The Ubuntu Shopping Lens Debacle

It seems that Canonical are attempting to raise some money by inserting affiliate links into your Unity Dash when you type in a search term. Currently the main target for these links is Amazon, but I’m sure others will be added over time.

I’m not a fan of the Dash at all. I find it slow and cumbersome to operate with a mouse, and frustratingly ineffectual when I try to type a search term. Of course it doesn’t help that my 1980s vintage clacky keyboard lacks a Windows key, so all the “just hit the META key and type…” posts are useless to me. My dislike of the Dash aside, however, I think adding affiliate links to the desktop is a great idea. Free software often struggles to become financially self-sufficient, so more experimentation in this area is a good thing.

Except that the implementation in Ubuntu was an obvious PR disaster from the outset. Did they really think that people would be happy that the search terms they use when looking for files and applications on the local disk are also being sent to Amazon and other retailers as a matter of course? Mark Shuttleworth was quick to point out they’re not “putting ads” into Ubuntu and Jono Bacon posted that no user-identifying data is sent, but that just ignores the fact that there could be user-identifying data in the search terms themselves.

Mark Shuttleworth’s answer, early in the comments on his post, seems a little short-sighted to me:

…the Home lens of the Dash is “search everything”. If you want to search locally only, use the hotkey to specify the specific scope you want, like Super-A for apps, or Super-F for files.

So if I don’t want to send my search terms to Amazon, I have to search each separate scope individually (remembering a few more keyboard shortcuts along the way). That sucks.

It looks like there may be an option to disable these searches coming along as a result of the backlash. But even that solution is overkill – it becomes all-or-nothing, you either get affiliate links or you don’t. Wouldn’t it be better to just put a button at the bottom of the local search results to “Search our online shopping partners”? Perhaps beside a more general “Search online” button to perform a search using the user’s preferred search engine. No information would be sent out until one of the buttons was pressed, allowing the user to keep their local searches local, but making it trivially easy to perform affiliate and other searches when they want to share their search terms with the world.

I hope that Canonical, and other Free software vendors, can find sustainable ways to make money. But treating your users’ data – and that includes their local search terms – as anything less than confidential by default is not the way to go about it.

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