Bonum Certa Men Certa

CarrierIQ Exposes the Flaws of "Best Tool for the Job" Pragmatism

The Best Tool For Freedom is a Free Tool

[caption id="attachment_56266" align="aligncenter" width="320" caption="Two friends have a good chat about free software at OSCON."]Moblen at OSCON 2007[/caption]

The CarrierIQ issue, even if it is part of an organized campaign to smear and ruin Android [2], is showing people the dangers of using non free software. Even one piece of non free software can betray users, so mostly free, "pragmatic" systems can be just as bad as regular non free systems. The free software community should capitalize on this awareness to change people's attitudes towards their devices so that they will reject non free software in the future. Software freedom must be complete for users to have real conrtol and privacy.

Richard Stallman wrote an extensive review of Android back in September. It lists all of the parts of available phones that can be used maliciously against users, which surprisingly include the radio control firmware. The conclusion was unequivocal, "Android is a major step towards an ethical, user-controlled, free-software portable phone, but there is a long way to go. ... While any computing system might have bugs, these devices might be bugs."

When the CarrierIQ scandal broke, Mr. Stallman was not surprised. His comment was,

The root cause of this problem is that the users don't control the software on these phones. So if they didn't put in this surveillance package [Carrier IQ], they would put in some other. The users' only protection against malicious features (surveillance, intentional restrictions, and back doors) is to insist on free software.

Anyone in the Open Source community who's surprised should think hard about what the Free Software Society has been telling them. About four years ago at a "Web 2.0" meeting, Eben Moglen urged the Tim O'Reilly and the Open Source community to quit, "wasting time promoting commercial products." O'Reilly was sad that Moglen did not want to talk about protecting people's data on other people's computers in "the cloud," but CarrierIQ makes it plain that those rights and protections are meaningless if the user is stripped of privacy by malware in their pocket. It might have been useful ten years ago to hide scary talk about freedom from big companies like IBM. It worked, thanks, but talk about "best tool for the job" and "pragmatic" mixes of free and non free software should now be considered counter productive and the results dangerous.

There are community alternatives to carrier issued Android. Stallman mentions Replicant, a 100% free software replacement for Android. There is also a less careful distribution called CyanogenMod that is focused on performance and includes non free software from Google and perhaps device drivers. Jeff Hoogland, the founder of Bodhi GNU/Linux, is working on Debian for cell phones and we can be sure many others are as well. In the mean time, if you must have a smart phone, it might as well be Android because there is no chance a phone from Apple or Microsoft will be liberated, but don't expect it to be a Freedom Box the community really wants [2 and don't trust it until it's really free.

Sadly, US law is mostly a hindrance. Senator Al Franklin had some very pointed questions about possible violations of law for the company and a lawsuit has been launched against the guilty parties - Apple, HTC, Samsung, Motorola, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Carrier IQ. That's good but it will be difficult to prove what actually happened, and the free software community can do better. Like Vista and Windows 7, CarrierIQ establishes encrypted communications to hide the data transmitted. It would be better to have free software on your cell phone, so the FSF has petitioned the Librarian of Congress for a DMCA Exemption Without that, it may be against US law for people to replace the software on their phones or even to delete CarrierIQ malware.

The lack of freedom in cell phones is not a natural state but is unlikely to end without changes and enforcement of US law. Android has emerged as the top cell phone OS because it is free software and creates a productive commons for the odd hundred companies that must cooperate to make a cell phoneThe obnoxious US patent system has allowed Microsoft and Apple to practice judicial extortion that should have been blocked by US anti-trust and racketeering laws[1, 2,3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]. Spectrum licensing itself is a technically obsolete and harmful practice but the FCC could demand adherence to technical standards, demand the publication of technical standards required to operate phones, and forbid practices such as phone locking as the price carriers pay for spectrum as it transitions to open spectrum.

We are in this hole because a long running propaganda campaign by non free software owners has played down ethical issues while convincing people that they are helpless. Billions of dollars in propaganda spending still drown out the basic truth of the situation and non free software use remains prevalent even among people who have every reason to fear spying by the rich and powerful. CarrierIQ gives us a good chance to fix that.


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