While Ubuntu's upcoming phone and tablet dominate the headlines, an existing controversy is threatening to flare up again as the 13.04 release nears. The display of Amazon search results in the dash, which first became an issue in the 12.10 release, is erupting again as Ubuntu plans to extend the feature to dozens of other websites. The company also plans to add direct payments from the dash and more suggestions.
Ubuntu has been displaying music search results in the dash for several releases. However, the music results were drawn from Ubuntu's own music store, and those who use the dash to search for applications on their hard drive may have never noticed them.
What changed in the 12.10 release was that, as a result of an affiliate deal, Amazon results appeared by default when users did even a local search. The results are forwarded to Ubuntu, which passes them on to Amazon.
Ubuntu responded to user concerns about privacy by promising that data would be encrypted during transmission, and by adding to the system settings a control to toggle off the results and data collection. Users can also remove the feature with the command
sudo apt-get remove unity-lens-shipping. However, these changes only partially answered concerns that many expressed.
To start with, while the affiliate deal potentially benefits Ubuntu, it's much less obvious how the feature benefits users. Opening the dash to search is not noticeably more convenient than opening a Web browser. In fact, the default behavior is considerably less convenient when all you want is to search for a locally installed app, because most of what is displayed is irrelevant to you.
Moreover, while one of the points of Ubuntu's Unity interface is supposed to be its elegance and freedom from clutter, many of the changes created by these external results work against these design principles. In the nightly release of 13.04 that I am using as a reference, three of eleven icons on the launcher are for commercial services — or three and a half if you include the Ubuntu Software Centre, which includes commercial items.
Similarly, of the six lenses for filtering searches on the dash, all but five include commercial results by default. Although it is an exaggeration to claim, as some critics have, that Ubuntu is degenerating into adware, the point is understandable. At best, Ubuntu appears to be imitating one of the more unpleasant features of Windows, one that most Linux users are glad to have escaped.
However, by far the greatest concerns center on security and privacy. Any competent sysadmin knows that it is a basic premise of security to have unnecessary features shut down by default and enabled only as needed. For this reason, to ship with the feature enabled is simply poor security.
Anyone who is security conscious might also criticize using Ubuntu as an unnecessary go-between. From an accounting viewpoint, that might make sense, but from a security perspective, the unnecessary distribution of private information is always something to be avoided. The problem is not that users have any particular reason to mistrust Ubuntu or its commercial arm Canonical; it is that the practice violates basic security principles.
Nor do Ubuntu's legal notice or privacy statements do anything to reassure users. The legal notice about searches in the dash (available from /usr/share/unity/6/searchingthedashlegalnotice.html on a 13.04 Ubuntu system) makes clear that Canonical reserves the right to share information, including your IP Address, with third parties.