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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2008 Fall 2008 Is the Google phone free as in FreeRunner?

Is the Google phone free as in FreeRunner?

by Matt Lee Contributions Published on Feb 27, 2009 01:21 PM
Update: Since publication, Google has released a "developer" version of the G1, which is not locked to T-Mobile or tivoized. Unfortunately, the developer version still ships with nonfree software installed.

by John Sullivan, Operations Manager

With the launch of iPhone 3G in July, we have stepped up our work to support free software mobile devices like the OpenMoko FreeRunner against nonfree platforms. We've targeted Apple with campaign actions that have been effective at keeping the iPhone's Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and the Applications Store policies that ban free software in the public eye. Many of you have joined us in writing to criticize Steve Jobs for his attempt to grab even more control over users. As an alternative, we've been encouraging users to hold out for free software devices, which are rapidly catching up in terms of features, and if they are developers, to contribute their skills to improving these devices.

Along the way, there has been much anticipation in the free software community for the arrival of the "G1" -- the first phone to use Android, Google's mobile operating system. The Android base is licensed as free software under primarily the Apache License, and is a more featureful and stable platform than what currently ships with the FreeRunner. You can check out the code at URL:{code.google.com/android}.

The G1 became available in late October, and is currently only officially sold through T-Mobile. Unfortunately, although the base system is free, Google and T-Mobile have chosen to sell the G1 in a form that is not free. It currently ships with proprietary software -- the source code for several applications, like Gmail, Maps, Amazon, and the Market, is not present in the official git tree. Also, they have made the decision to tivoize the device, only allowing officially signed firmware to be installed. While users can run, modify, and redistribute Android applications, they do not have root access on their own devices.

There are a couple evident examples of the way this tivoization is being used to control users, and Google has already started an upgrade war with users in order to close the loopholes that have been used so far to circumvent the restrictions. First, the phone comes locked to T-Mobile for three months after purchase. There are a variety of methods by which the phone can be unlocked, but the firmware signing requirement is a restriction intended to make this more difficult. Second, users cannot remove or replace any of the default applications. Not only does this mean that users can't fix problems or make improvements in the operating system actually being used, but it also reserves space for Google and T-Mobile to have a "kill switch", as the iPhone has. This is a mechanism by which an authority can remotely disable or remove applications running on a user's phone. Google explicitly carves out space for this power in its Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement Terms of Service.

Google says that the kill switch is required to disable malicious applications that may be inadvertently distributed through the Android application store. While it is to its credit that Google does not seem to be exercising the kind of restrictions that Apple imposes on its store, we should reject this "security" justification the same way we reject it from Microsoft and Apple. Windows Defender and Genuine Advantage, for example, have already been used to remove applications from users' computers without warning or approval. Part of moving to free software operating systems is escaping this kind of control. These so-called security measures, other than providing an attack vector, are also about security for Google and T-Mobile, not the user. If they were about the user's security, the user would be given the signing keys, the code to all of the software involved, and the means to verify what external authorities like Google and T-Mobile are up to.

Because of restrictions like these, neither the iPhone nor the G1 as currently available are acceptable. Fortunately, The FreeRunner is already running a basic free Android port, and development on other operating system distribution options is progressing rapidly. Developers or relatively experienced GNU/Linux users can already feel comfortable using the FreeRunner for many mobile computer functions (I'm very happily using mine as a music player, GPS mapping tool, notepad, wifi internet tablet, and sometimes phone now).

In the meantime, we should avoid giving money to help proprietary competitors. Apple needs to know that its approach is completely unacceptable. T-Mobile and Google should know that theirs is not an acceptable compromise; that their support for free software is very much appreciated but not when they deliver the result in this fashion. If you write code, don't write for platforms like the iPhone that refuse entrance to free software completely. Instead, use GPLv3 for your code, so that no one has the power to make your work nonfree. Remember that your GPLv3 code can generally be used with Android, because GPLv3 and version 2 of the Apache License are compatible -- and GPLv3 will still protect your code from being tivoized by anyone distributing it to other users. Finally, please help spread the word about this campaign by sharing the flyer and articles at http://fsf.org/campaigns/iphone with your friends, family and colleagues. We're very close to having free software mobile devices that are as powerful as the proprietary options -- your support will help make it happen.

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