Richard Stallman’s new essay on Software as a Service (SaaS) is quite explicit about why a group of friends or colleagues collaborating to write an article on Google Docs, which is SaaS by Stallman’s definition, is different from them collaborating to write the same article on Wikipedia, which is not SaaS despite providing very similar collaborative text editing functionality?
“Using a joint project’s servers isn’t SaaS because the computing you do in this way isn’t yours personally. For instance, if you edit pages on Wikipedia, you are not doing your own computing; rather, you are collaborating in Wikipedia’s computing.”
The difference between Google Docs and Wikipedia is not a matter of technological or legal form, although the difference is reflected in those forms. The difference is social. With Wikipedia you are volunteering your labour on Wikipedia’s servers to help the Wikipedia project achieve their ends within society. With Google Docs you are trying to achieve your own ends within society by using computing resoures that Google control and can deny to you or use against you.
The key question is the one that the title of Stallman’s essay poses – who does the server serve; the people who access it over the internet, or the people who run the software on their server? To put it another way; whose ends are being realised using the software? Where people wish to use software as a tool to achieve their own ends, they must be free to do so. Where people wish to volunteer their labour to a project to achieve someone else’s ends by accessing that person’s software, that is a (slightly) different matter.
Whether something is Software as a Service or not does not exhaust the ethical issues of web applications. We still need the Franklin Street Declaration and AGPL-licenced software. What Stallman’s essay adds to this is insight into how what we do online affects our freedom to use software, strong guidelines for how to protect that freedom, and possible future directions for people writing software that respects users’ freedom.