How Ubuntu Turned Search in the Dash into a PR Crisis Page 3: Page 3

Sometimes, how you handle a feature's criticisms is as important as its specs.
Posted February 26, 2013

Bruce Byfield

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Bacon did do a thorough job of keeping his readers informed about improvements to the feature. However, in response to Richard Stallman's criticism, in December 2012 he wrote an evasive-sounding entry in which he claimed, "I am not here to convince you" (making you wonder why he was writing at all) and urging "respectful dialogue" while calling Stallman's comments "childish" and "FUD." The inconsistency was so obvious that Bacon saw it himself, and, to his credit, he apologized in another entry a few days later — although in doing so, he managed to imply that Stallman's comments were still childish.

I interpret these responses as well intentioned, and not as efforts at manipulation or deceit. But they should have been vetted by someone with marketing experience before being published. They omitted many of the concerns, which not only gave the appearance of avoiding the issues, but of making light of them. Consequently, the concerns they tried to address looked more justified than ever.

From an Issue to a Position Statements

The critiques gained even more credibility when they were taken up by non-profit organizations that focus on security and privacy.

The first was made by Micah Lee of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. After summarizing the issues, Lee concluded his blog entry with a list of demands. Online search results, he wrote, should be turned off by default. Canonical should explain in more detail how the feature works and give users more options for controlling it. Lee ends with a plea to Ubuntu and Canonical to "please make sure that you respect your users' privacy and security."

To date, Canonical has given a few more details about how the feature works, but it ignored Lee's other demands — and, by extension, his final plea as well.

An even more widely reported response came from Richard Stallman. Referring to search in the dash as "spyware" of the sort more often associated with proprietary operating systems than with free software, Stallman suggests that simply turning it off is not enough.

Instead, Stallman states that Ubuntu has let the rest of the free software community down by lowering its standards. "It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this," Stallman said. "Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users."

Stallman closed by calling for a boycott against Ubuntu. "Tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying," he concluded, adding that everyone should also mention that it contains non-free software as well.

Two months later, no sign of a boycott exists — but, most likely, only because those likely to listen to Stallman were already unlikely to use Ubuntu. Still, the widespread reporting of his views was the sort of publicity that most companies would prefer to avoid. After all, being called to task by two of the most trusted non-profits in the field is hardly something that any company in open source would care to face.

Making a Small Crisis Worse

Since Stallman's response, the concerns about Ubuntu's search functionality have quieted somewhat. However, there has been a steady trickle of discussion, and the flood seems to be returning now that the 13.04 release candidates are about a month away. The 13.04 release is likely to be seen as Ubuntu's response to criticisms, and it is almost frighteningly easy to interpret the expansion of the feature as total disregard for users' concerns.

The security and privacy issues involved matter in themselves. However, there is also the morbid fascination of watching a company mismanaging a PR crisis into an even greater one.

Ubuntu can undoubtedly weather this crisis, especially if it can keep the media focused on the promised phone and tablet. Still, when I compare the promise that Ubuntu seemed to have when it was founded to its handling of this community crisis, I can't help thinking, Something has gone wrong, and no one in Canonical is quite sure what or why.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Amazon, search, Ubuntu, desktop, Unity

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