Free software made it on laptops but IoT future is bleak

If people cannot tinker with Internet of Things devices, then the future is bad for free software, Bradley Kuhn of the Software Freedom Conservancy has said.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The biggest problem facing people interested in free and open source software is the lack of alternative firmware for IoT devices, president of the Software Freedom Conservancy Bradley Kuhn told Linux.conf.au in Christchurch on Friday.

"So many devices now are digital, and so many devices now run Linux, so many devices now threaten our privacy, security, our very existence," Kuhn said.

"And we need the source code for them to be able to solve all those problems -- we don't just need the source code, we need the ability to effectively use the source code, to recompile it, and install it."

According to Kuhn, having the ability to tinker and replace the OS of devices is what made free software great in the first place, and the way to get people involved in a movement that could come to be dominated by large business-focused contributors.

"It is not popular in the industry [to allow people to install their own OS], because the industry does not want to allow people to reinstall, and if they can get away with not allowing people to reinstall ... they will do so," he said.

"Our job is to challenge that as hobbyists, enthusiasts, and people that care about freedom."

Kuhn warned of a future where the only places users could install Linux without manufacturer involvement would be laptops, rack-mounted servers, and cloud hosts.

"That's a dystopia," he said.

"I think we won the do-it-yourself battle on the laptop ... but in IoT devices we've lost this battle completely at the moment, and we have to regain ground."

As the president of the Software Freedom Conservancy -- a charity that helps defend free and open source projects and enforce copyleft licencing terms -- Kuhn was not surprisingly full of praise for the GNU Public Licence, which in its various versions has become the de facto standard.

"The fact of the matter is the GPL is one of the most forward-looking document ever written, at least in software," he said.

"While the world of 1992 did not contemplate IoT, did not contemplate embedded devices, it had the words in it we needed to solve this problem, it was already there in the GPL, from the very beginning: 'The scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable'.

"The GPL doesn't just require the source code by itself, it requires the things around the source code to be disclosed to the person that received the device, so that they can effectively make use of their software freedom."

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