The (Lack) Of Cell Phone Freedom

Thu, 21 Jul 2011

I've been thinking about cell phones, and there is no cell phone out there that is 100% freedom-respecting.

Sure, there's Replicant and the various distros that run on the Neo FreeRunner. Even if those are entirely made of free software, the devices they run on still need other pieces of proprietary software for full functionality. The Replicant project posted an analysis of the proprietary software needed to run all of the hardware in one device: The camera, Bluetooth, accelerometers, and WiFi just to name a few.

Even if you leave all of these out and only make phone calls, or work to develop free replacements, there's still one piece of proprietary software left: The radio's firmware. Newer versions are released from time to time, so there's no question that this is software and raises all of the same ethical issues as installing any other piece of proprietary software. Some of the updates are even mandatory. I'm not sure what would happen if people refused.

The OsmocomBB project is working to make a free replacement firmware for a couple of devices. Their work is to be applauded but I fear that even this won't be enough to get the free software community to where it needs to be because of other legal and technical problems.

One of the legal problems is that the FCC's approval is lost once other radio firmware is installed, and using a device that isn't FCC approved is very likely illegal. Even if the free software community were somehow able to partner with a cell phone manufacturer and have them use the free replacement from the start, along with FCC approval, being free means that the user has the ability to install modified versions, and this then takes us back to the beginning where the FCC's approval is then lost.

The law needs to change. It shouldn't be illegal to use your own stuff once you've installed your own software into it.

The other problem I see is the lack of standardization. Computers are very standardized so, all things being equal, you generally don't have to worry if the computer from Vendor A will be compatible with the computer from Vendor B. The cell phone industry doesn't really have this level of standardization, and I think that will hurt efforts to make a free radio firmware widely available to lots of people with lots of different cell phones from lots of different manufacturers. It's also very easy for cell phone manufacturers to discontinue models or implement other internal hardware changes at any time, which only serves to frustrate the efforts of the free software community.

Increased standardization is also necessary, and I think this can only be done with the cooperation of cell phone manufacturers.

Here's hoping that, one day, everyone will be able to use a cell phone without any proprietary software anywhere and without any legal or other troubles.