Your editor has often written about the value of open, hackable devices.
Users of such hardware can customize it to their needs, remove
antifeatures, improve security, and make it do things which the manufacturer
never contemplated. Open hardware is thus more valuable than the
locked-down variety. Unfortunately, open hardware is discouragingly rare;
it can also be hard to find even when it exists. Open and closed variants
of a specific device are often sold under similar (or identical) names and
packaging, making purchasing it a risky affair.
There would be obvious value to a mechanism by which hardware purchasers
could know which products are truly open without having to dig around on
the net or risk buying the wrong device. There is clearly interest in this
information; look at the extensive lists of routers which can run
distributions like OpenWRT, for example, or the long list of Android phones
offered through online auction sites which are marked as being rooted. But
hardware is, for all practical purposes, never labeled as being open in a
useful way, even when the hardware is indeed open. There is an information
gap here: manufacturers are not informing their customers of an
attribute which could make their products more appealing.
With that in mind, your editor looked at the Free Software Foundation's
criteria for its new "Respects Your Freedom" mark. Attempts to
identify free-software-friendly hardware have come and gone in the past,
but the FSF might just have the staying power to make something stick.
Unfortunately, in your editor's opinion, this initiative is flawed in a way
which has doomed a number of FSF initiatives. Someday we may have a mark
which makes open hardware easy to identify, but it won't be this one.
There is much that is good in the FSF's criteria. At the beginning is the
obvious requirement that the device should work with 100% free software -
though even the FSF makes exceptions for "auxiliary processors." So a
cellular handset, with a closed baseband processor, should still qualify.
It must also be possible to replace the running software using only free
tools; devices with locked-down memory or cryptographic signature
verification need not apply. These requirements are an obvious description
of what's required for a piece of hardware to be truly open.
Interestingly, the device is allowed to implement DRM mechanisms - but only
in free software, so the DRM can be removed by a suitably skilled and
motivated user. On the other hand, the device is not allowed to phone home
with identify or location information except when the user has asked for
that behavior. One could argue that, for the purposes of judging the
openness of hardware, phoning home could be seen in the same light as DRM:
OK as long as it can be ripped out of the device. If the goal is "respects
your freedoms," though, it is not that hard to make a case for mandating
more respectful treatment of personal information from the outset. So far
Consider, though, this aspect of the "100% free software" requirement:
This applies to all software that the seller includes in the
product, or provides with the product, or recommends for use in
conjunction with the product, or steers users towards installation
in the product... By way of explanation, a general-purpose
facility for installing other programs, with which the choice of
programs to install comes directly from the user, is not considered
to steer users toward anything in particular. However, if the
facility typically suggests installation particular programs, then
it steers users towards those programs.
The FSF has never been content to work toward the creation of free software
and advocacy for its use; it has also made an overt effort to ensure that,
like an Orwellian "unperson," proprietary software is never even
mentioned. So a mobile device running a system like MeeGo might qualify
for the FSF's endorsement, assuming it's open, lacking binary drivers,
etc. But if the application installer lists a popular proprietary Flash
plugin or network telephony application, it may be deemed to be "steering
users" toward non-free code. That would cost it the endorsement, despite
the fact that it's a fully open and respectful device.
Let it be said: your editor does not believe that "respect your freedoms"
includes hiding information about available options. Free software should
be able to win on its own merits; it doesn't require attempts to create
ignorance about proprietary alternatives. Viewing users as needing to be
"steered" in the right direction does not seem respectful.
This requirement, alone, is probably enough to drive otherwise friendly
manufacturers away from seeking endorsement for any kind of device which
will have an associated application store. But it gets worse:
Any product-related materials that mention the FSF endorsement must
not also carry endorsements or badges related to proprietary
software, such as "Works with Windows" or "Made for Mac" badges,
because these would give an appearance of legitimacy to those
products, and may make users think the product requires them.
It's a rare manufacturer indeed who will not mark a Windows-compatible
product as being compatible with Windows. A requirement like this would
force such a manufacturer to sell the same product in two different
packages - an expense that is unlikely to be made up through extra sales of
FSF-endorsed devices. Manufacturers cannot usually afford to ignore the
existence of large, lucrative markets, so they will inevitably decide to do
without the FSF endorsement, even if their product would otherwise qualify.
Finally, the criteria require "cooperation with FSF and GNU public
relations," described this way:
The seller must use FSF approved terminology for the FSF's
activities and work, in all statements and publications relating to
the product. This includes product packaging, and manuals, web
pages, marketing materials, and interviews about the
product. Specifically, the seller must use the term "GNU/Linux" for
any reference to an entire operating system which includes GNU and
Linux, and not mislead with "Linux" or "Linux-based system" or "a
system with the Linux kernel." And the seller must talk about "free
software" more prominently than "open source."
This requirement has little to do with respect for a user's freedoms and
everything to do with promoting the FSF's particular agenda and world
view. To obtain the FSF's endorsement for a specific device, a company
must train all of its representatives in the use of Stallmanesqe newspeak.
It is a mixing of two entirely different objectives - promoting open
hardware and promoting the FSF's world view - that seems likely to be
detrimental to both. Companies have learned to be careful in how they use
each others' trademarks, but that does not extend to wider restrictions on
"approved terminology." One can easily see a corporate lawyer balking at
such a requirement; as a result, an endorsement mark which would have
carried the FSF's name and URL will not appear.
We owe a lot to the Free Software Foundation for helping to make the free
software explosion happen when it did. Without the FSF, things would have
happened differently and more slowly, and the world would certainly have
been worse. The FSF still serves an important role; we need a
no-compromises advocate for free software out there. But, by conflating
free software with control over language and options, the FSF often seems
to work counter to its stated goals. That is certainly the case here; your
editor predicts that the number of products carrying the FSF's endorsement
will be easily counted without running out of fingers. An opportunity to
recognize and promote freedom-supporting hardware has been lost, and that
is a sad thing.
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