FSF to Google: Free Gmail's JavaScript now!

Enslaved browser code sullies world's machines


The Free Software Foundation has called on Google to release Gmail's JavaScript code under a free software license, continuing its crusade to ensure that all "nonfree" software is eradicated from the world's computers.

"We believe that computer users should be able to use their computer in freedom, and in order to do so, you have to have all pieces of software on your computer under your control," FSF man Matt Lee tells The Register. "It's not enough to just be able to see the source. You must be able to modify the source code. Otherwise, you are still beholden to developers."

This includes the JavaScript that web applications download into the browser. Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has warned of what he calls "The JavaScript Trap", where a computer user believes he's running nothing but free software, only to discover that his browser is stuffed with nonfree JavaScript.

"You may be running nonfree programs on your computer every day without realizing it – through your web browser," Stallman said. "But browsers run other nonfree programs which they don't ask you about or even tell you about – programs that web pages contain or link to. These programs are most often written in JavaScript, though other languages are also used."

And so, the Foundation wants web-application developers to release their JavaScript under a free software license. That's right, it wants the code open sourced, but this being the Free Software Foundation, it prefers the term free software.

Stallman and his followers are not concerned with the freedom of what they call "trivial" JavaScript – code that runs, say, a small animation. "This can easily be ignored," Lee says. "You can easily block it." The Foundation is concerned with "non-trivial" JavaScript such as that used for actual computing tasks on the client. This includes the JavaScript used by an app like Gmail. "If you turn off Gmail JavaScript," Lee tells us, "you can't use Gmail."

"When you visit a website such as Gmail, your browser will download and run several thousand lines of JavaScript code. JavaScript code is no different to languages like Python, C++ or Ruby – applications written in those languages running on our computers should be free software, so we can run, modify and share them if we wish," Lee said in a Thursday blog post.

Lee acknowledges that there are ways to bypass Gmail's JavaScript, but he wants the company to go further. "Google has made a step toward this goal by developing a 'basic HTML' version of the Gmail website, which does not rely on heavy JavaScript to build the user interface. They also provide IMAP and POP interfaces for users to access their Gmail accounts without using the website at all. These are both good steps towards a larger, positive goal," Lee says.

"[But] if you use Gmail, please ask Google to take the next step towards making Gmail free software friendly by releasing the JavaScript for Gmail under a free software license. In doing so, Google would allow users who value software freedom to use Gmail in its enhanced form, and to make contributions and modifications useful to their communities."

Lee tells us the Foundation has not yet spoken to Google directly about the issue, but he said it intends to. Google did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Google is among those who believe – or at least claim to believe – that all applications should eventually be moved to the web and built with standard web technologies, including JavaScript. This will only make things more difficult for the Foundation's crusade. But Lee is undaunted. "If more and more applications are going to be written in JavaScript," he says, "then it's important to make sure now that people know JavaScript should be released as free software." ®

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