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Dear Google: Is AGPL Evil?

Posted in Deception, Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, Google, GPL, Microsoft, Windows at 5:15 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

FSF GNU GPLv3Google disregards the AGPL and, as everyone knows, Google Does-No-Evil™, so…

Google loves Free software on its servers. Giving back improvements? Not so much. This continues to be a problem that we mentioned here before [1, 2]. At the moment, Google’s Stein, who is a high-level senior, seems to be doing some damage control. Watch the discussion.

Well, actually, there’s another rather important trend that is conspicuous by its absence: adoption of the Affero GPL. To which Google seems strangely allergic….

But that’s not all. The other day, Google did what it’s exceptionally skilled at protesting against. It made some nifty Web-based features available, but only for Windows (mind highlights in red).


Google’s 3D data has escaped the client and is now a welcome addition to the browser! Today at Google I/O a Google Earth Browser plugin is going to be released. With the plugin installed anybody with a Windows machine will be able to view Google Earth mashups in the comfort of their own browser instead of having to pull up a separate client.

GNU Richard StallmanGoogle could use a gentle reminder here. It was also using ActiveX controls in Google Maps a few years back. You can find my comment and one from DiBona too in the post above. Sympathy is not enough. That’s the same argument which individual Microsoft employees use to defend themselves, passing liability to their superiors. As in, “it came from above.”

Disclaimer: There’s no bias against Google here. The company’s recruiters approached me a couple of times for interviews. I also needed to correct them when they claimed Google Earth to be their ‘innovation’ (it’s an acquisition really).

“The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity”

Andre Gide quotes

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  1. Shane Coyle said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:35 am


    Honestly, I am not a fan of the AGPL. To risk sounding Ballmer-esque, I feel it’s a bit ‘viral’.

    I have no problem with the SAAS concept – I think it is adding value to the software, whether it’s simply universal accessibility from anywhere in the world, simplicity of not installing and maintaining a local version, providing online storage and/or collaboration, etc.

    What GPL allows is use of the software for any purpose, and doesn’t really kick in until distribution, if Google uses GPL software internally they are not required to share their modifications. I’m cool with that.

    Google, for the most part, distributes HTML and we can always see the source on that. You send them a request in HTTP, they process it internally using whatever software they like (maybe something GPL), then respond in HTML.

    Take a certiorari business as an example, that receives an application of some sort in the mail, processes it using a modified version of a GPL program, then responds via a document they created – would anyone argue that business MUST be compelled to share their modifications? Not unless they distributed the software.

    I don’t see why, if the service is rendered via the internet, people get more upset. The main thing, in my mind, is that whatever software they do use, they abide by the terms and conditions of the license, whether its BSD GPL or Proprietary.

  2. eMBee said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:42 am


    you are missing the point. the proponents of the AGPL are not claiming that SAAS providers are violating the GPL. they are claiming that SAAS providers reduce the freedom of the end user.

    the goal of free software is to allow the end user to read, modify and share the source of the application.

    if i can not read, modify and share the source then this goal of free software is not reached. regardless of the license. yes, the license (including the GPL) does allow that to happen, so this is correct and legal, but as a user i am still at a disadvantage.

    the goal of the AGPL is to change that, and ensure that the end user will always be able to read, modify and share the source of the application.

    it is a simple test really: can you fix the application you are using? can you share it with others? can you run it in your own SAAS server?

    if i want to be sure that you will always have these rights with my application, then i must use the AGPL for my code because otherwise i can not help to protect the rights that i want you to have.

    greetings, eMBee.

  3. Shane Coyle said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:49 am


    I see the point of the AGPL, I don’t see the point of criticizing folks for not selecting to use it.

    In the end, it’s the developer’s choice what terms to set for their own code and then it’s the next person’s choice if it’s worth complying or creating their own from scratch, and that is for any license.

    My point was, I don’t embrace the AGPL personally, and certainly don’t think I’m "evil". Unless someone is saying Google is using an AGPL application and not sharing their mods, this is a non-issue to me.

  4. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:11 am



    Fair point. I don’t feel very strongly about it, but I was just a tad disappointed that Google did not offer the choice to developers whose project it’s hosting. it created a chicken-an-egg problem or a self-fulfilling prophecy for Google’s benefit. I actually posted a comment about this in Glyn Moody’s blog, pointing out to Greg Stein that his ‘excuse’ contradicted DiBona’s (Glyn Moody lost that comment and he E-mailed me back this morning to say he could not recover anything… he had similar problem before with GMail flagging Blogger/Blogspot as SPAM… yes, ironic, I know).

    As for the FSF’s view, early in the month I attended Stallman’s talk. He made some good points about potential of embedding malicious features in programs that are run remotely. The longer it goes on for, the more data is likely to be harvested and freedoms taken away. Remember Google’s withdrawal of that DRM-esque video service?

  5. Shane Coyle said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:43 am


    My problem with Moody here is, if the problem is that the vendor you are mooching off of isn’t providing a choice you want in a drop-down-box, you can put pressure on them to add that choice – or, the beauty of the whole Free Software Philosophy and the Free Market System, tell them to Fork Off and let’s create a site thats called agplcodehosting.org or whatever and we’ll be the next Google Code, assuming that AGPL is getting more popular…

    Best part is, we’ll use Google ads to fund their own competitor. Hilarious.

    I, personally, wouldn’t be happy with Google’s fiat of limiting the choices of licenses if I were using their services, and would consider taking my "business" elsewhere – if there is an elsewhere, or at least threatening to. Maybe we should consider the contact the webmaster button before calling them Evil?

    Of course, upon closer inspection, it also looks like ‘we’ are the ones who brought the "E-word" into it, so maybe I should shut up now…

    My whole deal with Free Software is that it tickles me in a Libertarian way that nothing else left in the U.S. of A. seems to – it’s the last bastion of hope I suppose.

    Free Software ensures that anyone with the inclination can take that same software and make their own Google, just add in the drive, endless work and luck along with a dozen or so other factors, not the least of which is timing, and hope "it blends". ;^ )

    So I guess I’m saying "Don’t Hate, Innovate." Or, we can always Boycott their asses.

  6. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 31, 2008 at 12:05 pm


    …the beauty of the whole Free Software Philosophy and the Free Market System, tell them to Fork Off and let’s create a site thats called agplcodehosting.org or whatever and we’ll be the next Google Code, assuming that AGPL is getting more popular…

    Best part is, we’ll use Google ads to fund their own competitor. Hilarious.

    Some say that Google was able to thrive so quickly because, unlike many other companies, it did not rely on Microsoft technologies such as Windows. It’s hard to compete against a company whose technology you depend on. How much would 1,000,000 Windows servers cost to license? What about scalability? Performance? What happens when one your server farms gets dinged by malware?

    Of course, upon closer inspection, it also looks like ‘we’ are the ones who brought the “E-word” into it, so maybe I should shut up now…

    Oh, I used the wording in a polite and folksy fashion. This conversation has gone on for over a month and from several different directions Google was gently pressured to just ‘hack’ their drop-down box. then copy and paste that GPL thingie and prepend an “A” to it. ;-)

    By the way, recall what Mark Shuttleworth said about Google’s mantra last year.

  7. eMBee said,

    May 31, 2008 at 2:47 pm


    The main thing, in my mind, is that whatever software they do use, they abide by the terms and conditions of the license, whether its BSD GPL or Proprietary.

    here is actually another point that is missing a detail: it is not the company providing a service that is using the software (they are using it too, but that’s a different issue), but it is the user of the service who is using it. and it is that user of the service who is not getting access to the source without the AGPL.

    greetings, eMBee.

  8. Shane Coyle said,

    May 31, 2008 at 3:17 pm


    In terms of a hosted app, that does make a very valid point I overlooked. Good point.

  9. akf said,

    June 1, 2008 at 3:13 pm


    Gee, Google is not the only hosting service out there.
    The FSF is of course hosting AGPL software. Their hosting service is at http://savannah.nongnu.org/

    …but they are also not accepting just any license. Although they are no longer that picky as they once were.

  10. Jordi Gutiérrez Hermoso said,

    June 3, 2008 at 7:05 pm


    Google, for the most part, distributes HTML and we can always see the source on that. You send them a request in HTTP, they process it internally using whatever software they like (maybe something GPL), then respond in HTML.

    Well, Google heavily obfuscates whatever it can. Have you actually tried to read the HTML of any of its webpages? Elements have randomised names, no whitespaces, lots of trickery that’s not human-readable.

    But the HTML is the least of it. We all know how to render webpages. I don’t care if Google obfuscates HTML. It’s much more serious that it also obfuscates its javascript, to the extent that Konqueror cannot (or could not?) produce a decent experience on Gmail. And what is the difference between interfacing with software that’s actually sitting in your machine and software that is sitting on a remote machine? If you believe in a right (yes, right) to examine, distribute, and modify the source of all software you use, then I argue that it’s no different to use software over an internet connection as it is to use it locally.

  11. Shane Coyle said,

    June 4, 2008 at 8:53 am


    The difference is, it’s not on my machine, and I am not compelled to use any particular companies’ services if I don’t like them (take MS and Novell, for instance).

    So don’t go on Google’s services/servers – I don’t think I have a right to their code, instead start your own and make sure what you do is AGPL. Again, unless they are using AGPL software and violating the license, I see no issue here – including their JS, which is their JS.

    I don’t care that such things as proprietary software exist – live and let live, to each their own, etc – but I do care when companies like Novell eviscerate the GPL for a week of the monopolist’s profits.

    If Novell distributed Suse BSD Enterprise, I would never have made this site.

  12. Jordi Gutiérrez Hermoso said,

    June 4, 2008 at 2:45 pm


    I can’t figure out how to quote here, so please forgive my amateurish attempts.

    You say “the difference is, it’s not on my machine.” Gmail, for all intents and purposes, is running code on your machine. So are Google apps and so forth. Your machine is the one that is interpreting a lot of the javascript and possibly other things.

    At any rate, why would it matter if it’s on your machine or not? It’s code you are using. It’s code that affects results. It’s code that sometimes you are forced to use.

    I do believe we have a right to code that affects us. The moment “their code” is being distributed to me or its results are being distributed to me, ownership gets very fuzzy. Sure, you can say “don’t use it if you don’t like it”, and that’s more or less what I do most of the time, with any code, regardless of its distribution channel. But being forced for whatever reason to use proprietary software (e.g. by an employer, as I now currently am forced with Google’s apps) is not something we should tolerate.

  13. Roy Schestowitz said,

    June 4, 2008 at 3:11 pm


    Even with the code available, there’s remote logging, unless you install it yourself, locally.

  14. Shane Coyle said,

    June 4, 2008 at 10:38 pm


    I think we have much different definitions of ‘forced’.

  15. Jordi Gutiérrez Hermoso said,

    June 5, 2008 at 7:16 am


    Well, I have a choice to not use Google apps if I find a different employer, I guess. But avoiding proprietary software is not that easy, and we shouldn’t have to avoid it, because free choices should be available.

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