Android and Users' Freedom
by Richard Stallman
First published in
To what extent does Android respect the freedom of its users? For a
computer user that values freedom, that is the most important question
to ask about any software system.
In the free/libre software movement, we
develop software that respects users' freedom, so we and you can escape
from software that doesn't. By contrast, the idea of “open
source” focuses on how to develop code; it is a different current
of thought whose principal value is code
quality rather than freedom. Thus, the concern here is not whether
Android is “open”,
but whether it allows users to be free.
Android is an operating system primarily for mobile phones and
other devices, which
consists of Linux (Torvalds' kernel), some libraries, a Java platform
and some applications. Linux aside, the software of Android versions
1 and 2 was mostly developed by Google; Google released it under the
Apache 2.0 license, which is a lax free software license without
The version of Linux included in Android is not entirely free
software, since it contains nonfree “binary blobs” (just
like Torvalds' version of Linux), some of which are really used in some
Android devices. Android platforms use other nonfree firmware, too,
and nonfree libraries. Aside from those, the source code of Android
versions 1 and 2, as released by Google, is free software—but this
code is insufficient to run the device. Some of the applications that
generally come with Android are nonfree, too.
Android is very different from the GNU/Linux operating
system because it contains very little of GNU. Indeed, just about
the only component in common between Android and GNU/Linux is Linux, the
kernel. People who erroneously think “Linux” refers to the
entire GNU/Linux combination get tied in knots by these facts, and make
paradoxical statements such as “Android contains Linux, but it
isn't Linux.” If we avoid starting from the confusion, the
situation is simple: Android contains Linux, but not GNU; thus, Android
and GNU/Linux are mostly different.
Within Android, Linux the kernel remains a separate program, with its
source code under GNU GPL
version 2. To combine Linux with code under the Apache 2.0 license
would be copyright infringement, since GPL version 2 and Apache 2.0 are
Rumors that Google has somehow converted Linux to the Apache license are
erroneous; Google has no power to change the license on the code of
Linux, and did not try. If the authors of Linux allowed its use under GPL version 3,
then that code could be combined with Apache-licensed code, and the
combination could be released under GPL version 3. But Linux has not
been released that way.
Google has complied with the requirements of the GNU General Public
License for Linux, but the Apache license on the rest of Android does
not require source release. Google said it would never publish the
source code of Android 3.0 (aside from Linux). Android 3.1 source code
was also withheld, making Android 3, apart from Linux, nonfree
software pure and simple.
Google said it withheld the 3.0 source code because it was buggy, and
that people should wait for the next release. That may be good advice
for people who simply want to run the Android system, but the users
should be the ones to decide this. Anyway, developers and tinkerers
who want to include some of the changes in their own versions could
use that code just fine.
Fortunately, Google later released the source code for Android 3.*
when it released version 4 (also with source code). The problem above
turned out to be a temporary aberration rather than a policy shift.
However, what happens once may happen again.
In any case, most of the source code of various versions of Android
has been released as free software. Does that mean that products using
those Android versions respect users' freedom? No, for several
First of all, most of them contain nonfree Google applications for
talking to services such as YouTube and Google Maps. These are
officially not part of Android, but that doesn't make the product ok.
Many of the free applications available for earlier versions of
replaced by nonfree applications; in 2013 Android devices appeared
provided no way to view photos except through a nonfree Google+
app. In 2014 Google announced
versions for TVs, watches and cars would be largely nonfree.
Most Android devices come with the nonfree Google Play software
(formerly “Android Market”). This software invites users
with a Google account to install nonfree apps. It also has a back
door with which Google can forcibly install or deinstall apps. (This
probably makes it a universal back door, though that is not proved.)
Google Play is officially not part of Android, but that doesn't make
it any less bad.
If you value freedom, you don't want the nonfree apps that Google
Play offers. To install free Android apps, you don't need Google
Play, because you can get them
Android products also come with nonfree libraries. These are
officially not part of Android, but since various Android
functionalities depend on them, they are part of any real Android
Even the programs that are officially part of Android may not
correspond to the source code Google releases. Manufacturers may
change this code, and often they don't release the source code for
their versions. The GNU GPL requires them to distribute the code for
their versions of Linux, assuming they comply. The rest of the code,
under the lax Apache license, does not require them to release the
source version that they really use.
One user discovered that many of the programs in the Android system
that came with his phone
to send personal data to Motorola. Some manufacturers add
hidden general surveillance package such as Carrier IQ.
Replicant is the free version of
Android. The Replicant developers have replaced many nonfree
libraries, for certain device models. The nonfree apps are excluded,
but you certainly don't want to use those. By contrast, CyanogenMod
(another modified version of Android) is nonfree, as it contains some
Some Android devices are “tyrants”: they are designed so users
cannot install and run their own modified software, only the versions
approved by some company. In that situation, the executables are not
free even if they were made from sources that are free and available
to you. However, some Android devices can be “rooted” so
users can install different software.
Important firmware or drivers are generally proprietary also. These
handle the phone network radio, WiFi, bluetooth, GPS, 3D graphics, the
camera, the speaker, and in some cases the microphone too. On some
models, a few of these drivers are free, and there are some that you
can do without—but you can't do without the microphone or the
phone network radio.
The phone network firmware comes preinstalled. If all it did was
sit there and talk to the phone network when you wish, we could regard
it as equivalent to a circuit. When we insist that the software in a
computing device must be free, we can overlook preinstalled firmware
that will never be upgraded, because it makes no difference to the
user that it's a program rather than a circuit.
Unfortunately, in this case it would be a malicious circuit.
Malicious features are unacceptable no matter how they are
On most Android devices, this firmware has so much control that it
could turn the product into a listening device. On some, it controls
the microphone. On some, it can take full control of the main
computer, through shared memory, and can thus override or replace
whatever free software you have installed. With some, perhaps all,
models it is possible to exercise remote control of this firmware to
overwrite the rest of the software in the device. The point of free
software is that we have control of our software and our computing;
a system with a back door doesn't qualify. While any computing system
might have bugs, these devices can be bugs. (Craig
in Samarkand, relates his involvement in an intelligence operation
that remotely converted an unsuspecting target's non-Android portable
phone into a listening device.)
In any case, the phone network firmware in an Android phone is not
equivalent to a circuit, because the hardware allows installation of
new versions and this is actually done. Since it is proprietary
firmware, in practice only the manufacturer can make new
Putting these points together, we can tolerate nonfree phone
network firmware provided new versions of it won't be loaded, it can't
take control of the main computer, and it can only communicate when
and as the free operating system chooses to let it communicate. In
other words, it has to be equivalent to circuitry, and that circuitry
must not be malicious. There is no technical obstacle to building an
Android phone which has these characteristics, but we don't know of
Android is not a self-hosting system; development for Android needs
to be done on some other system. The tools in Google's
“software development kit” (SDK) appear to be free,
but it is hard work to check this. The definition files for certain
Google APIs are nonfree. Installing the SDK requires signing a
proprietary software license, which you should refuse to sign.
Replicant's SDK is a free replacement.
Recent press coverage of Android focuses on the patent wars. During
20 years of campaigning for the abolition of software patents, we have
warned such wars could happen. Software patents could force
elimination of features from Android, or even make it unavailable.
See endsoftpatents.org for more
information about why software patents must be abolished.
However, the patent attacks and Google's responses are not directly
relevant to the topic of this article: how Android products partly
approach an ethically system of distribution, and how they fall
short. This issue merits the attention of the press too.
Android is a major step towards an ethical, user-controlled, free
software portable phone, but there is a long way to go, and Google is
taking it in the wrong direction. Hackers are working
on Replicant, but it's a big job to
support a new device model, and there remains the problem of the
firmware. Even though the Android phones of today are considerably
less bad than Apple or Windows phones, they cannot be said to
respect your freedom.