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Data ownership in a world of Software as a Service

11 September 2015

Author: Sachiko Muto

A strong trend that has marked the software industry in recent years has been the move away from selling software licences, in favour of subscription-based integrated services delivered through the Internet (aka Software as a Service aka SaaS). A notable characteristic of this trend is the fact that it has been picked up across the industry, all players finding an opportunity to capitalise on it. For big, proprietary software vendors such as Microsoft and Adobe it has been a way to fight piracy while improving the user experience. For startups, it has lowered the barrier to entry by allowing them to outsource much of the grunt work (server storage, etc) and focus their efforts on the innovative parts. For open source companies, selling services has always been the go-to business model since selling licences was never an option, and so this was a natural transition for many of them.

Data ownership, rather than software ownership, becomes the key issue in a world where SaaS is becoming the dominant model.

This new model raises interesting and important questions, particularly in the context of open source. The Free and Open Source movements were largely built around the concept of “software ownership”. By giving control over the source of the software code to its users, the idea was that they would be guaranteed certain freedoms and would be empowered through greater control over their ICT tools. But in a world of SaaS this becomes increasingly irrelevant since there is no code changing hands. There have been successful attempts to acknowledge this issue, such as the GNU Affero General Public License. However, these efforts have remained very much focused on the concept of software ownership. They fail to address the new challenges raised by the ways in which a service is provided over the Internet, and in particular how user data is exploited. Tapping into user data represents a huge opportunity to create better, more personalised services. At the same time, it raises complex issues in terms of privacy, transparency (about the way the data is being used), and freedom (to take that data away from the platform and switch to another one). Some of these challenges, such as fighting vendor lock-in, are similar to the ones that the Free and Open Source movements have been addressing for years. But in a world of SaaS, they may need completely different answers. Data ownership, rather than software ownership, becomes the key issue.


The user data manifesto principles

The User Data Manifesto, which was published in its version 2.0 just a couple weeks ago, is an interesting project meant to address precisely this. The idea of the manifesto, originally launched back in 2012 at the initiative of ownCloud‘s founder Frank Karlitschek, is to define some basic right that all users should have in the digital age with respect to the way that their data is being handed by service providers. It sets three top-level principles :

  • Control over user data access;
  • Knowledge of how the data is stored;
  • Freedom to choose a platform.

Individual companies can choose to sign up to the manifesto, and show their commitment for these principles. Other similar initiatives will no doubt flourish in the coming years, and should be welcomed for they ask the right kind of questions in a world where SaaS is becoming the dominant software distribution model.