No SaaSS Please, says FSF


FSF has published this article about Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS). It talks about the dangers posed by what we usually call “Software as a Service” or more generally “cloud”. This one is very different from the perils of proprietary software for which free software is a solution. Here’s the short definition to get a picture:

Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS) means using a service as a substitute for running your copy of a program. Concretely, it means that someone sets up a network server that does certain computing tasks — for instance, modifying a photo, translating text into another language, etc.— then invites users to do computing via that server. A user of the server would send her data to the server, which does her own computing on the data thus provided, then sends the results back to her or acts directly on her behalf.

Its an interesting take on the situation, more so because merely developing a free alternative to the said SaaSS doesn’t solve the problem. It has spun off a debate about using ‘github’ a proprietary and SaaSS model service for free software collaboration a.k.a social coding. Very recently FSF has published an initiative to rate code hosting services based on GNU ethical repository criteria It talks about librejs, free software on server side (github :thumbsdown:), license recommendation, privacy, calling “GNU/Linux”, Accessibility etc.

Go through them. Let’s discuss what you think about it.


Things like google docs, the gmail web interface, etc. are SaaSS. Google docs attempts to replace locally run office suites such as LibreOffice. And, the gmail web interface replaces local mail clients such as Thunderbird. I myself use neither of these.

Not many people use Google docs. But, almost everyone uses the gmail web interface. Why? Can we convince them to switch to Thunderbird?

Running free software on our own private home servers (not VPS) does get around the SaaSS issue. Say, run roundcube webmail on your own home server and use it. For docs, use owncloud’s docs application.

Can FSMK, as an organization, work to promote more home servers? Why not start by setting up a server in the FSMK office? I am willing to volunteer for the task.


Whereas the logic about SaaSS having problems similar to proprietary software is perfect, I’m not satisfied about alternatives.

How accurate can a translation program that runs on my computer be? We are probably losing the benefits of big data here? (Another example is gmail’s spam detection)

Flickr’s main service is distributing photos, which is not SaaSS, but it also has features for editing photos, which is SaaSS.

This applies only if we’re using the photo editing feature of flickr to edit a photo that we are not publishing to flickr.

I don’t think YouTube converting videos to different qualities before distribution would count as a SaaSS. Neither would Facebook’s compression of images be SaaSS.

Do I have to download large software suites for doing small tasks?

However, using someone else’s server to implement a search facility for your own site is SaaSS.

How do I implement search on a very large static html site? Do I have to pay for hosting charges and get a dynamic server?

On the other hand, using the service [Google docs] for converting document formats is SaaSS, because it’s something you could have done by running a suitable program (free, one hopes) in your own computer.

By virtue of its connection with Gmail, Google docs can sometimes convert very large images, pdfs, etc into small thumbnails. This allows me to skip downloading large files. Should I be forced to download such files?

I think what FSF says is right. But being able to choose alternatives is at least some times (eg, when you don’t have too much data to download or too much hard disk space or too much processing power) a luxury.


Would it be possible for Google to make some form of the translation data available for download much as OpenStreetMap allows you to download offline map data? So that people can update their translation program with latest data from the Internet, and thus the translation keeps improving.

Spam detection, I think, is best done on the client side. Something like spamassassin with Thunderbird (or any other mail client) should be able to do a good job. Though I haven’t tried it out, considering that the spam filter will be trained to your specific mail, it might even be better. Besides, what about PGP encrypted mail? Google should not be allowed to read through our mail even for something beneficial like spam detection, IMO.

Regarding flickr, youtube, google docs’ thumbnails:

These are not problems of SaaSS as such, but the fact that we are not in good control of our web applications is a problem. These kind of problems would be non-existent if we were running home servers and were in complete control.

These days, hard disk space and processing power is so cheap, and we all usually have it in great excess. Data is still not very easy, but things are improving. Connections are getting faster. And, we should put pressure on our ISPs to give good service instead of wasting all their money on evil ventures such as Mesh networks are a little farther away, but we should start work on that as well. Some people in FSFTN seem very interested in mesh networks.

Ultimately, freedom matters, and no matter how convenient proprietary software is, we should try and build replacements that work for us. And, it’s not that hard. If we try, we’ll get there.


This is something we were discussing a while ago. The points against was that only non-critical services could be hosted in the office due to lack of supporting resources. Perhaps we can list out those non-critical services we can host and set those up. @sarath_ms @shijil


Would an etherpad instance or an equivalent count as non-critical?
How about Forms (i don’t know if a good enough alternative to Google Forms exists)


Sounds non-critical enough to me…


Cool. We could really use an Etherpad instance. Then we’d own our conversations AND documents.


ownCloud > etherpad =P

Form Tools is another alternative.


Probably true. We could still run both, if necessary…