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You are here: Home Bulletins 2011 Fall 2011 Bulletin Born to run

Born to run

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Nov 28, 2011 04:45 PM
A primary goal of the Free Software Foundation is a world where everyone can do what they need to do with their computers using only free software. Great progress has been made toward this goal. Free software has reached a point where it is now easily possible to buy an affordable computer with hardware -- including Wi-Fi and accelerated graphics -- that is fully supported by free software (an excellent resource for choosing appropriate hardware is h-node.com.

But just when our community has achieved this, we are faced with the possibility that most computers in the future could be made by design incompatible with free software. They will be born to run only proprietary operating systems.

Microsoft has recently announced that if computer makers wish to distribute machines with the Windows 8 compatibility logo, they will have to implement a measure called "Secure Boot." However, it is currently up for grabs whether this technology will live up to its name, or will instead earn the name Restricted Boot: http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/secure-boot-vs-restricted-boot.

When done correctly, "Secure Boot" is designed to protect against malware by preventing computers from loading unauthorized binary programs when booting. In effect, this means that computers implementing it won't boot unauthorized operating systems.

This could be a feature deserving of the name, as long as the user is able to authorize the programs she wants to use, so she can run free software written and modified by herself or people she trusts, and not run software by people she doesn't trust. This should also extend to the firmware (which performs much the same tasks as the BIOS on other computers); users must be able to replace their computers' proprietary firmware with free software.

However, we are concerned that Microsoft and hardware manufacturers will collude to implement these boot restrictions in a way that will prevent users from changing the firmware or booting anything other than Windows. In this case, a better name for the technology would be Restricted Boot, since such a requirement would be a disastrous restriction on computer users and not a security feature at all.

The specter of Restricted Boot is especially worrisome because it is not alone. Some of the most successful mobile devices (Apple's iPhone and iPad, and many Android phones) enforce restrictions aimed at preventing users from installing a different or modified operating system -- despite the fact that they are general purpose computers. Apple seems to be moving toward a similar world for their desktop and laptop systems.

As an FSF supporter, I don't need to tell you how frightening and unacceptable expansion of this trend to other computers would be. Users would have to go through complicated and risky measures to circumvent the restrictions; the popular trend of reviving old hardware with GNU/Linux would come to an end, causing more hardware to be tossed in landfills; and proprietary operating system companies would gain a giant advantage over the free software movement, because of their connections with manufacturers.

This summer, we launched a local initiative we're calling Free Software Fridays, where FSF staff and volunteers went out into the busy Boston downtown area at lunch time, and handed out copies of Trisquel GNU/Linux. In addition to the GNU/Linux operating system, we have future plans to distribute copies of other useful cross-platform free software like LibreOffice, so that even people still stuck on proprietary operating systems can start giving free software a try. This is the easiest, most basic form of free software activism -- sharing software with your community. And it would be made impossible if Restricted Boot were pushed on users under the guise of "security."

We will be monitoring developments in this area closely, and actively campaigning to make sure this important freedom is protected. Our first step is to demonstrate that people value this freedom, and will not purchase or recommend computers that attempt to restrict it. If you aren't one of the 20,000 people who have already signed our statement affirming that, I hope you will take a minute to add your name: http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/secure-boot-vs-restricted-boot/statement.

It has been very encouraging to see so much support behind this statement. This support has not only come in the form of signatures -- we also welcomed 80 new members and many new donors to the FSF in the month after publishing the statement. Such financial support empowers us to amplify your voice and take action on critical threats like this. If you aren't already a member, please join us at fsf.org/jfb. If you are a member, thank you! I hope you can double your contribution this year by talking to a friend or colleague about why you think free software is such an important cause, and why now would be a great time for them to join you in supporting it.

We have reason to be optimistic that Restricted Boot will not become a reality. But this is too important to sit and wait for companies to do the right thing. They need to hear from you. We will do as much as we can on your behalf, but we need your support to get it done.

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