a Service, Is Only the Network Luddite Free? on the first day of OSCON 2009, exploring the loss of freedom that accompanies the software as a service (SaaS) computing model. Kuhn was joined on the panel by Benjamin Mako Hill from the Free Software Foundation (FSF), Evan Prodromou from Control Yourself, Nathan Yergler of Creative Commons (CC), and O’Reilly Media’s Tim O’Reilly. Three topics dominated the session: the changing models of SaaS itself, the importance of building federated network services, and the challenge of building licensing models for data that preserve the user freedom that free software users have come to expect.
Software as a Service
Hill led off the discussion by explaining the background behind the Franklin Street Statement (FSS), then posed the question “whose computing is happening where?” SaaS can be divided into two types, he said: computing that could be done locally, such as email or Google Docs editing, and computing that must be networked — “group computing” for which user-to-user interaction is a core idea. The meaning of user’s “freedom” differs between the two. Computing that could happen anywhere is much like the desktop paradigm; the bigger challenge is protecting freedom in the group computing model.
O’Reilly asserted that the first case is a “vanishing class” of software anyway. SaaS as an application delivery mechanism to a single user is going away, he said, to be replaced by applications built to incorporate user contributions and collaboration.
Hill and O’Reilly elaborated on the point when an audience member asked how the GPL related to the individual-versus-collective computing demarcation. The FSF knows that “one person’s computing” as historically protected by the GPL does not cover all computing models, Hill said, including SaaS tasks like crowdsourcing and searching; the Affero GPL and FSS were created to address them, but it is important not to get sidetracked by philosophical and political discussions over the meaning of freedom. O’Reilly added that to him, transparency was the critical freedom issue in collective computing.
Federation
Kuhn asked Prodromou to speak about creating a business model around free network services, particularly in light of federation — which removes the stranglehold over the service that keeps proprietary SaaS vendors in power. Prodromou replied that the distributed, federated architecture of Laconica (the free microblogging software that runs Identi.ca) is the crux of the entire system. Open microblogging is distributed like the Internet itself, and distributed, federated designs have always become standards — email and instant messaging the most high-profile examples.
In response to the question “what would a free, federated social networking system look like?”, Prodromou speculated that it would not be a separate site at all. “Social networks are the modern Romeo and Juliet story,” he said. “If Romeo is on Facebook and Juliet is on MySpace, there’s no way that they can ever be together.” O’Reilly likened the underlying challenge to separating the “social graph” implemented in such sites from the sites themselves. “I want to see somebody reinvent the address book as an integrated social graph,” he said, so that the relationships and connections are attached to the user, not to the site.
Data licensing
Yergler added that the licensing of data was just as important as the licensing of SaaS software itself. SaaS is about users interacting around shared resources, not just publishing data one-way; using standardized data licenses is the way to grow the pool of shared resources. He described CC’s work on data licensing, including ways to make licensing information discoverable, such as machine-readable markup.
O’Reilly added that it is increasingly important to think about data that is not explicitly created by human beings — we tend to define data as “what we type,” he said, but it also includes automatically generated data like GPS logs. The answer is for coders to select a default data license, lest ambiguity about such automatically generated data creep in. Yergler commented that it is still an open question, legally speaking, whether machine-created data can even be copyrighted. He recommended using the CC0 public domain declaration as a solution, thus waiving all possible rights.
The panel addressed several other issues, from whether Google’s ChromeOS project represents a new challenge to user freedom to the privacy issues inherent in moving personal data between federated service providers. A line of audience members asked questions, but the session had to be wrapped up to make room for the rest of the day’s program. Hill encouraged those who found the discussion worthwhile to join in the ongoing discussion hosted at the Autonomo.us Web site.